Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Old Firm Red Card

The Scottish government is today holding a 'summit' to discuss a football match. Don't let the pious posturing of the politicians fool you: this is a pointless exercise intended to satisfy the demands of an upcoming election which will achieve nothing.

The match in question saw three red cards, some unpleasant snarling between the management teams, some bizarre behaviour by an on-loan Rangers striker, which might have earned him a  red card earlier in the match, several wild tackles, a solitary goal, and it culminated in 34 arrests among the crowd of 60,000 plus. As such it was a stormy, unpleasant Old Firm encounter, but why has it taken on such media and political significance?

I only ask because we've been here before. There have been bad tempered games between these clubs going back decades. Players have been sent off before. And I'm pretty sure there have been matches which have seen more arrests, more violence.

There are a number of reasons why this Old Firm match is being subject to a special summit between club officials, police and politicians, called today by our First Minister, Alex Salmond. Sheer bloody minded populism, for one, with an election coming up Salmond is intent on grabbing as much air time as possible. Furthermore, the police were already truncheon rattling over this fixture in the days leading up to it. Scottish Police Federation chairman Les Gray got blanket coverage for seeming calling for the games to be banned outright - or was it to be played behind closed doors? It actually wasn't clear what Les was saying, but it was obvious he wasn't happy and that was good enough for the morning radio news programmes. After the match he 'clarified' his position to say he was in favour of the matches going untelevised. The sort of solution Hosni Mubarak might have understood.

After the match, every politician of every colour, police chief constable and even the Scottish kirk, waded in to pile pressure on the clubs to "get their houses in order". Events at the match were "shameful", they said, behaving as if competitive sportsmen had never acted in this way before. When Alex Salmond spoke about the negative impact the game would have on Scotland's image abroad you began to suspect that our GDP was reliant on those 22 men on the pitch. But what is really shameful is that after an Old Firm match reports of domestic abuse go up in Scotland by something like 75 per cent.

Is it the player's responsibility that a man has drunk six cans of lager watching a football match and takes out his team's failings on his wife or child? Are the Old Firm obliged to win/draw/play soporific football in order to lull this man into some sort of sleep? Should Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist be required to read this man a bed time story too?

My point is this, football is a huge cultural focus in this country. Many Scots care about little else. The fact that supporting the Old Firm is tied in with religious and ethnic identity only makes the brew stronger. What's more, and some pundits have said this, the Old Firm are the only clubs in Scotland who have a realistic chance of winning anything. The margins between them are small, too. Celtic might win the treble this year, they are good enough. But until last week, Rangers were also capable of winning every trophy and just might have done.

That match was the fifth time they'd played each other this season. And they still have a league match and a cup final to go. This is unusual, but it has fallen this way by chance. As the two big beasts of Scottish football their meeting each other is going to be crucial. This year, with the other clubs comparatively weak, they are more crucial than ever. So of course the players are going to be pumped up. Their careers, success and bonuses are on the line.

What I loathe about the reaction to the match is the Scottishness of wanting to throw a veil over it. This is the same mentality that gave the US prohibition. Instead of demanding we all grow up, they actually want to infantilise the nation. Old Firm matches cause crime, so let's ban the Old Firm.

But domestic abuse happens well away from the grounds, the fans who attend these matches have a choice: they can shout, which is fine, or they can hit someone with a bottle, which is not fine. Those that do the latter deserve all they get. But they that in Buchanan Street at closing time almost as often as after a football match.

The thought of which brings me to the stats. They tell us that a Saturday Old Firm match will result in 225 or so arrests in Glasgow. What they often fail to mention is that a normal Saturday night will result in 180 or so. I'm not statistician, but is the difference all that great, considering the significance of the event and the large numbers of people it attracts to the grounds and to the pubs?

Because that is the issue: the drinking. Not the football. As long as we call it football, and indeed, as long as we call it sectarianism, we are not actually doing anything about it. But strangely enough, I don't hear the police calling for a ban on pubs? When the chairman of the company which makes Tennents Lager comes out and says sorry, then we might be getting somewhere.

In one sense I would love it if the match was banned. Or rather, I would love it if they allowed the clubs to leave Scotland. The league doesn't work anyway, the clubs are too imbalanced, and Celtic and Rangers would flourish in a British league. In such a context the clubs would only have to play each other twice a year, leaving us with half the problem.


  1. I don't think you can justify this behaviour just because it's happened before. I do think it projects a bad image of Scotland and that must have a bearing on for example tourism and the decision whether to allocate big events (eg Commonwealth Games) or job contracts. My father would never dream of holidaying in Ireland because of the troubles there- not a safety thing but rather a distaste for anywhere where people behave badly. I know many people who do look pejoratively on these instances and sneer at us living north of the Border. It's bad enough the players misbehaving but it is worse when the management get ugly too. Make The Old Firm pay for the policing and fine them for the aftermath and they'll soon come up with a solution. Maybe it is political bandwagonning but I do think bigger questions need raised about our society and its tolerance of sectarianism, heavy drinking, bigotry and domestic abuse. Like it or not these two clubs are at the centre of these fixtures and the ensuing bad behaviour and if they can't help improve matters maybe they should be banned. They did that with the Home Nations matches so why not these?

  2. No I wouldn't condone the behaviour, but I would want them to see it in context. And the image issue is overblown: to respond to your point about Northern Ireland, it was in a state of war. The example has been cited a couple of times about a match in Brazil the same week as the Old Firm which resulted in all 22 players and all the subs being shown a red card. Now that is bad behaviour.

    And yes, I do think Salmond is guilty of political grandstanding. I don't think he knows how to do anything else.