x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Rangers and Celtic, two tribes still going to war

Sectarianism has always played its part in Scottish football but the past six months will go down as the worst period in the country's long footballing history.

Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, is flanked by police officers during the game against Motherwell at Celtic Park last week. The Northern Irishman and his family have been under 24-hour police protection since the authorities discovered an explosive device was sent to him and two of his players. All are Catholics.
Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, is flanked by police officers during the game against Motherwell at Celtic Park last week. The Northern Irishman and his family have been under 24-hour police protection since the authorities discovered an explosive device was sent to him and two of his players. All are Catholics.

The first half of the 2010/11 Scottish football season was shameful, hate-filled and poisonous.

What happened, in no particular order, was a referees' strike provoked by accusations that they were not neutral; some Celtic fans protested about the poppy worn on their team's shirts on Remembrance Sunday because it was anti-Irish; Rangers were warned for the umpteenth time by Uefa over sectarian singing; two young Rangers players were kidnapped; the Scottish Football Association sacked the referees' chief Hugh Dallas for sending an e-mail joke about the Pope; the Dundee United striker David Goodwillie faced a rape charge that was later dropped; and then manager Craig Brown, now 70 and the former coach at Motherwell, hit a team official from the Danish side Odense during a Europa League match.

Looking back now at these indiscretions, they seem like small fry.

Because things then got sinister when the first of many packages containing either bullets or, as the police have described it, an explosive device, was sent to the Celtic players Niall McGinn, Paddy McCourt and their manager, Neil Lennon.

All three are from Northern Ireland and Catholic. This is not a coincidence.

Sectarianism has always played its part in Scottish football, like bad goalkeeping, with Celtic traditionally considered a Catholic club and Rangers, their Glasgow rivals, Protestant. But the past six months will go down as the worst period in the country's long footballing history.

Lennon and his young family have lived with round-the-clock police protection after the death threats intensified. He was attacked by a Hearts supporter only last week during a match, the first time such an incident has occurred in living memory.

As an exiled Scottish football fan, I spend a lot of time defending my country and its obsession with football, a sport that we are actually not particularly good at. The point I often make is that Celtic and Rangers, the Old Firm, are the best-supported football clubs in the world.

In 2003, Celtic took 80,000 supporters to the Uefa Cup final in Spain, far more than their ticket allocation. Five years later, more than 200,000 Rangers fans swamped Manchester for the same final.

Could Manchester United boast these numbers? What about Barcelona or Real Madrid? Not a chance.

And when you talk about so many people who live and breathe their respective football clubs, it's easy to surmise that not every single one is a model citizen.

But the past months have witnessed new lows.

Rangers could see their home ground, Ibrox, shut down in Europe for sectarian singing during a Champions League match, and it is surely a matter of time before this comes to Celtic's door.

It is not good enough for Rangers fans to ask why it is always them who are portrayed as the bogeymen. There are obvious reasons for this.

Equally, it is time Celtic supporters stopped their weak defence of the actions of some of their own by saying: "Well, at least we're not as bad as the other lot."

Pro-Irish Republican Army singing is now the norm from the Celtic away support and it is far from a minority.

Scottish football is being dragged into the gutter by these two tribes. Will it only stop when someone loses their life?

Lennon claims that the mere sight of him brings out the worst in people. What is unacceptable is the accusation that he brings any of this on himself.

True, he was a spiky, and at times, unlikeable player. His act of cupping his ears in defiance as he walked off the Ibrox pitch after the seventh and final Old Firm game of the season - the message being he didn't care what was being said about him - was utterly unnecessary.

It shouldn't really make a human being fear for his life though, should it?

Yet Lennon was knocked unconscious in 2008 in Glasgow's supposed upmarket west end by two so-called Rangers fans. He was attacked twice previously, once when his daughter was with him, and there have been several incidents of sectarian graffiti painted outside his house.

On the other side of the divide, a Celtic fan was jailed for racially abusing El-Hadji Diouf at a game.

The madness has to stop.

Attendances at Scottish football grounds are dropping and not just because the fare on the pitch isn't any good. Who would take a child into such a hate-filled environment?

As a footnote to all of this, Walter Smith, a fine and decent man, led Rangers to their third league title in a row on Sunday, beating Celtic by a point on the last day.

If winning a two-horse race, as it is in the Scottish Premier League, can ever be considered a remarkable achievement then this was it, as Rangers have struggled, financially, compared to Celtic

Smith has now left Rangers and he has said often enough that he couldn't wait to get out. Who could blame him?

Lennon will still be in place next season and after his side's final home game he told the crowd that "this is not the end, it's only the beginning".

Let's hope it's the end of something. I am not holding my breath.

 

ncameron@thenational.ae