The weekend’s matches saw champions Rangers win a comfortable 3-0 at home to Livingston, following on a superb performance in a pre-season friendly against Real Madrid. In contrast, main rivals Celtic went down 2-1 at Hearts, adding to the woes of their new manager.
Last season’s historic 55th league title for the Ibrox club marked a dramatic turnaround in its fortunes. The past decade has been a difficult time to be a Rangers fan. The liquidation of the holding company, and the team’s consequent descent into lower leagues, while Celtic reigned supreme with nine titles in a row, would have tested the loyalty of lesser supporters. Now, at last, Rangers are back on top, and Steven Gerrard and his men are widely predicted to continue in that position for some time to come.
In most countries in the world, there might be expected to be a positive relationship between the country’s most successful, and best supported, football team, and the country’s government. When it comes to the SNP, however, they do seem to have a Rangers problem.
I can think of supporters of both Celtic and Rangers among the ranks of Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians in Scotland. But whilst there are a number of high profile Celtic fans within the SNP ranks, I cannot think of a single SNP MP or MSP who identifies as a Rangers supporter. Indeed, too often we seem to see naked hostility towards the club and its fans.
It is true that Rangers, like all football clubs, have a small minority of fans responsible for disorder and unacceptable behaviour. Yet the great majority of supporters are decent individuals with no time for mindless sectarianism or bigotry.
When Mo Johnston was signed by Graeme Souness in 1989, becoming the first openly Catholic player for Rangers since World War One, he was welcomed with open arms by Rangers fans.
Similarly, when Mark Walters became the first high profile black player in Scottish football, signing for Rangers in 1987, he was the darling of the home support, yet faced horrendous abuse with monkey noises, and the throwing of bananas on the pitch, from supporters of other teams.
Despite this background, the club has been a convenient whipping boy for Nationalist politicians and their cheerleaders amongst the commentariat. When Rangers secured their historic 55th league title in May, a large crowd of supporters marched from Ibrox to George Square, there there were scenes of disorder from a small minority. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was quick to take to social media to express her disgust at this behaviour. Yet, when we saw Scotland fans in London misbehaving, some apparently indulging in anti-English chanting, during the Euros, the First Minister was silent on the matter, giving rise to accusations of double standards.
At the same time, SNP MSP James Dornan, a man who would find an anti-Catholic conspiracy in a discarded orange peel, highlighted a video on social media which purported to show Rangers players in an after-match celebration singing offensive and sectarian words. This is the same James Dornan who later had to apologise for falsely claiming that Lothian Buses in Edinburgh were guilty of anti-Irish prejudice for stopping running services early on St Patrick’s Day, following a spate of vandalism and attacks on drivers.
Worse still, the then Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, immediately took to Twitter to demand that Rangers took action against the players involved. Given that a crime had potentially been committed, it was extraordinary that the person in charge of Scotland’s justice system would react in such a way, particularly given the doubtful provenance of the video in question.
In due course the Police confirmed, if it were in any doubt, that the video was a fake, and yet no apology has been forthcoming from Yousaf for his conduct.
All this comes against the backdrop of what is fast becoming the biggest scandal in Scottish legal history, namely the malicious prosecution of the former administrators of Rangers. Already £24 million has been paid out in compensation and legal costs to two of the affected individuals, and it is estimated that the total claims could cost the Scottish taxpayer over £100 million.
Whilst there is no suggestion of direct political interference in the operation of the Crown Office in these cases, it is not difficult for conspiracy theorists to question the motivations behind these prosecutions.
In due course, the then Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland, now a High Court judge, will have serious questions to answer about his and his office’s conduct in relation to these matters.
Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that there is an attitude of mutual distrust between the SNP and many Rangers fans. Perhaps it suits the SNP to demonise an institution which is culturally identified with British unionism and support for the monarchy. If working class unionists can all be caricatured as red-faced anti-Catholic bigots, then won’t that help build support for Scottish independence?
It would be good if the Scottish Government could start to address these concerns. If Nicola Sturgeon, as MSP for Glasgow Southside, visited Ibrox Stadium, she would hear about the excellent work done by the Rangers Charity Foundation, working with disadvantaged young people across the city. She would hear about the “Everyone Anyone” initiative to welcome people from all backgrounds, cultures and communities to support the club.
She and her Ministers would be welcomed with open arms by the club leadership who want to have a positive relationship with Scotland’s governing Party. If the SNP want to solve their Rangers problem, then the answer lies in their own hands.