Sectarian abuse has blighted a season that began with much positivity about the Scottish game, writes Aidan Smith.
If you’d been out of the country for a while – say the best part of 40 years – and on your return took the same route as me to Saturday’s football match, then you might have thought you’d never been away.
There in a pub doorway was a classic image of those mad old, bad old 1970s: two small boys kicking a tin can while they waited for their dads to finish bevvying.
Such relaxed parenting can get you all nostalgic. Gordon Strachan once told me that in his youth this was how the match-day experience often began for him and, given that the walk-up was to Hibernian’s stadium, possibly in the very same doorway. It didn’t seem to do Strachan much harm as he went on to play for and manage the Scotland national team.
Would there be any more 1970s throwbacks? Surely we weren’t about to be treated to an announcement over the ground’s public-address system informing a fan he’d just become a father – to triplets. That would be taking relaxed parenting a bit too far.
And look at the stadium: it’s got a roof! And seats! No more were fans being made to stand on crumbling terraces while the rain battered down – when you definitely hoped it was rain which was drenching your trousers and shoes.
Then, in the second half of the Hibs-Celtic Scottish Cup tie, someone in the crowd threw a bottle, almost hitting one of the players. This was 1970s behaviour all right, and the worst incident to date in a spiralling sequence, though it’s pointless rating one against another because they’re all bad and placing Scottish football at huge risk of a crackdown.
First insults were hurled, the Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke being the subject of sectarian abuse from Rangers fans who dubbed him a “Fenian bastard”. Then last week came coins at the Hearts-Celtic match as the Glasgow club’s supporters belted out IRA songs. Saturday’s empty Buckfast bottle whizzed past Celtic’s Scott Sinclair, who previously has suffered racist abuse at games. His manager, Neil Lennon, was felled by a coin earlier this season when in charge of Hibs. Then on Sunday at the Aberdeen-Rangers match there was little appreciation for the seats provided for fans in this so-called more enlightened age when they too were turned into missiles.
Every week brings something else to make the heart sink. What’s going to be flying through the air next? How grim does this 1970s retrospective have to get? Football had better watch out. There’s a horrible sense our national sport is stumbling towards a disaster and that someone – player or manager or referee or supporter – is going to get seriously hurt. Then the authorities will react by flinging something football’s way: they’ll throw the book at it.
The Scottish Government is onto football, about sectarianism in particular, with Deputy First Minister John Swinney insisting that clubs should be leading the fight against it but aren’t. Regarding sanctions, Humza Yousaf, the Justice Minister, warns that “nothing is off the table”. Clubs could have whole stands shut down, be forced to play games behind closed doors or have points deducted.
Always when football gets itself into trouble like this you wonder how much politicians know or care about the sport. Maggie Thatcher, for instance, was no friend of football; she couldn’t stand it. More recently in Scotland politicians have foisted unworkable laws onto football and criminalised decent supporters. Nevertheless sectarianism has to be rooted out. We let this vile stuff go in the 1970s; not any more.
Irvine Welsh, who does know about football, terracing culture and hooliganism, actually supports the idea of grounds being closed down. Of the abuse Steve Clarke suffered, the Trainspotting author says: “Why are we tolerating this? It’s almost like you’re in a place where everybody is a deranged village idiot, a f****ng simpleton in a Victorian landscape.”
Welsh accuses Celtic and Rangers of not wanting to change because their power comes from their Catholic and Protestant traditions. “Rangers without sectarianism are Partick Thistle, basically,” he says, “and Celtic are Hibs.” The Old Firm won’t change, he adds, until being forced to play in front of no crowds hits their finances.
The Old Firm won’t like this; indeed they’ve already hit back at Welsh, stressing that they’re trying to tackle sectarianism. Celtic and Rangers, although our biggest clubs, have giant-sized, exhaustively developed persecution complexes. Football is a shoutier, angrier world than it used to be. Managers rant and rave, often as a means of self-preservation. Pundits blast and fume believing they have to be controversial to keep their jobs. Fans can lambast each other on social media on those slow days waiting for the next game to come round. Count the number snapping on their smartphones as the seats flew at Aberdeen on Sunday. Such is the hysteria of the football debate, the desire to point-score and to feel slighted, that I don’t have great faith in the politicians or the clubs being able to sort out the current, but very old-fashioned, problems. Clubs won’t accept strict liability. You can’t, argue the police, arrest a whole stand if everyone’s singing a sectarian song. Security guys on the minimum wage can only do so much to maintain order. Now there’s a call for self-policing with the good supporters encouraged to identify the bad with a click of their phones. Well, rather you than me, pal.
What a shame this gloom has descended now. At the season’s start there was so much positivity about Scottish football and expressions of love from true fans almost in defiance at the glamour and pulling power of the game in England and abroad. Oh, that we could repeat the best bits of the 1970s and qualify for World Cups again, but leave the rest.