John Spencer doubts Rangers' prospective new owner will be able to tackle the club's sectarian rump

A QUARTER of a century has passed since Graeme Souness swept into Glasgow with a plan to revolutionise Rangers, vowing to end the club's title drought with a signing policy that took account of neither creed nor colour.

The new manager was married to a Catholic, his children were christened Catholics, and when he signed a Catholic player - the most high-profile one ever to represent the Ibrox club - he was entitled to believe that it would change everything.

Last week, exactly 25 years after Souness took over, the religious problem remained. More than two decades after Scottish football was rocked by the signing of Maurice Johnston, those who anticipated a knock-on effect that would rid Rangers of their prehistoric image are still waiting. While more than a few Catholics have since played for the Ibrox club, their support continues to be plagued by a Neanderthal element.

It's not just Rangers, of course. As chanting in the recent Co-operative Insurance Cup final demonstrated, bigotry continues to straddle the Glasgow divide, but when UEFA meets later this month for a disciplinary hearing into allegations of sectarian singing during Rangers' recent Europa League match in Eindhoven, it will be the fourth time in five years that the club's fans have got them into bother with Europe's governing body.

Although Rangers have tried to discourage sectarianism, they have been reluctant to take responsibility for its consequences. Instead of condemning, even disowning, the most recent offenders, Martin Bain, the club's chief executive, went so far as to protect them with a suggestion that they were being victimised. Even if that were true, it sends out the wrong message, as does the statement that he was "utterly dismayed" by UEFA's disciplinary action.

The strategy at Rangers does not appear to be one of zero tolerance.

As their PR machine demonstrated at the end of last week, the club spend up to 250,000 a year trying to educate their followers, but when that doesn't work, as it seems not to have in Holland, punitive action is conspicuous by its absence.

Times are hard for Rangers these days, what with the debt, the takeover wrangle and the imminent departure of a manager who has guided their team through it all, but an opportunity is being missed by the existing regime. Somebody, somewhere is destined go down in history as the leader who was brave enough to reinvent Rangers, but as yet, no one has taken up the challenge.

A growing body of opinion demands that it must happen. The uncertainty is when, and at whose bidding? As Rangers hover on the threshold of new ownership, will Craig Whyte be any more willing than his predecessors to tackle the issue head on? If, as expected, he completes the deal later this week, it should be one of the first questions he has to answer. Does he have the courage shown by Souness to take on the club's 'traditions'?

It will not be easy. The last thing a new owner wants to do is alienate supporters, never mind commit financial suicide by turning them away. Souness was successful enough on the pitch to get away with it, but the club no longer have the resources to make an enemy of their hardcore support. And, even if they did adopt a more radical stance, would it work? Would banning fans and closing sections of the ground make any difference?

John Spencer is among those who has his doubts. A Catholic who played for Rangers long before they signed Johnston, he says that the culture is too deep-rooted for change. "I know a new regime is coming in, but what can they do? You can take the fans out of the stadiums, but it just hurts the game. And they'll just go to the local pubs and sing their sectarian songs there. For as sad and depressing as it is, it's part of the upbringing that children get in Glasgow. I can't see how it will change. "

Spencer knows what he is talking about. He was at Ibrox on 10 July, 1989, the day that Johnston signed. A young Catholic lad whose lengthy service at Ibrox had somehow spared him scrutiny, he feared the worst when a team-mate told him the story that was about to break. "I walked into the dressing room, and a player who I'll not name turned to me and said, 'You'll be f***ing happy now that we've signed one of your kind'. I was like, 'What are you talking about?' And he said, 'We're signing Maurice Johnston today'. I always remember thinking, 'Oh my God, what's Souness done now?' Until then, I had been kind of flying under the radar. I thought this might dig up all the crap."

Spencer lived in fear of the crap. When he was a pupil at St Ninian's High School in Eastwood, his decision to sign for Rangers meant that he was regularly threatened and challenged to fights. A focal point for religious tension from an early age, he has been through enough to know that it will take more than a fine or a ban by UEFA to draw the poison that has been passed down from one generation to the next.

He suggests that representatives of Europe's governing body go to the bars around the grounds on the day of an Old Firm derby, and ask the customers to stop singing their songs of hate. Then they'll appreciate the scale of the problem. "Until you've lived it, and you've realised what it's all about, I don't think you can comment. When I signed for Rangers at 12 years old as a Catholic schoolboy, some of my family said that they would never speak to me again. It was from my stepfather's side. They walked past me in the street and called me a monkey. They have never spoken to me since. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about."

Spencer could tell a thousand tales about Celtic, Rangers and the religious divide. Like the day he and his fellow reserves were at Ibrox, watching an Old Firm derby from the main stand. "I think it was the 5-1 game on New Year's Day. Rangers had scored, and we were up celebrating. I looked down, and I kid you not, I saw my friend, who is a big, big Celtic fan, turn round to me and put his thumb across his throat. One of my best friends he was."

And there are countless more, shameful episodes that he feels able to report only now, from the safety of a new life in America, where he is head coach of the Portland Timbers. "I remember going to my brother-in-law's stag night, and being introduced to a friend of his friend. I went to shake his hand, and he said, ‘I ain't shaking your hand, you Fenian bastard'."

It is, says Spencer, a way of life so entrenched that it never occurs to many of those immersed in it that things should be different. When he swapped Rangers for Chelsea in 1992, he was surprised to find that one his new team-mates, Robert Fleck, who had left Ibrox five years earlier, was not desperate to accompany him north for the next Glasgow derby. "I still had that Old Firm mentality inside me, and he was like, ‘I might watch it on television, I might not'. It's so part of the culture that maybe when you're living it every day, you become immune to it. It's only when you've been away from it that you start to see how bad it is. The games are fantastic, but the religion and the racism ... there is no place for it."

These days, Spencer has more perspective than ever. After a decade in America, the football with which he grew up is well and truly out of his system. He misses Glasgow, but not the baggage. "It's a great city. The people are very warm. It's just that, when the Old Firm games come round, it changes people. I remember going to one a couple of years back, sitting in the enclosure, as it used to be known, when Celtic scored. About two minutes later, there was a comment from behind me saying, ‘what the f***'s he doing in here?' I was like, ‘uh-oh, time for me to leave'. And as I did, Rangers equalised. That did it for me. I was like, ‘I'm never coming back to one of these games'."

And there's the rub. The more Rangers tolerate the unsavoury element in their support, the more of its civilised majority will be turned away. It is incumbent upon the club, now or under new ownership, to reverse that trend for its own good. For people like Spencer, who fears that the cause is already lost, the least they can do is try to prove him wrong.