Tom English: The way of things between Celtic and Rangers

Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell, left, and chairman Ian Bankier may be happy to have the focus on a poor joke rather than on pay issues. Picture: SNS
Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell, left, and chairman Ian Bankier may be happy to have the focus on a poor joke rather than on pay issues. Picture: SNS
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PETER Lawwell will know that such is the relationship between Celtic and Rangers that he cannot make a joke at the expense of his rivals from across the city without there being a reaction, especially a bad joke, especially a joke that plays to the galleries and is a little cringe-making for a man in his lofty position in the Scottish game.

By the sounds of it, there was much talk about Rangers at the Celtic agm on Friday. A question from the floor about why so many still call them Rangers, another question about why Rangers were given their licence to play after the tumult of summer 2012 and yet another about whether Celtic’s assets were owned by the club, the inference being that Rangers’ assets are not. This one was answered by Ian Bankier, the chairman, in a way that summoned up an image of John Brown outside Ibrox and his “Show us the deeds” speech.

All of this jolly japery might have gone well with some Celtic supporters but it will only have reinforced the view in the minds of their counterparts across the city that a chunk of the Celtic fanbase are obsessed with Rangers (and vice versa). When the Parkhead agm contains so many references to the blue side of Glasgow then you can see their point down Ibrox way. Obsessed? Lawwell had a chance to kill that charge stone dead when asked about the Rangers new club/old club saga. He could have said: “That’s got nothing to do with us, we are Celtic and we’re doing very well thank you very much.”

Only he didn’t say that. He said that “Rory Bremner can pretend to be Tony Blair” meaning that the Rangers we see now is only imagining itself to be the Rangers of the past 140 years. It was so unnecessary and Rangers have complained, inevitably. Their support will have demanded, in thunderous union, that the complaint be lodged and Lawwell will have expected it. He’s been around too long to believe that his “wee bit of humour” defence was going to be accepted at face value among Rangers people. This stuff is toxic. The question of Rangers – new club or old – is one that gets under the skin of most fans at Ibrox and Lawwell knows it only too well. Once he said what he said he would have known what was coming next.

The thing is, Lawwell is no longer just the chief executive of Celtic, he is now on the professional game board (PGB) of the Scottish FA, a double-act that makes him one of the most – if not the most – powerful man in the domestic game. When he pokes fun at Rangers’ identity he does rather call into question his role on the PGB, a body that is supposed to above such petty squabbling. A few weeks ago he said that if it ever felt compromised in an SFA vote about Rangers – he was talking specifically about Dave King’s mooted application to become a director of the club – then he would consider stepping out of the room and playing no part in proceedings. In the minds of Rangers people, his Rory Bremner gag might confirm that Lawwell will always be compromised on anything to do with Rangers and, frankly, you can see their point.

There is another aspect to this, too. Lawwell wants Rangers back in the Premiership, not because he cares about what happens at Ibrox but because it would be commercially beneficial for Celtic. And when they do get back, and when Sky or BT get ready to up their investment in the Scottish game because the Old Firm derby is once again on their horizon, will Lawwell talk of Rory Bremner then? Will he say to TV partners: “Lads, put away your wallets, this is not the same Rangers, the Old Firm game is dead. They’re only an imitation act over there at Ibrox. Don’t bother giving us more money.”

No, he won’t. Lawwell seems to have an adaptable view of Rangers. Depending on who is acting the question, they’re either the same Rangers or new Rangers. He seems to flip-flop between two entirely different positions.

All the headlines, post agm, have been about the Rory Bremner joke, which is unfortunate, because there was a far more interesting section of the meeting on Friday, a topic that was written about by my colleague, Andrew Smith, in yesterday’s Scotsman. It was to do with the resolution that sought support for “taking all necessary steps” to make the club a living wage employer, thereby ensuring that all staff are paid at the very least £7.45 an hour instead of the minimum wage of £6.31.

This resolution was shot down by the Celtic board, who said that it would cost them too much money, about £500,000. All you hear from Celtic’s top brass is how well they are doing financially on the back of Champions League success and player sales so to come the poor mouth as soon as somebody raises the issue of paying their workers an extra £1.14 an hour is a bit much.

Especially since they had earlier trumpeted that no club took their responsibilities to the community more seriously than Celtic while also saying charity and fairness was in the club’s DNA. Cue video of the Brother Walfrid story. Brother Walfrid was an inspirational force for good, but as Smith pointed out yesterday: “If you know your history when it comes to Celtic… it will not be lost on you that his [Walfrid’s] vision was sold out within ten years, when the club became a plc, stopped making charity donations of any note and started paying fat dividends to directors… Walfrid later distanced himself from what the club became.”

It might suit Lawwell to get himself embroiled in the Rory Bremner situation because the alternative would be that more attention might be paid to the rejection of the living wage resolution, “one of the grubbiest and divisive decisions made by a Celtic board”, according to Jeanette Findlay, chair of the Celtic Trust. Findlay has, it seems, much support from fellow fans on the issue. And that is to their credit.

Their passionate arguments have been drowned out by this Rory Bremner affair. It’s sad, but this is the way of things between Celtic and Rangers. How embarrassing if the SFA have to sanction the newest member of its professional game board for an avoidable cheap shot a veritable five minutes after his appointment. Findlay, and others, would argue that the real mortification can be found elsewhere, however.