T his is a year which began with one sporting Scot in floods of tears and ended with another. But reactions to the public displays of grief by Andy Murray and Ryan Jack have been decidedly different.
Back in January Murray broke down at the Australian Open as he revealed the tournament could be his last. He’d reached the endgame. He could no longer drag his body through more surgery, more rehab, more first-round defeats where he’d been a shadow of his former self. There might be one more op, but the main benefit would be to give him a “better quality of life”. Tennis? Pretty much finito. Then the tears fell.
Last Sunday Jack tried his damnedest to win Rangers the Betfred Cup. This would have been the club’s first major trophy for eight years, the first of the post-banished-to-the-Brechins era, the first for rookie manager Steven Gerrard and proof they were properly, truly back. Rangers should have triumphed, having battered Celtic for virtually the whole 90 minutes, but they were undone by stupendous goalkeeping and rotten luck. At the final whistle Jack couldn’t stop sobbing.
Now, no one criticised Murray for crying, just as no one took a dim view of him blubbing when he lost the 2012 Wimbledon final. Murray has shed tears often, tears of victory and tears of defeat. A tennis audience isn’t the same as a football audience (and especially a Scottish football audience and especially an Old Firm audience). You can call a tennis audience wetter; I’m not going to risk that. But Murray was travelling a long, long road, trying to become the first Brit to win Wimbers since Jethro Tull invented the seed drill way back in 1701. Add to that the detour Muzza was required to take from that road, where his suitability for national hero status was scrutinised by those who disapproved of his sullenness, his early-days burst-sofa hairstyle and his jokey support for Paraguay to beat England at football, and we can understand why he cried, and why the All-England Club debenture holders offered him a metaphorical hankie. Acceptance at last! Then: winner at last! Years later Murray acknowledged the significance of his Centre Court breakdown. He reckoned it earned him respect and urged more men to open up about mental health issues.
Football, as I say, is different and the eternal struggle between Celtic and Rangers has its own code which doesn’t apply any place else. Elite tennis players earn millions of pounds every year and yet don’t attract the scepticism and cynicism which rains down on football.
Footballers sometimes connive and cheat; aggression is part of their sport. So when they cry after a big defeat we don’t have the same sympathy and empathy. Beyond the Rangers faithful, it is difficult for the wider football public to have empathy towards the club. Rangers fans are aware of this and accept it (the “No one likes us, we don’t care” song). The awkward, strained relationship some Rangers players have had with the Scotland national team down the years has hardly helped. Neither has a lofty attitude towards the diddy rump, and here both halves of the Old Firm are culpable.
When a prominent player from one of the provincial clubs signs up at Ibrox he sometimes starts to behave differently. He might throw his weight around and thunder into tackles more than previously. To the rest of the Scottish game this can look like he’s trying to be the big man and show off to the fans, rather like the new recruit to an underworld gang submitting to some time-honoured initiation. It’s as if the player hasn’t so much joined a football club as signed up to a cause, which might not be too far from the truth.
Jack, when he was at Aberdeen, was a forceful midfielder. If he appears even more forceful now, well, that just seems like the requirement for this particular season if you play for Rangers. In terms of what they want to achieve, and stop Celtic achieving, there’s none more momentous than 2019-20. We might have wondered what kind of player Jack would be for Scotland, if he was ever going to be one after that “over-training” dispute, but look at his performances in the last couple of internationals. Didn’t he seem like the missing piece of the midfield jigsaw? Isn’t he now ahead of Scott McTominay?
So last Sunday he let rip with a few tears. I know the likes of Billy Bremner and Dave Mackay never cried, even when they could easily have been forgiven for having a bloody good greet. I know that the vanquished footballer slumped on to the turf at the final whistle is a football cliche and everyone does it now. But Jack’s distraughtness seemed like an authentic, instinctive and entirely valid response to an astonishing outcome where he’d given everything to his team, and yes his cause, but somehow despite his best efforts – man-of-the-match would have been his if it hadn’t been for wall-of-the-match Fraser Forster – come up short.
In the criticism of his teary reaction, comparison was made with Scott Brown who, it was suggested, wouldn’t have cried if the roles had been reversed. Well, Brown does seem to be a special case. A cyborg footballer hard-wired never to flinch, blink, pull out of a tackle or wear long sleeves. But I’m not so sure if the Celtic captain was the one who’d tried and failed to batter down Rangers’ door after they’d amassed a treble Treble, that his bottom lip wouldn’t have wobbled slightly, even if that would have caused him problems when he wanted to get back into Hill of Beath.
Murray’s tears always made sense. There was the fact he was out on the court with no team-mates to offer support and there was the in-built melodrama of being a Brit striving at tennis, which had always seemed like a contradiction in terms. More recently, in his Amazon Prime documentary, he’s revealed how, after the Dunblane massacre and his parents’ divorce, the sport was his means of escape and of articulating the inexpressible.
Maybe crying in football has been overdone but if there was ever a club who might benefit from displaying a softer, gentler side, it’s Rangers.