Friday, 28 October 2016

I really don't do football tribalism

One weekend, about two months ago, there were two footballing derbies played out in two of the great  cities on this island. I've often had reason to compare Glasgow and Manchester with the civic grandeur of both their centres born out of a seismic 19th century industrial landscape that has become the cultural and economic heartland for many millions of people in the nation/region of which it is the biggest city. And likewise both have inevitably come to each have two big teams playing in some of Britain great cathedrals of football. Yet there is still something of a difference between the Manchester Derby and Old Firm derbies in the reputation of each rivalry.

I do not support either Celtic or Rangers though I may make an exception when it comes to the big European competitions in which case it becomes a matter of Scottish national interest whoever gets there. But I generally prefer to stay out of it and away from the politics of committing myself to an Old Firm club. Yes, I do have more of an affinity with the traditional fanbase of Celtic whose general political leanings are to the left - anti-establishment, anti-imperialism, socialist ideals, Irish reunification, Palestinian solidarity etc. The broad-left is where my political home lies but it does not give me any reason to support Celtic. Because when you have a footballing rivalry as big and divisive as that I want no part of it. The team I support is Liverpool while here in Scotland my allegiances lie more with local teams in the South-west - Queen of the South and Stranraer, both of whom could bring something of a boost to their clubs and local communities if they advance further in the leagues. In the Premiership, if there's any team I want to win it then it will be anyone but the Old Firm. So my support goes to whichever club can end the dominance of Rangers or Celtic. Last season that was Aberdeen who sadly missed out on beating Celtic to the top-spot, this season so far its looking like Hearts might be the contender. But I'm just sick to death of Glasgow's dominance in the top tier of Scottish football, unless Partick Thistle were to come along and steal the Old Firm's thunder.

More of this would be nice

Of course Celtic and Rangers have been good business for Scotland to an extent though the cost of policing them makes for a heavy bill. As football clubs they have their fair share of fans who are there just because they love football and have found their place in the family of one club or another. For them and many Celtic and Rangers fans across Scotland it isn't about sectarianism or ideology. They just support the clubs for similar reasons to why other people support other clubs be it a local connection, a family connection or maybe even a classroom influence among peers. Sadly however, at the heart of Scottish football lies this most tribalistic of rivalries. How about considering other rivalries for a change? Like one between Celtic and Hearts to echo the less acrimonious rivalry between Glasgow and Edinburgh, though that would probably just end up like another sectarian derby. It seems there's actually one between Rangers and Aberdeen that started relatively recently in a single match. But how about people just put aside their religious or political bias in finding their club of affinitiy? The thing with the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers is that the bigotry really cuts both ways. In the showdown between the two at Parkhead in September, a number of Rangers fans went and trashed the toilets while someone in the Celtic camp had the wise idea (n.b. irony) of hanging a pair of dolls possibly to symbolise what they saw as a club who died in 2012. We can call all this banter but it's really hard to know what to make of it. Certainly such behaviour can be highly provocative.

We all know what happened four and a half years ago with Rangers or at least many of us who tried to keep up with rapidly unfolding events attempted to make sense of it all. Basically the gist of what happened I picked up on - Rangers found themselves in a lot of debt caused by whatever careless mistake made by owner Craig Whyte, they then had to file for administration and then they went into liquidation. Which meant that Rangers effectively died. But then a Newco was set up and Rangers, though legally finished, could still be brought back to life in spirit using the body of a new club. This newco though, had to start out in the lowest division of the Scottish Leagues and work their way up, the price for one that went into administration. Despite their technical death, however, the newco Rangers was recognised by the owners, fans and Scottish football's governing bodies alike as the continuation of the old Rangers. This is the sort of silver lining we would hope to hear for the other clubs that find themselves in similar situations through no fault of the fans that are the lifeblood of any club. But then the name Sevco cropped up. And for many months afterwards it was heard again and again. All I understood of this word initially was that it was maybe a reference to an organisation the Rangers board had initiated to oversee the creation of the new club that would be the phoenix of the old Rangers. So when it came to the middle of 2014 when the debacle was long past and Rangers could now focus on the progress they were making in their league yet Sevco was still being banded about that I realised it was a reference to more than just a small chapter in a turbulent moment of the club's recent history. In fact Sevco was the original name given to the newco of Rangers itself before it changed its name to the Rangers. That ought to have been the end of Sevco yet the word stuck for the gloating fans of other clubs notably, of course, Celtic who carried on using it as the name for Rangers itself.

And this is what I don't like, the attitude of those fans who relished Rangers' prospective demise. Again, I have no particular affection for Rangers or the kind of politics espoused by many in their traditional fanbase. But it is the fans of Rangers, including many ordinary decent folk, who suffered the most emotionally from what happened in the corridors of Ibrox as well as those made unemployed who had worked for the company. And for fans of rival clubs to "hope Rangers die" is pure schadenfreude. I've mentioned I'm a Liverpool fan and yes that means I don't particularly like it when Manchester United win things. And I also hope Everton doesn't steal Liverpool's thunder anytime in the future. But Everton hasn't in recent years been a serious title contender while Manchester City, not traditionally a rival in the eyes of the Anfield faithful, are often in the running for the big prize. Indeed it is Everton who feel like a Merseyside ally whenever they play against Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal or whoever else is challenging Liverpool to the title especially in the crucial final weeks. Of course many Everton fans would rather I didn't say that because I don't genuinely care about how well their team does in the Premier League. All that said, the very last thing I wish for any club is their death. I'm a Liverpool fan but I see Manchester United as too important to its local community and to English football as a whole to want to see it lost. So forgive me if I say I have very little respect for the Celtic fans who wish Rangers dead.

They're called "Rangers" now. Get over it.

The thing is while those Celtic fans yell "Sevco", "Zombie" and "let Rangers die" they forget one glaringly obvious and inconvient truth - that what happened at Ibrox could easily happen at Parkhead. And then what? How would Celtic fans respond in that scenario? Indeed many people would argue that Celtic are themselves a newco having gone through their own similar crisis in 1994. However, there will be many counterclaims to that stressing certain differences between that situation and the experience of Rangers' in 2012 so I won't attempt to go there. But I don't need to because I can just imagine the scenario starting with a future owner of Celtic undertaking a massive vanity project and running up bills he simply can't afford to pay. Then Celtic go into administration, get liquidated and the owner has to start a new club to replace the legal entity that was Celtic. So do the 'holier-than-thou' fans say 'well, having said that Rangers are a newco we'll just have the courage of our convictions and refuse to call a replacement club 'Celtic' or go somewhere else like Firhill and cheer on Partick'? Or would they say 'well, we got carried away, we didn't think that what happened to Rangers would happen to us, we now understand what their fans went through and why it matters to let the soul of an old football club continue in a new body for us and future generations to experience"? I'm pretty sure the latter response would be the more likely even if they probably wouldn't admit they made a mistake in their attitude towards their rivals.

Eqully though, I should not let this post run without levelling some criticism at the Scottish Government for the measure they came up with to tackle sectarianism. One of the biggest bones of contention is the criminalisation of football fans... for singing songs. Now granted these songs are pretty offensive, many of them. But who starts them and who joins in? Because there's a difference. Whoever starts the ball rolling with the singing, yes they are mostly going to be the ones with motivated by the themes of the songs. But the people joining in? They're the ones singing in a large part because everyone else is singing. And the problem with trying to pull someone up for that is you really don't know whether they're genuinely singing out of sectarian malice or just joining in with a vague idea of what the song is about. I for one can tell you only one Liverpool chant - You'll Never Walk Alone. Yet 15 years ago I couldn't even have told you anything about that song so if I had gone to see a game at Anfield and sat in the Kop while everyone else was singing the song, I would have done what came naturally to me: hum and mouth the words, creating my own interpretation of the tune to go with the flow. Nobody around me would have noticed my amateur fanhood, each person's individual singing talent drowned out by the sheer noise of the occasion. And I can imagine many Rangers and Celtic fans in exactly the same boat - a fan of the club but not an expert in any of the songs sung at the stadium or all that aware of the sectarian significance of them could be arrested simply for being seen to 'go with the flow'. If this is what happens as a consequence of the Anti-sectarian bill I would be very concerned indeed. And lets not forget that not everyone is going to be arrested, in fact very few will be and if they are they maybe the innocent few that only vaguely sung it. It doesn't take a brain to work out that if somebody knows there's only a slim chance they'll be caught they're likely to do it anyway. If you want to stop people from singing offensive chants, a better penalty, probably more effective is to make it collective - fine the club, maybe even duct a point everytime something bad gets sung. And if they're left well behind the other clubs on points then the fans who sung the song only have themselves to blame.

Hideous mascot. But at least Partick Thistle are non-sectarian.

At the end of the day what we have across the country are football clubs, with football fans who mostly are all there for a good time, to enjoy spending 90 minutes watching 22 folk playing the beautiful game, to socialise and hopefully bask in the glory of their club's victory. And yes, the rivalries, whether for the title or the pride of the town/region, do add that extra dimension, they add to the atmosphere, tension, drama and motivation of players and supporters alike. They potentially make the game more enjoyable to watch. But when the final whistle has gone, we would hope the fans, from both sides, all got on with each other and if they mingle in the same bar and share jokes with each other that can only be a good thing. What we want in Scotland is a football culture that we can be really proud of, one which can be inspirational to everyone, especially younger people and one which can have a positive reputation internationally maybe reaching a head with the national team progressing well in major competition. And how the fans behave on the side-lines will have a major impact on all that. Any that wish ill on other clubs should bear in mind that their sentiment is hypocrisy waiting to happen.

So football fans take care, don't let good banter get the better of you. Football should be fun and motivational. And while you're out there, just remember this: your country is watching you... and so are people further abroad.

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