Monday, 28 September 2015

Beyond the pale

As I sat in the north stand at Celtic Park watching the entertaining 0-0 draw between Celtic and Hearts at the weekend, I noticed a few younger fans around me getting annoyed at the couple of union flags being flaunted by the away support. Phrases like ‘diet Huns’ were used to describe the fans from Edinburgh but in reality those Hearts supporters probably hold Rangers in as much contempt as they do Celtic. Such wind ups are part of football all over the world but on Saturday some of the Hearts fans went beyond the pale with their chants about paedophilia. Such chanting says more about the people engaging in it than the intended targets of their poisonous vitriol. Hearts have some form in this area with one of their less intelligent followers showing up at a home game with Celtic dressed as Jimmy Savile and wearing a facsimile Celtic shirt. This is also the ground where Neil Lennon was assaulted. One would hope Hearts, who made such a fuss about Celtic fans leaving republican graffiti in the Tynecastle toilets during a recent cup tie, would speak out about the vile chants. Indeed Anthony Stokes said at the time of the graffiti fuss…

“Maybe Ann Budge should worry about her own fans, I’ve never had so many sectarian comments directed at me in a ground.”

By its very nature, football is tribal, combative and full of fierce rivalries.  Here in Scotland the historic rivalry which developed around Celtic and Rangers became wrapped in the multi-layered identities of the communities which supported the two clubs. The traditional narrative is that their initial games were friendly enough in the early years. Indeed Willie Maley in his history of Celtic (1888-1938) traces the souring of relations between the two groups of supporters to the period around 1912. This marks a watershed period in Irish history as well as the history of Rangers FC.

In 1912 Edward Carson, a Dublin Lawyer, was the first to sign the Ulster Covenant which stated that the signatories would resist Home rule for Ireland ‘by all means necessary.’ The building up of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers in that period saw Ireland on the brink of major conflict. While this was occurring in Ireland, Rangers FC had a new Chairman by the name of John Ure Primrose. His predecessor, James Henderson was a respected figure in Glasgow, even among those of a Celtic persuasion. Ure Primrose on the other hand was a man of strong Unionist and anti-Catholic sympathies and he was determined to lead Rangers on a very different course. He pledged Rangers to the ‘Masonic cause’ and solidified the sectarian nature of the club. His stewardship was to have consequences for Rangers which would last for decades. He was of course a product of his times and if Rangers FC excluded Roman Catholics from their team and wider business in those days, they were hardly alone in such a policy.

The real damage men like Ure Primrose did though was give tacit approval of the ugly and petty prejudice which blighted many lives over the past century or so. When so called ‘educated men’ in positions of authority exhibit what can be construed as bigoted tendencies it can encourage the street level bigots to think their opinions and actions are acceptable.  However, as society has moved on and various groups have become more integrated it is fair to say that the Scotland of 1912 is gone forever. There are still echoes of those days to be heard but society has changed immensely. Consider how Ure Primrose, one time Lord Provost of Glasgow, met with no real opposition when he aired his anti- Catholic views. When one contrasts this to the reaction former Rangers Vice-Chairman Donald Findlay received in the media after his foolish sectarian karaoke at a Rangers function in May 1999 it is plain to see things have changed.

That being said, you don’t have to look far to find some who still harbour fairly jaundiced views about some of their fellow citizens and traditionally football offered a focal point for the airing of these opinions. This minority exists in every society and it remains the duty of the decent majority to keep them in check. The tribal nature of football means that fans are always looking for the next song to insult and provoke their rivals. Some of these insults can be based on stereotypes such as this effort aimed at Liverpool fans from their rivals at Manchester United…

You are a scouser,
A thieving scouser,
You’re only happy, on giro day.
When your dad’s out stealing,
Your mum’s drug-dealing,
But please don’t take my hubcaps away.

Songs like this are part of footballing rivalries all over the world. Where such rivalries are fiercest, the songs become more pointed. That Manchester United – Liverpool rivalry does stray beyond the bounds of what is acceptable when songs about the Munich air crash or Hillsborough disaster are sung but these are rarer now than they once were.

Here in Scotland there is an element which England long ago dispensed with. That element is of course the consequence of mass Irish migration to the central belt during the industrial revolution and in the post ‘famine’ years. Given that Merseyside had an even higher proportion of Irish migrants than Glasgow it is unsurprising that the Liverpool – Everton rivalry was tinged with sectarianism in its early days. That element faded as the years passed and it virtually gone now. In the more confined space of Calvinistic Scotland, the Irish were not universally welcomed nor were the football clubs they founded in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. Celtic’s spectacular early successes led some to look for a cub which would put the uppity ‘Irishmen’ in their place. That club became Rangers and men like Ure Primrose ensured the more strident types coalesced around it.

The nature of the dominance of the two big Glasgow clubs, exemplified in the fact that they have won the league between them on 99 occasions in 118 seasons, meant that they were often the only show in town. Thus Scottish football became essentially a century long battle between two mega clubs who had the power, support and money to eclipse the rest. This added to the unhealthy intensity of the rivalry. That being said, it was one of the most eagerly awaited fixtures on the calendar and some fans loved these games for that very intensity which seemed to be lacking in other fixtures.

There was a period of just over 1000 days between Celtic’s 3-0 victory over Rangers in 2012 and their 2-0 win in last season’s League cup semi-final.  For some this was a welcome break but others missed the rivalry and found domestic football duller without it. With the Ibrox club, however you perceive them, looking likely to secure promotion this season, the fixture will almost certainly return in 2016. It is to be hoped that the traditional thunder accompanying the games is undiminished but that the more obnoxious elements are left behind.

Sadly the evidence suggests that a minority aren’t ready to move with the times and we will no doubt hear the old songs being aired again. But times are changing and the majority no longer see the rather empty and ritualistic abuse of their rivals in sectarian terms as anything other than an anachronistic leftover from the bygone days of yore. The Scotland Ure Primrose knew in 1912 has changed politically, religiously and socially beyond anything he could comprehend. Those stuck in the mind-set of the past have nothing to contribute to the future and I remain hopeful that in the end the decent majority will prevail.



  1. Sorry guys but when a minority are singing a majority would drown them out.

  2. Hail Hail! TV money is destroying the game worldwide with empty stadia due to clubs indifference to the fans who are the core of what clubs should be about!