Old Firm clubs must take share of the blame
HOW naive can you get? When I took my seat at my first-ever Old Firm match at Ibrox Stadium on Sunday, as a timid neutral I assumed I would be relatively sheltered from the bigotry and the hate among the "hospitality" guests in the main stand.
Within two minutes of kick-off, the side of my face was pock-marked with saliva from the rabid Rangers fans behind me, whose suits, shirts and ties lent them a false respectability, as they spat unrelenting abuse at the Celtic players and fans.
"Ya wee Pope-faced b******, ye", "Yer a f****** red-faced gargoyle" and (seemingly a sine qua non of every Celtic supporter) "Fenian b*******". The litany of equally ugly chants from the Celtic end was accompanied by the clumsy symbolism of a German flag.
Rangers and Celtic are to be admired for attempting to clamp down on these wanton displays of religious prejudice, and perhaps - who knows? - they will be successful, although surely it will take generations for the sectarian war-cries to die out (apart from anything else, football fans are neither creative nor original when it comes to lyrics).
YET it is the old tribalism, as much as its largely sectarian manifestations, that lays down new layers of sentiment in the history of this most explosive of fixtures.
In the build-up to every Old Firm game, we are reminded of just how combustible the match is likely to be, based on what happened last time. Who said genetic determinism was dead? It’s written in the DNA: give no quarter, take no prisoners, accept no compromise.
So on Sunday, when the Celtic player Stilian Petrov was hit by a drinks carton after celebrating his opening goal in front of the Rangers fans, there was delight among many of those fans sitting near me. Even the more civilised were heard to say that while they couldn’t condone such a thing, what did the player expect by behaving in such a fashion? This is a truism.
In the last Old Firm derby in February, at Celtic Park, the Rangers player Fernando Ricksen was hit by a cigarette lighter thrown from the crowd as he lined up to take a corner kick. I’m sure similar views were voiced then, even though the player did not appear to make a provocative gesture.
After Sunday’s game, the Celtic manager, Martin O’Neill, who seems to have become adept at missing such controversial incidents, said Petrov’s behaviour had probably been unwise.
The SFA is likely to investigate it. David Murray has boasted that 14 fans are serving lifetime bans from Ibrox, and another 116 indefinite bans, so it would be fair to assume that if the culprit is identified from CCTV cameras, he will be banned.
But by the time the next Old Firm match comes round, we will be reminded again that this is one of the great intra-city footballing rivalries in the world and passions always run high when the teams play, and that the looming game will be packed with incidents.
FOR me, this is where the clubs bear the greatest responsibility. They must take much tougher action against their own players. After all, they set the standards, especially for young players who are the stars of the future. We know that, with saturation TV coverage of professional football now, many young players at amateur level already ape the antics of their idols.
But of course the clubs are not really interested in this. What they want is to perpetuate the myth of the great spectacle, of pure entertainment, so that they can sell 50,000 or 60,000 tickets every week at great cost to the fans.
So, while they are happy to co-operate in trying to squash sectarianism, they are less keen to change the conditions in which it thrives.
As a spectacle, Sunday’s match was raised above the mundane only by two goals by the best players on the park. At times, many of them - and bear in mind they get paid thousands of pounds a week - looked as if they would rather be anywhere else.
I would like to thank my hosts for inviting me along, but I’m sad to say that as a football fan I won’t be going to another Old Firm match for a long, long time.
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