Hugh Reilly: Unwelcome return of Old Firm derby

THE first Old Firm match in more than two years is likely to be a painful reminder that religious bigotry is still an issue in Scotland, writes Hugh Reilly.
Old Firm derbies generate intensity and tensions both on and off the pitch. Picture: TSPLOld Firm derbies generate intensity and tensions both on and off the pitch. Picture: TSPL
Old Firm derbies generate intensity and tensions both on and off the pitch. Picture: TSPL

In recent times, the graph illustrating the number of sectarian incidents recorded at football matches has resembled the trajectory of a downhill skier. Sadly, thanks to the forthcoming Old Firm fixture, the graph will probably look more like Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent route to Everest. If recent history repeats itself, episodes of domestic violence will peak around the hours following the final whistle of the Rangers v Celtic League Cup semi-final as drunken male members of the losing tribe take out their frustration. In West of Scotland accident & emergency departments, stressed-out doctors and nurses will dutifully patch up the stabbed and beaten flotsam of fans brought in by the tide of visceral religious hatred that makes an Old Firm derby “the best game in the world”.

According to Crown Office figures, football-related sectarian incidents fell by a massive 40 per cent last year, down from 267 to 203. In terms of all offences with a religious connotation, a fall of 15 per cent was reported. Despite protestations to the contrary by the usual suspects who support the bloodlust fixture, objective evidence exists that bigotry is a huge part of the average Old Firm fan’s DNA. In 51 per cent of football-related sectarian offences, the offenders had an association with either Rangers or Celtic (29 per cent for the former, 22 per cent for the latter). Worse, 28 per cent of such crimes referred to terrorist organisations.

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I find it incredible that some people continue to peddle the Great Lie that Scottish football needs Rangers and Celtic. Ever since Rangers perished as a consequence of its piggy-bank being broken open and discovered to be as plentiful as Pandora’s box minus Hope, pundits have written the longest obituary for our game. Clubs, they say, have struggled financially in the absence of Rangers. At the risk of being picky, I’d proffer the notion that Scotland has always found it difficult to maintain more than a dozen or so full-time outfits. The list of teams that have had to play, albeit reluctantly, the role of a fledgling phoenix rising from the ashes of an unbalanced books burning event reads like a Who’s Who of Scottish football. Tellingly, the financial collapse of Airdrie, Motherwell, Livingston and Dundee predated the ’Gers debacle. Livingston and Dundee even appear to relish being stereotyped as the pantomime villains in the drama of stuffing creditors, both clubs managing to enter administration twice each.

The vile coming together of religious bigots is to be lamented, not applauded, but the script is already written. When the words of that well-known “party tune” The Sash fill the air, apologists will point out that it’s only a minority indulging in the hateful singalong. Likewise, when The Fields of Athenry is belted out from the other end, there will be those defending the right of spectators to sing hymns referring to 18th-century Irish republican grievances. Meanwhile, the majority of Scots will wonder why these songs are relevant to a game of football.

Most will despair that the national flags of choice flying at a Scottish League Cup game will be the Union flag and that of the Irish Republic; at Old Firm games, saltires are deemed somewhat passé. Some of the bespoke Union flags will undoubtedly be fresh from their last unfurling in George Square where “Rangers-minded” loyalist individuals gathered to engage in polite conversation with Scots seeking sovereignty. Those provocatively holding aloft the banner of the Irish State will be the type of Celtic fan who sees no issue with his peers singing The Roll of Honour, a pro-IRA ditty.

Should any trouble break out at the match, it’ll be the job of Police Scotland to intervene and arrest wrongdoers. I was briefly a member of the bloody police infantry and still endure horrifying flashbacks of the unpleasant experience of seeing the game from a cop’s perspective. It was 1975 at Ibrox, a time when the notion that one should watch the self-declared people’s sport from the comfort of a bum-numbing plastic seat was considered an alien concept. While patricians contemptuously scoped the stadium from the relative safety of the stands, plebs stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the terracing and bonded with their brothers in arms. This bonding session inevitably meant standing next to someone peeing into a beer can he had just emptied of its contents.

Sectarian chants, pie throwing and other anti-social behaviour which would have attracted police attention outside the environs of a football arena were ignored by platoons of plods opting to tread the path of least resistance. My colleagues and I were content to enjoy the fitba and justify our existence by keeping the passageways clear of human debris. I have to admit that this “light touch” form of policing enjoyed some success. Even though I was positioned in the heart of the Rangers choir singing a joyful refrain about being up to its knees in Fenian blood, I felt no anxiety (mainly because my uniform had a number, not my surname, Reilly). I did, however, feel it a tad disconcerting that some of my police colleagues were, if not actually singing along, at least miming the triumphalist lyrics.

Things changed for the worse when a senior officer appeared on the scene and demanded that we snatch a pro-UDA banner from a group of fans. The banner, although distasteful, wasn’t upsetting the throng, far from it. Easily offended Celtic fans at the other end of the ground would have needed binoculars to feel profound indignation. Hence, we were only obeying orders – not exactly a cast-iron defence at Nuremberg, it has to be said – when we zoned in on the flag-wavers. When the crowd realised our intention, a deluge of saliva descended upon us. This wasn’t the time to hang around and take down witness statements. In what I still regard as an act of exemplary practical policing, I grabbed the nearest snarling person (a non-spitter, I have to say) that I could lay my hands on, twisted his arm up his back and drove his thrashing body towards the sanctuary of the perimeter track. From there onwards, it was a swift march in the direction of the cabin acting as a temporary police station bar. Call me a softie but, though saliva globules hung like stalactites from the brim of my cap, I gave the guy a break and merely ejected him from the stadium.

It’s suggested that things have changed since those dark days of raw religious bigotry, but I’m not so sure. I genuinely wish that the first Rangers/Celtic clash in over two years passes without incident and that everyone is talking about the football side of the equation. However, I won’t be surprised if it all kicks off.