Richard Bath: The unpleasantness of 2010 has paled into insignificance in 2011

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IT'S been a season of two halves, both of them rank rotten.

The bit before the Christmas interval included lowlights as varied as a betting scandal, illiterate Celtic ultras defiling the poppy, John Reid stoking Celtic's rampant paranoia, the kidnapping of two Rangers players, Dougie-gate, the referees strike, death threats, SFA employees sacked for dodgy e-mails about the Pope, UEFA carpeting Rangers, and 70-year-old Motherwell manager Craig Brown deploying some of Ken Buchanan's finest moves against a hapless Odense official.

Yet 2011 makes 2010's antics look like little more than an appetiser for a main course of bile, hatred and such base stupidity that football fans the world over have been scratching their heads in shock and awe at the Scottish game.

Most of the problems have swirled around the Old Firm. The tenor was set when a Celtic fan was jailed for racially abusing El-Hadji Diouf, and a Rangers fan was fined 500 for sectarian chanting at Pittodrie. Then Rangers fans fell foul of UEFA again in the run-up to a Scottish Cup replay of such unremitting unpleasantness that it is a breach of copyright not to refer to it as "The Shame Game". Celtic beat Rangers in that match at Parkhead, a night that ended with Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon having to be dragged apart, but the only score that mattered was the three sendings-off, 13 yellow cards and 34 arrests in the stadium.

Since then we've careered downhill, with more death threats against Lennon, bullets and explosives sent through the post, gun-toting neds turning up at Celtic's training ground and last week's attack on Lennon at Tynecastle by a Hearts fan in the middle of a game. It almost seems to be after the Lord Mayor's show to mention the fact that the good folk in the rest of Scottish football have also been keen to do their bit to cement the game's bad name. Craig Brown, this time managing Aberdeen, was involved in a WWE clinch with Motherwell chairman John Boyle on his return to Fir Park, while Dundee United striker David Goodwillie was in court on a rape charge, while his teenage team-mate Dale Hilson appeared in court accused of attacking two men in his home town of Stirling. It almost makes Kirk Broadfoot's court appearance for allegedly walloping a businessman pale into insignificance.

The drip-feed of scandal has been so incessant that events which would otherwise have dominated the back pages - Rangers being sold, half the teams in the SPL changing managers, Walter Smith retiring, an investigation into the state of the game, and a debate on the size of the league - have played second fiddle. Closer to home, the plummeting prestige of the SPL is being felt in Scottish football's bottom line. In the aftermath of the Game of Shame, Walter Smith noted that fans were becoming "disillusioned", adding that "nobody is focusing on the fact that crowds are dropping". In a tight title race, Celtic's match at McDiarmid Park and Rangers' two matches at Hamilton and Pittodrie were watched by a total of 20,000 spectators. With Rangers chairman Alastair Johnston recently admitting Rangers could go bust, figures like those are painful for the Old Firm. But for the rest of Scottish football, the decline in attendances is potentially disastrous. "If you tell people that Scottish football is a bad product often enough then they eventually begin to believe it," says Motherwell chief executive Leeann Dempster. "We're one of many clubs whose home attendances this season have suffered. There's no doubt that we've been affected by the economy and television, but we've got to remember that football is a discretionary purchase, and that clubs like us are trying to develop the family market."

Those sentiments are echoed by Clyde manager and pundit Jim Duffy. "It's been an embarrassing, shambolic season to forget," he says. "What's happened this season has turned people off. The aggression around the game means families are more wary about going to football. We thought we'd got to grips with sectarianism, but we got complacent and it's come back to bite us.

"We have to understand that people are no longer prepared to accept the levels of verbal abuse that was normal when I was playing, while at the same time social media and the internet means fans can find other like-minded folk, and feelings get stoked up. Stuff that used to be left behind at the stadium is now with us all week, and the momentum carries on from one game to another. We need to break the cycle by radical action. UEFA are right, until we start regularly fining clubs points this will never go away."

For the former convenor of Holyrood's cross-party sports group, Dennis Canavan, who is involved with Falkirk's community foundation and president of Milton Amateurs, the real scandal is that Scotland is becoming synonymous with sectarianism. The blame, says the former Labour politician, is easily apportioned. "It's all very well to say that sectarianism is a societal problem, but the truth is that football authorities, the legal establishment, police and government all turned a blind eye," says Canavan. "The clubs say they are doing all they can, but I don't accept that.They've got to use more subtle measures, such as photography and sound equipment to identify the culprits, as the Manchester police did when Rangers fans wrecked their city. Loud music should be blasted out to drown out the sectarian chanting, and points should be deducted every time that happens. Clubs also have to accept their role. It was Lord John Reid who was responsible for undermining the respect for referees by insinuating that Celtic always come out worst. By doing so he pandered to the worst elements at Celtic, and he should hang his head.

"Football must face up to its responsibilities because there are now people using these two clubs as the focus for their bad behaviour and it is tarnishing Scotland's image. People around the world must look at us and wonder what is happening - if this was going on in Colombia, we'd all be aghast."

He has a point when he says that the clubs must do more. Celtic, for instance, still apparently insist their fans' songs are not sectarian but "political". This is cant: sectarianism is in the eye of the beholder - Rangers fans feel offended and targeted by songs about the IRA in exactly the same way that Celtic fans feel threatened by The Sash.

It often takes a dispassionate outsider to unmask the error of our ways. While researching his book about the world's great football derbies, author Simon Kuper came to understand the Old Firm dynamic. "Whenever I visit Scotland, everyone is obsessed with asking me whether the Old Firm derby is the most passionate in the world," says Kuper. "But passion is extremely hard to measure: do you define it by the decibel level inside the stadium or by the number of deaths in the aftermath? Hatred is easier to identify and quantify.

"There are still a few genuine bigots, but for the majority of Old Firm fans their chants are just a way or making the game more meaningful and exciting. If you borrow religious language, you are placing the match in a historical perspective and providing a rationale for your hatred. By using religious language, you are heightening the experience and making it more than simply a match, when that's really all it is - a game of football.

"I once believed football was a pressure valve for society's frustrations, but in Glasgow the inequalities that gave rise to those frustrations are no longer there. Nearly half of Scottish Catholics marry non-Catholics, Scottish Catholics have the same economic prospects as Protestants and a very small percentage of people go to church. Football is no longer that pressure valve, it's actually the problem: without the Old Firm there would be no flashpoint. The Old Firm is now the means by which this hatred is perpetuated; religion is simply a pretext."

When Celtic's Green Brigade unfurled a banner at Parkhead in Remembrance Week which read: "No Bloostained (sic) Poppies On Our Shirts!", they loudly proclaimed that "Your deeds will shame all the devils in hell".That should, of course, have read "our deeds", because it is the bigots on both sides who have fed the fires this season with their sectarian one-upmanship. The question now is, just what are we going to do about it?