Steven Pressley reveals bigotry led former friends to give him cold shoulder

Steven Pressley recently urged the fans at Falkirk to give him some respect as he sought to get his side's promotion bid back on the tracks and so is sensitive to the issue of anti-social behaviour in Scottish football.

A screening of a new educational film tackling sectarianism in Scotland at his club's stadium yesterday was an apt time to get the manager's views on a topical issue, and once which impacted on his own life as one of the few players to have turned out for both Rangers and Celtic.

The event, organised by Show Racism the Red Card, aimed to convince schoolchildren, from Braes High School, to show bigotry of all forms the red card. "Football's about rivalry, but we shouldn't be enemies," pointed out Gary Mackay, the former Hearts midfielder and enthusiastic backer of Show Racism the Red Card's objectives.

Pressley has been troubled by enemies in his own camp at times this season as Falkirk struggled to keep pace with Dunfermline and Raith Rovers at the top of the First Division. But at least this has been passion stoked by footballing issues and opinion. Pressley yesterday reflected on how the mere act of signing for Celtic served to alienate some people to whom he had previously been close.

"Here's how bigotry has affected me," he said. "When I signed for Celtic, I never heard from certain people again. I'm talking about friendships, acquaintances that I had picked up throughout my career. Not people employed by clubs but people who were associated with certain clubs and people who would send me Christmas cards every year. When I signed for Celtic, they didn't want to know. We were never in touch again. I'm only talking about a handful of people but it's still very sad that bigotry or sectarianism can come between friends and associations like that.

"They were not my real friends, more like associates," he added. "I have a lot of close friends from growing up in Dalgety Bay in Fife and these are who I class as real friends. But that was what brought home how powerful a force bigotry can be."

Pressley first encountered sectarianism when signing for Rangers as a youngster. Although born in the Highlands, he was brought up in Fife and, he said, was blissfully unaware of what has now become known as Scotland's shame.

"It was only when I signed S-Form for Rangers that I first came across it," he said. "It was at supporters' dances where it manifested itself. When you are 17 years old or 18 years old you are not wise and aware of the consequences of those songs and what is behind them in the real world. It was back at the time when Maurice Johnston had signed and there were people turning their back on Rangers due to that. It was deep-rooted stuff and it's frightening looking back on it."

Pressley was given a reminder of how the problem remains ingrained in society when Gordon Strachan signed him for Celtic, after the player's successful period with Hearts had turned sour after a fall-out with majority shareholder Vladimir Romanov. Old acquaintances turned their back on him and Pressley put it down to no other reason than age-old prejudice. He described his time at the club itself as overwhelmingly positive. "They (Celtic] embraced me with open arms," he recalled. "I had a fabulous two years at the club. I think I experienced more (sectarianism] at Rangers because of my age and having to attend the supporters' dances. I was older at Celtic and didn't go to the supporters' dances and I also lived in Edinburgh.

"But when I was first at Celtic I lived in Cumbernauld and my son Aaron was at primary school and it was a mixed school. The children all played together but they were schooled separately, Catholic and Protestant. I wanted Aaron to grow up treating everyone like an individual so that's why I moved back east."

Pressley's contention that it "isn't football's problem, but it needs everyone in football to pull together to stamp it out" is echoed by Mackay, who stressed that no club can afford to be complacent. A boyhood fan of Hearts and record appearance holder at the Tynecastle club, he has to acknowledge the problem is not one which is exclusive to Rangers and Celtic, and did so yesterday when one pupil asked whether he had encountered sectarianism in his club career.

"(Hearts chairman] Wallace Mercer came out with a comment - I think it was in the late Eighties or early Nineties - after he was asked for a view (on sectarianism], and he said there was no discrimination at Hearts, 'that's why our captain is a Roman Catholic'.

"But then on the Saturday there was one or two ignorant responses from the touchline when he (Walter Kidd] got the ball."

Although this was at least 20 years ago Mackay conceded that there is evidence that the problem still exists, even on the east coast. "You don't want to be dragged down as a football club into something which does not have anything to do with what is happening on the pitch," he said, as thoughts begin to turn to a clash between Hearts and Celtic on 11 May, one which promises to be explosive for a whole range of reasons.

Mackay expressed the hope that Rangers supporters can be persuaded to stop sectarian singing without the need for Uefa to close Ibrox. Although he claimed never to have experienced a completely empty stadium he did bring some levity to the serious business of yesterday by then correcting himself: "Well, except for during the period when I was manager at Airdrie."