The missing stories and, for some, the pain of growing up
By Gerry Hassan
Last Saturday the Scottish football season opened in earnest with the first weekend programme of the new Scottish Premiership.
There has been little excitement amongst fans, followers and media, despite the final reincorporation of the league authorities into one body, the Scottish Professional Football League, and the ending of football as a closed shop with the agreement of play-offs in and out of the lower league. But it all seems to most people the status quo by another name, aided by the continuation of the discredited Neil Doncaster-Stewart Regan MBA culture at the top of the game.
In all the words and talk expended, the psychologies of Scottish football are both fascinating and deeply entrenched, yet seldom explored. In this essay, I want to examine two dimensions: the historical dominance of Celtic and Rangers historically, and the recent implosion of Rangers.
Scottish football has, since its inception, been shaped by the triumphs and tribulations of Celtic and Rangers. In the last 20 seasons, a mere eight other clubs have won a total of 12 trophies out of a potential 60. Yet, Scottish football hasn’t always been as lopsided as this. In post-war times, there were two very different periods and experiences, 1946-65 before the Stein era at Celtic, and the first decade of the Scottish Premier Division. These were highly competitive eras with a powerful Hearts and Hibs in the first, and Aberdeen and Dundee United in the second. Sadly, the Scottish Premier League has since the advent of the UEFA Champions League, been the joint most uncompetitive league in Europe, alongside Ukraine.
The Scots’ crisis of football confidence
Football managers outside the Old Firm know this and address it in a very certain way. The mindset and attitude of managers the length and breadth of the land is the following: ‘we at Motherwell, Aberdeen, Dundee United or St Johnstone, can win the odd game against Celtic (or previously, and Rangers), but we can’t compete over the course of a season in the league’. This is followed as an unquestioning mantra to the point of a collective groupthink by managers, players, those connected to clubs, and football observers and commentators.
The first rule of sport, as an activity and profession, is the issue of motivation and self-belief. The notion of believing you can be best, that you can win. And what is never addressed in Scotland are the consequences and costs of the above collectivism, pessimism and defeatism.
What are the implications of managers, coaches, assistants and players, saying all of the time, we cannot win, we cannot be the best? What does it do to new signings or players breaking through into a first team, who briefly might believe that anything is possible? And what does it do to the dreams and hopes of fans?
Even more damningly, this pessimism and collective conformity, hasn’t always been so. Did the Hibs ‘Famous Five’ settle for being second best when they caused a sensation in 1950s Scotland? And did Alex Ferguson and Jim McLean when they not only toppled the Old Firm but together became a potent force in Europe?
The power of optimism as a force in Scottish football, post-Ally MacLeod, has for many had to be qualified and conditional, but this has been done too often and the consequences become too damaging for our game. Change can happen and has happened in our game; it has happened in the past, and will happen again in the future, but it needs people who are impatient and prepared to take on the existing order.
Glasgow Rangers and the great crash of Scottish football
Speaking of damage to the national game brings us to the Rangers saga, itself the subject of a new book, ‘Follow We Will: The Fall and Rise of Rangers’ by a group of fans and writers associated with the blog ‘Rangers Standard’. This is a revealing book, intelligent and well-written in places, which nearly comprehensively and completely focuses on the people who the authors think sought to do harm to Rangers and who they believe reveled in Rangers’ downfall. The criterion for this seems to be anyone (this author included) who asked awkward questions beyond the Rangers tradition of permissible subjects.
What is not addressed in any depth or convincing manner are any of the thorny and central questions of the whole saga. First, who brought Rangers Football Club to the sad state of administration and then liquidation? This critical area is given a couple of pages in the opening chapter, and then subsequently ignored. Second, why did the culture of Rangers, as an institution and its supporters, not explore and expose the freewheeling and free-spending years of David Murray? The answer is in part because they wanted to enjoy them and believe the hype.
Third, why was it somehow wrong for Rangers having gone into liquidation and then launched as a newco to be put into the Third Division? Why will Rangers fans not concede that in the mayhem of the summer of 2012, and Neil Doncaster’s attempted stitch-ups to put the ‘new’ Rangers first into the SPL, then Division One, it was a significant accommodation and acknowledgement of Rangers special case to let them back into the Third Division immediately? Rangers, at this point, were a club with no formal, legal history, by which I mean things that matter in football governance, such as three years of audited accounts. I think the authorities eventually, aided by fan power, came to the right compromise.
Fourth, where in this account are the challenges to the unattractive, unacceptable face of the Rangers tradition? Where is the exploration of the sectarian elements of a sizeable part of the Rangers support: the ‘F*** the Pope’ brigade and the ‘Billy Boys’ chanting?
Fifth, where is the condemnation of the tax avoidance culture and schemes of the Murray years such as the industrial use of EBTs which the SFA found against? If there is a saddest part in this whole episode, one of them is working people, and intelligent working people because of their football allegiances, excuse and validate tax avoidance practices which ultimately hurt them and all of us.
Football shouldn’t be an ethical free zone business-wise, and what has happened at Rangers, along with Hearts and Dunfermline, is related to fundamental issues of ownership and the power of finance capital. Football fans should be able across their differences to forge some common ground and empathy in this.
But I think the most serious delusion is something more profound and fundamental than the above. This is the absence of any examination of the culture of male violence and domestic abuse which, according to Strathclyde Police in the Sunday Herald, is associated with Rangers and Celtic, and in particular Old Firm games.
Some things are more important than football
Before I get accused and labelled by the Rangers deniers as being a Rangers hater, two things are important to stress because the issues we are dealing with are bigger than Rangers and not exclusively about one club. First, not only Rangers but Celtic have some explaining to do in the warped culture of part of Scottish football. And less there is any doubt: there is a powerful, potent, articulate part of the Celtic support who are as self-deluding and myopic as Rangers fans at their worst.
Earlier this year when it became apparent to Strathclyde Police that the domestic violence and rape figures in Glasgow had fallen over the season and that they felt that a huge contributory factor in this was the absence of Old Firm games, I said this to a couple of my friends who are Celtic supporters. These are middle-class, middle-aged, educated, professional men. And what was their response? Dismissiveness, contemptuousness and an air of self-congratulation. I asked some other Celtic fans who I know and trust, and they said such an approach, of Celtic insufferability, is endemic amongst large elements of their support.
I take from this that we have a problem with both Rangers and Celtic and that if Scottish society is to mature and progress, fans of both clubs have some explaining to do. It is possible to be a good fan of either club but it is challenging to say the least.
Second, there is something in Rangers culture which was evident in the Rangers disaster and can be seen in ‘Follow We Will’ which has to be calmly understood. Clearly this club matters to a lot of people; and they feel hurt that large parts of Scotland don’t seem to understand or respect this.
Yet, what are the culture values and practices which make intelligent Rangers fans not challenge their own authorities as they led them to last year’s implosion? To this day, post-Murray, part of this culture feels more antagonism towards Channel 4’s Alex Thomson, one of the heroes of the media in all of this, or Graham Spiers, rather than the men who ran their club into the ground.
Scottish football is a huge part of our society, sometimes it seems too much, sometimes a claustrophobic replacement for more serious and important subjects. But 20 years after ‘Fever Pitch’ where are the thoughtful, nuanced accounts of our game? Why, over a year after the Rangers implosion, is the only book on the controversy the uber-partisan ‘Downfall’ by Phil Mac Giolla Bhain? The subject demands serious, considered, in-depth study which goes beyond the boundaries of football.
We need accounts which not only make us feel good about our own tribal affiliations, but reflect on the place of the game in society. On its importance and over-importance to many men, to connections to our fathers and sons, and the changing nature of gender, class and ethnicity. And which explore the role of fans, supporter power, ownership, and the restricted competition which the Scottish game has provided in recent decades.
Those stories, those big Scottish stories of football’s relation to our society, are yet to be written. These are about making sense of Rangers and Celtic, and the dynamic of the Old Firm, a term which the late great Bob Crampsey used to beautifully describe as not just a cartel but a wider closing of options in Scotland in which fans of the two clubs lost as well. But it is about something a lot bigger and more important. Football needs to be put into the context of how Scotland has changed as a society, culture and set of communities. That is, in my mind, one of the many missing stories of modern Scotland. We still it seems, in places, have some growing up to do.