By Mike Small
“You cannot justify it. It can’t keep on going.” Les Gray, Scottish Police Federation
Two things are clear. Neil Doncaster’s hopeless league reconstruction project (based on the idea of more not less Old Firm games) is in tatters, exposed as uselessly simplistic. It’s based on the formula: Old Firm bring money, so Old Firm is good. Secondly, from today’s pronouncements Celtic and Rangers are still in deep denial about the level of disdain for the spectacle.
The economic collapse has forced some unusual casualties. Woolies and the RAF went, Trident and Relocation Relocation Relocation didn’t (follow the logic if you can). Could the Old Firm derby be the next institution to be forced out of existence? Decades of bad blood and bigotry have not been enough to motivate politicians or administrators to act. Now simple economics might do what they manifestly failed to.
Yesterday the Scottish Police Federation called for an end to Old Firm “madness” after trouble flared again on Wednesday. Thirty-four arrests were made inside the grounds and hundred more in the streets and communities of Glasgow and west central Scotland after Celtic’s 1-0 victory.
The chief executive of the SFA, Stewart Regan, condemned “irresponsible and inflammatory” behaviour from players and coaching staff and said an investigation had been launched.
Another investigation? The SFA’s Hampden offices must be groaning with such reviews. Every time they open the cupboard they must face a cascade of paperwork. We’ve had thirty years of investigations (more?) but, in the words of Justin Currie, ‘nothing ever happens’.
Last month, a Scottish Premier League match at Celtic Park led to 16 arrests at the ground and more than 200 throughout Strathclyde. The link between domestic violence and these matches has long been documented. The chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, Les Gray, has said simply that police no longer had the budget to deal with match-related unrest. He called for the derby to be played behind closed doors or banned altogether. It raises the real question, could the cuts stop the Old Firm?
Gray was amazingly forthright: “We simply don’t have the money and resources to do this. Everyone involved needs to sit down and look at this. Something has to give. This madness cannot go on.”
So, let’s sit down and look at this then. Sectarianism, which we often treat as if it’s some sort of mystic entity hopelessly complex and impossible to fathom is at the heart of this, yet we entrust its ‘defeat’ to an organisation like Nil By Mouth, who, short of £60,000 may close next month. £60,000? I know, it’s probably the weekly wage packet of the Ibrox back-four.
As revealed in this weekends Observer newspaper Bob Doris MSP and Glasgow Central MP Anas Sarwar echoed calls of Glasgow based freelance journalist Erik Geddes’s proposition. He put it to both clubs that they could help out by asking for a voluntary one-off boost to the organisation to help them out. Their response (which can be summarised as ‘No’ and ‘No’) would suggest that the request should be made in plainer language jointly by Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government. This remains unlikely. Few politicians would risk alienating the Old Firm multitude ahead of a highly balanced election. But the idea makes sense and could be great PR for the clubs.
This would be the first simple measure in efforts to stop the cycle of violence and sectarianism associated with Rangers and Celtic, First save – then fund (much) more seriously the voluntary organisations working in this area. The second obvious move would be for the clubs to seriously address the wide-scale sectarianism tolerated amongst their fan base. Quarterly reports on what exactly they are doing should be made to a civic body of non-aligned non-religious people to assess objectively whether their efforts are credible. It’s hardly surprising that Djiouf should be at the centre of the latest uproar, nobody seems to have batted an eyelid when Rangers chose to sign a player who had spat at Celtic fans before. Third we should demand that the SFA and the SPL publically re-issue their statement on 2007 regarding zero tolerance of sectarian songs.
Stating the obvious, but this need to be enforced. A three strikes and you’re out policy is needed. The first time there is a clear breach of the singing ban or an outbreak of serious violence a points deduction needs to be made, of, say ten points and a significant financial penalty (I suggest £100,000) to be paid to anti-sectarian charities. The second time a breach is made a further points deduction and a second fine should be incurred (I suggest £250,000). On the third occasion the club or clubs should be expelled from the league.
Fourth, there needs to be a serious attempt to change the culture of sectarianism that is fostered by the ‘marching season’. In the interests of civil liberties an outright ban is a non-starter. Instead all marches should be held in a fenced off area of a park. Participants should be allowed to say what they like, drink what they like and be as offensive as they desire. But they should not be allowed to march into communities and intimidate or abuse people. There needs to be a signal sent out, a line in the sand that this is not going to be tolerated. This is it.
Finally, and though it seems trivial it’s absolutely necessary to enable all of this, the media needs to stand up and be counted and stop it’s role as a cosy, fawning cheerleader for these clubs. With a few notable exceptions the print and broadcast media has let the Old Firm off with an easy ride. For example not one news outlet has confronted the reality of Rangers financial crisis. This is taboo.
So, in summary here’s how to solve this problem, and no we don’t need endless summits to do this just go Picard on it and ‘make it so’:
1. Properly, seriously, credibly fund anti-sectarian work and start by making OF players cough-up for Nil by Mouth
2. Make the clubs publicly accountable for addressing the issue amongst their own supporters. This needs to be verified and monitored by some body willing and able to do it.
3. We need to enforce the zero-tolerance policy introduced in 2007 and then abandoned. If the SFA has such a policy they need to be supported to maintain and enforce it.
4. Take bold clear decisive action about the organised bigotry of Loyalist and Orange Lodge marches.
5. We need to hold the sports media to account for their passive acceptance of Old Firm behaviour.
The idea of holding games behind closed doors is just daft. It would likely be used as a one-off ‘punishment’ then quickly abandoned. Or it would morph into a Sunderland-Newcastle -style away fans ban. What we need is to put these clubs under some rule of law. If the SFA and SPL don’t step up to the mark on this they should be abolished or completely re-configured. Kenny MacAskill has said that this is about cheap booze, and no doubt that plays a big part. But this is making it into a political issue to have a go at Labour. Not good enough. Labour have made great play of the SNP stopping the summits on sectarianism that Lord Jack McConnell initiated, making out that this was a sign of the Scottish Government downgrading the seriousness of the issue. But this is making it into a political issue to have a go at the nats. Not good enough. Nor do I want to hear the usual easy trite stuff trundled out about catholic schools. Not good enough. Nor should we play Pin the Tail on the Donkey and try and sort out old feuds by blaming it all on Neil Lennon. Not good enough at all. I hope the SFA desist from that particular cop-out.
The 5 point plan is simple, but I hear objections. First come the green and white hordes arguing that the problem is on the southside of the city not the east and the constant media efforts of bundling them together as the ‘Old Firm’ is a misplaced travesty of ‘balance.’ They are the victims not the perpetrators. This is largely true. As has been pointed out: “78% of the arrests made from the away support, representing 12% of attendees. It’s not an Old Firm problem, a Rangers problem.”
Though both sides on the management benches have some questions to answer about conduct, and the racial abuse of Djiouf was clear to see. However if Celtic Football Club are largely innocent and taking action on the other issues of sectarianism then, what’s the problem? The fact is both clubs are still locked in an obsession about Ireland. This fetishisation of conflict (that’s now largely past) is a miserable prospect. It’ time to move on.
The second objection I hear is the cynics voice, that “We’ve heard it all before”, that the “Politicians have neither the guts nor the guile to stand up to what are powerful corporate and political forces”. This is definitely true. And make no mistake these clubs are big business. It’s part of the problem and one of the reasons why they haven’t been confronted. In a culture that worships businessmen and the business world (think of the sycophancy around David Murray, Donald Trump, Duncan Bannatyne or the masterful (sic) Sir Alan Sugar) who’s going to stand up to these people? How can we explain Wayne Rooney elbowing someone in the face or Ashley Cole shooting someone without censure? These people aren’t immune to the law because they’re footballers, they’re immune to the law because they’re ridiculously rich.
This may all be true, but listen to what the police are saying…
Strathclyde police said Wednesday’s arrests were for a variety of sectarian, racial and breach of the peace offences. Police had warned they would crack down on drink-fuelled violence linked to the match after trouble flared in the wake of the last Old Firm game. On 20 February, more than 229 people were arrested in the force area and in some cases prisoners were said to have been driven 50 miles as police cells filled up.
Gray said: “What happens on the pitch is reproduced throughout Scotland, on the streets, in pubs, in homes. You cannot justify it. It can’t keep on going.”
It’s worth quoting Stewart Regan at length: “The Scottish FA categorically condemns the inflammatory and irresponsible behaviour throughout last night’s Scottish Cup replay between Celtic and Rangers at Celtic Park.
“As chief executive of this organisation I was both saddened and deeply embarrassed to witness the scenes that unfolded during what is supposed to be Scottish football’s flagship fixture: these images were broadcast around the world and shows our game in a poor light. I acknowledge the pressures of expectation on both clubs but last night’s behaviour crossed the boundaries of acceptable conduct at a football match.
“We have already launched an investigation into all incidents that occurred and will do everything in our power to ensure there is no repeat. The events at Celtic Park, however, run deeper than the Scottish FA’s disciplinary procedures. The unedifying sight of two of the country’s most recognisable and respected coaches engaged in an angry confrontation was not only unsavoury but exacerbated an already incendiary atmosphere inside the stadium and throughout the West of Scotland.
“The clubs have a duty of care to ensure that the image and integrity of the game is upheld at all times. This was not adhered to last night. This week, Strathclyde police reiterated their concerns over the heightening violence and public disorder around Old Firm derbies. It is incumbent on Rangers and Celtic to ensure a far more responsible level of behaviour.
“In an age of austerity and financial hardship, football must try harder than ever in this country to restore its image as the national sport, extolling pride and passion. It fails in this regard.”
Strong words but also entirely empty ones. Without action of real consequence and authority all this is meaningless. We don’t need this level of violence in our society. The Old Firm should be made to cough up, shut up or get out.
Views from all football fans are welcome, but also from the many people who don’t follow football but are appalled by the violence surrounding the game.