Children shouldn’t find themselves asking ‘What’s a fenian?’ or ‘What’s the Ku Klux Klan?’ after watching a football match, writes Aidan Smith, following the Hibs-Hearts game last week.
Last week I was the worst dad in the world. My 11-year-old son desperately wanted me to take him to the Edinburgh derby and I’d said no.
My boy loves football, loves goals being scored. But, being 11, he’s also intrigued by what goes on in the stands: the noise, the songs, the drumming, the flag-waving, the flares, the chanting, the counter-chanting, the jumping up and down, the humour, the bad language. I can’t be dismayed by this, having been exactly the same when I was his age.
But something told me this game between Hearts and Hibs might be trouble. I’d taken my son to two derbies at Hearts’ Tynecastle last season and he went to a third at the stadium with his uncle when I was reporting on that game. Three times he’d been there – three more, incidentally, than some of those who’ve been pronouncing on the shocking events of last Wednesday night. Though he may not have noticed, Tynecastle grew more and more edgy with each visit. I decided we’d sit this one out and what a good decision that proved to be.
No 11-year-old needs to see a goalkeeper being attacked by a fan. Or a manager slump to the ground having been hit by a coin. Or, in the aftermath, a newspaper photograph of the “Hang Neil Lennon” graffiti, should he have cause to ask: “What does ‘hang’ mean?” Or, having read the next day’s headlines, when Lennon detailed the abuse he suffers on a regular basis, feel compelled to ask: “What’s a fenian? What’s a tarrier? What’s the Ku Klux Klan?”
Obviously my son should learn about such things; I’m not trying to cosset him from the big, bad world. But all of that is a heck of a lot to comprehend in one go. From a football match. In Edinburgh.
The home of Scottish football’s “most dangerous” fixture, its “most toxic” derby. This is what they’re saying about Hibs versus Hearts now. Normally Edinburgh comes top of more desirable polls. There’s a lot of them and one appeared the day after the game. “Best in UK for jobs, skills and income,” confirmed this survey. Will the “shame game” make a dent in the latest success, causing the relocating English couple to pause for thought about blowing other homebuyers out of the water in the already overheated Comely Bank market?
There are so many issues here and the most serious involves Lennon. This wasn’t even the first time he’d been attacked from that section of Tynecastle. On that occasion a yob ran from the stand and knocked Lennon to the ground in full view of TV cameras but was cleared of the assault after a jury returned a not proven verdict, finding him guilty only of breach of the peace. That would hardly make Lennon predisposed towards the place, and nor would the near-constant verbal abuse.
I’ve heard it on other occasions, the pressbox being directly above the dugouts. As an Irish Catholic, he gets a similar welcome at Ibrox, home of Rangers. It’s the sort of stuff that, in this supposedly zero-tolerant age, where a bad-taste joke about vegans can lose you your job, would bring arrest in the street. Yet the stands are never emptied of the culprits.
“You call it sectarianism, I call it racism,” says Lennon, who questions Scotland’s claims to diversity. But, his critics argue, he brings a lot of it on himself. He’s Scottish football’s biggest controversialist. It’s true that he goaded the Hearts fans, although I bet this was after extreme provocation. If you give it, like the supporters do, shouldn’t you be able to take it, with no risk of someone losing an eye? Football is timid of criticising fans, lifeblood of the game and all that. But buying a ticket doesn’t entitle you to behave like a moron.
Is hooliganism making the dreaded comeback? A Rangers player was coined on Saturday while, at Livingston a few weeks ago, a referee’s assistant was struck on the head. We can pretend we’re a grown-up football nation; we can bid to host prestige tournaments so we can demonstrate this. But these incidents shouldn’t surprise us. If we’re honest, the threat of trouble has never really gone away. The Old Firm’s travelling supports have a tendency to demonstrate this devotion to their favourites in pretty grim ways. Social media – the great democratiser, ha bloody ha – has kept the enmity simmering.
Should we allow fans to booze again? Are you kidding me? Have you had one too many yourself? This was mooted a few weeks ago and if you regarded the interim as the equivalent of a “dry month”, allowing time for clear-eyed consideration of the matter, then I’m afraid that on Wednesday last week football fell off the wagon, big-style. It showed itself to be incapable of walking in a straight line. And that was without a drink inside it, or at least one for sale at the stadium.
Then there’s the issue of Tynecastle itself. If you’ve never been, the stands are very close to the pitch. Visiting managers and players always talked of it having an “atmosphere” like no other. Surely some of them were been being polite and probably they were keeping the team bus in constant view, engine running. Wednesday laid the euphemism bare, demonstrating the dangers of this cosiness.
Football needs fans. That seems an obvious thing to say but in England some chairmen like to boast about how they could survive without supporters’ money, so fat have they become on TV riches. In Scotland, the sport is egalitarian, hard-working and honest. The idiocy of a minority shouldn’t be allowed to spoil the enjoyment and passion of the majority. Still, just as when a photo of a policeman carrying a young fan with a dart stuck in his eye appalled my mother and led to her enforcing a temporary ban on me, it’s no place for my son right now.