Laying siege to the municipal heart of Glasgow, clambering onto the statues in front of the City Chambers to chant and let off flares, the little green man beamed down from Mars might have thought they had a gripe with the council and had been wronged in some way. No, these were football fans and their team, Rangers, had just been declared champions.
The mob soon turned violent. They vandalised shops and restaurants. They battled with police, hurling bottles and bollards. They screamed sectarian abuse at no one in particular – bitter rivals Celtic had not been the opposition earlier in the day. Then they turned on each other.
A reminder: Rangers have emerged from this season happy and glorious. This was supposed to be their supporters in celebratory mood. Instead, as Scotland woke up yesterday to the splash headlines “Vile” and “Utter disgrace”, and as footage of the mayhem swept social media, the country had cause to wonder: “Whatever would have happened if they’d lost?”
Something else: the “street party” was strictly forbidden. On top of regular warnings against mass gatherings, Glasgow had just been confirmed as the country’s Covid hotspot. Despairing council leader Susan Aitken said of the culprits: “I am ashamed to share a city with them.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was apoplectic. “To say I am utterly disgusted by the Rangers fans who rampaged through the city would be an understatement,” she declared. “In normal times the violent and vandalism, the vile anti-Catholic prejudice that was on display, would have been utterly unacceptable. But mid-pandemic, in a city with cases on the rise, it was also selfish beyond belief.”
On the field this season, Rangers have broken a number of records. Off it, some of their supporters have set one of their own, ignominiously, with Calum Steele of the Scottish Police Federation revealing officers "had bones broken, lost teeth and sustained a multitude of other injuries as they faced (what was for many) the worst violence in their 20-odd years of policing.”
What possesses fans who should be revelling in victory to shove a bottle in a policeman’s face or, when one of their number falls to the ground, take it in turns to aim potentially lethal kicks to his head? You could earn yourself huge plaudits for a thesis which cracked that one, and doubtless a highly remunerative career as a behavioural psychologist afterwards.
No way are these valid excuses but strong drink would have been taken on Saturday night, along with other stimulants. There was the pent-up emotion of one club winning the league for the first time in a decade and at the same time preventing their old foes from claiming their tenth title in a row. There was the pent-up emotion of lockdown with fans shut out of games all season long. But – and here’s the trickier part of the conundrum – there was the pent-up emotion of being a follower of this particular club.
Many clubs have fans – a minority for sure – who wish they’d been around in the hooligan-heavy 1970s. Some have a sinister element among their support. Paranoia and persecution complexes abound in football – when fans can think referees, administrators and pundits are all ganging up on them – but don’t Rangers just seem to be the angriest bunch around, the most grudgeful?
The war footing is a permanent state. Everything for them is a battle. Not every song sung by the supporters depicts an actual battle, say 331 years old, but some do.
There have been battles with the football authorities who banished them to the bottom tier following liquidation. There have been battles with owners and would-be white knights and other chancers.
There have been battles with the Scottish government, Ibrox not being an especially big SNP enclave. A battle still rages with BBC Scotland and this particular stooshie – meaning no manager or player talks to the broadcaster – has been going on for so long that many of us have forgotten what sparked it.
Until it manifests itself in something like the Battle of George Square, fans of other Scottish clubs find the permanent scowl on Rangers’ face comical because the club are not some sprats of the game. But they don’t seem to get that they cannot be poor, put-upon supremacists, the terms are contradictory.
Whenever Rangers appoint a new manager or a star player arrives, the trotted-out party line is about the honour of joining one of the world’s greatest clubs and playing in front of “those fantastic fans”. Well, they’re among the most demanding, that’s for sure. The expectancy – the entitlement – is huge. “We are the people!” is a notorious chant.
Of course not all Rangers fans are like this. The one I know best was head of the history department at an Edinburgh secondary school. When he ran my old Sunday Churches League team, he was one of the most placid and fair-minded fellows around and I’m sure he still is. John will have been thrilled by the club returning to the summit of the game – and appalled by the events immediately afterwards.
That’s the unfortunate irony here. The current, highly impressive boss Steven Gerrard is his own man and cuts out the bullish claptrap. His team have played some marvellous football and won friends – not an easy feat for a side wearing royal blue.
But George Square evoked other Rangers battles, those fought on the streets of English cities not as long ago as 1690. The fans just need to chill out. After all, their team won.