Celtic v Rangers: The game’s the thing for Murphy

He may be a Celtic fan but for MP and Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy scoring has to be celebrated even when it's in a Rangers strip at Ibrox against a team in hoops in a charity game. Picture: SNS
He may be a Celtic fan but for MP and Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy scoring has to be celebrated even when it's in a Rangers strip at Ibrox against a team in hoops in a charity game. Picture: SNS
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JIM Murphy has amassed quite a collection of football memorabilia. His match programmes include one from the 1966 World Cup final, which was played more than a year before he was born. His old strips range from Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs to Real Betis, Motherwell and Middlesbrough. That some of Celtic’s faded hoops are also to be found in the drawer goes almost without saying.

The leader of the Scottish Labour Party has been a fan for as long as he can remember. Billy McNeill’s last match, the 1975 Scottish Cup final, was Murphy’s first. Celtic beat Airdrieonians 3-1, and McNeill was carried off shoulder-high, but it was that first glimpse of the national stadium, long before kick-off, that mesmerised the seven-year-old.

“It was a big game, and the sun was shining,” he recalls. “It was the most extravagant thing I’d ever done. I remember climbing up the grass, getting to the top of the stadium, then looking down into the old Hampden for the first time. It took your breath away. I think that was the moment when I fell in love with football.”

The flame still burns. Born and brought up in a Glasgow flat, Murphy emigrated with his family to South Africa before returning to embark on a career in politics. He became Scotland’s youngest MP, and now aspires to be its First Minister, but he remains a season-ticket holder at Celtic Park. This afternoon, he will be back at Hampden for the Old Firm derby, hoping that his team can secure a place in the Scottish League Cup final.

He followed his family in supporting Celtic, but it is the game Murphy loves most. At home, or on his travels, he watches it at every opportunity. On Boxing Day, he went to see Bolton play Blackburn. He has also been to Goodison Park this season, as well as the Etihad, and several matches at Firhill. “I don’t have Sky telly because I would get nothing done,” he says. “I would watch any game from anywhere in the world.”

He plays too. At 47, he is still a midfielder in the House of Commons XI, who play a monthly charity match. Six years ago, in a fund-raiser at Ibrox, he played – and scored – in a Rangers shirt. By all accounts, he is quite the competitor – and a keen runner, right – although Scott Brown need not feel threatened. “I’m about double his age with about a 20th of the talent,” says Murphy.

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Most of all, Murphy likes what football stands for. It fits his politics. “It is the most democratic sport in the world,” he says. “You don’t need to be well off to play it. You just need to have passion and imagination.

“And it does a limitless power of good. When I was in a Palestinian refugee camp in the Lebanon, I was standing there, trying to understand the terrible conditions, when one of them got a ball out and started playing. Suddenly, you get a bond with people. It breaks down barriers. I’ve seen it in Afghanistan. I know about the way it inspired prisoners on Robben Island, the way Barcelona became a rallying point for Catalan identity. It contributed to war in El Salvador and Honduras. It’s an amazing power. Throughout history, football has had more influence on the world than any single government. And, in the main, it’s been a huge force for good.”

Murphy wrote a book about it. The Ten Football Matches That Changed the World… and the One That Didn’t is an examination of historic encounters that have, for good or bad, shaped cultures, influenced elections, even started or ended historic battles. The 1914 Christmas Truce, which only suspended hostilities, was “the one that didn’t”.

Inevitably, there is a chapter on the Old Firm. As Murphy points out, the two clubs have not always been sworn enemies. He talks about the 1909 Scottish Cup final, when fans were so upset about the refusal to allow extra time after a second replay that they rioted on the pitch.

“There is no record of a single punch being thrown by Celtic or Rangers supporters at each other. They fought with the police and tried to set fire to the stadium, using whisky, but there is no record of anything other than mutual anger about the authorities ripping off football supporters.”

The same could not be said of the 1980 Scottish Cup final, when a post-match battle between fans led to the ban of alcohol from grounds. Somewhere along the line – in the early 1920s, says Murphy – society had changed, and with it the relationship between Celtic and Rangers. “There was a perception, wrongly, that Irish Catholics hadn’t fought in the First World War. Secondly, faith-based schools were introduced, funded by the tax-payer. Then Harland & Wolff opened a shipyard in Govan with a workforce that came from Belfast. They brought a view of the world with them.

“Sectarianism existed long before Celtic or Rangers. They didn’t cause it. But a minority of idiots have used football as a rallying point for their stupidity.”

Murphy admits it is still a problem, albeit not as big as it used to be. The answer, he says, is to educate, not legislate, as the SNP government did after the notorious Old Firm “shame game” in March 2011. He compares the controversial Offensive Behaviour at Football Act with the Dangerous Dogs Act, which was rushed through in response to a rash of incidents that exercised the media in 1990.

“It is a knee-jerk response to a problem that has existed for generations. It gives people the impression they’re on top of the situation when they aren’t. It just doesn’t work. It’s difficult to police. The courts find it hard to interpret. The Labour Party will abolish it and replace it with proper support for anti-sectarian and anti-racist campaigns.”

For a moment, Murphy has his political hat on. He is back in the world that had him visit 100 Streets in 100 Days during the referendum, back on the Irn-Bru crate from which he urged Scotland to vote No. Since replacing Johann Lamont as Scottish Labour leader, he has declared he would fund Scottish nurses with the mansion tax, ban fracking until environmental issues have been resolved and re-nationalise rail services in Scotland.

He also wants alcohol re-introduced to football grounds. Not in today’s match at Hampden perhaps – let’s be sensible – but as a pilot programme in low-risk fixtures. “You can drink alcohol in football grounds in Scotland if you’re in corporate hospitality. You can drink alcohol in Scottish rugby. You can drink alcohol in English football. What are we saying about Scotland? That Scottish football supporters who aren’t in corporate hospitality aren’t capable of drinking in moderation?”

Better not answer that. Better to ask him about his letter to the Prime Minister, demanding knighthoods for McNeill and John Greig, the Old Firm captains who have lifted a European trophy. In Aberdeen the other day, he was reminded that Willie Miller held aloft the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1983. “Somebody said, ‘why don’t you back the campaign for Willie Miller’s knighthood?’ I said, ‘well, there isn’t a campaign for Willie Miller’s knighthood, but I’ll launch one if you want’. So I’ve added him to the list. We’ve rightly knighted Chris Hoy, Jackie Stewart and others. Why not these three giants of Scottish and European football? I’m still waiting to hear from the Prime Minister. I’ll go and pester him.”

Football is not Murphy’s only sport. On his Twitter feed, he has posted a photograph of him at the Hydro last week, shaking hands with Brodus Clay, the TNA (Total Nonstop Action) wrestler who used to be Snoop Dogg’s bodyguard. “I wouldn’t have fancied taking him on,” he says.

This morning, he will watch some of Andy Murray’s Australian Open final against Novak Djokovic. Tonight, if he can stay awake, he will follow the Super Bowl, another of his passions. Between them is the first Old Firm match in nearly three years, the return of a derby that he says ranks alongside any in the world.

For all its faults, he is proud of it, as he is of Glasgow, the city that rallied round after the Clutha helicopter disaster, from which Murphy – part of the immediate rescue effort – emerged to give one of the first eye-witness accounts.

“Traditionally, it’s been a pretty special game, which has meant so much to the city and beyond. Very few rivalries are as passionate. Some of the Argentine ones are pretty fierce, you’ve got Madrid-Barcelona and maybe one or two in Italy, but I think the positive side of it – the love of football, the highs and lows – is pretty remarkable.”

Murphy, the football fan, also has had his ups and downs. Like Scotland’s defeat by Peru in the 1978 World Cup finals. And Celtic’s visit to Seville for the 2003 UEFA Cup final, which was a “mixture of pride and regret”. As for the highlight, he pauses a moment before it slowly dawns on him. “Getting to know Billy McNeill as a friend,” says M urphy. “He’s such a gentleman.”

Nearly 40 years ago, on that first visit to Hampden, he would never have believed it.