Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Celtic v Rangers: Drama, But Little Football

Over 90 minutes of football at Celtic Park last night the home side deservedly won a poor Old Firm game.

They dominated possession, scored the only goal and were comfortable enough to restrict Rangers to just one attempt on target.

It was not by any measure a quality game. In fact it was a dire game.

But Celtic continue their treble hunt and have now lost only one of this season's five Old Firm games.

Rangers improved on their last showing at Celtic but were still horribly short of ideas and inspiration.

On other days our story might end right there. The game decided by Mark Wilson's goal with little in the way of incident.

But tonight we saw a bad football game stuck in the middle of a crazy Glasgow night.

Rangers' ten yellow cards produced three red cards. Steven Whittaker might consider himself unfortunate for his first booking but once that card had been meted out he should have the sense not to make a challenge as rash as the one that led to his second yellow.

Madjid Bougherra might well be annoyed by his second yellow card but his first appeared to come after a snidey, sneaky scrape of his studs down Gary Hooper's achilles so his complaints could well bring little sympathy.

At least they were both booked while taking a full part in the game. El Hadji Diouf was an isolated, peripheral figure all night. Except when he was getting involved with Neil Lennon in the first half for his first booking and continuing to show dissent after the final whistle for his second.

Even then the bold Diouf wasn't finished, stripping off his shirt and vest to throw into the Rangers crowd. Why any of them would want souvenirs of his less than heroic performance remains a mystery.

Certainly it's a snarling, ineffectual kind of heroism that does little for me.

Ally McCoist and Lennon, the men who will lead these teams into next season, had a bust up as they shook hands.

Celtic coach Alan Thompson suggested that McCoist said something that caused Lennon to react. If that is the case they should both know better but Lennon in particular should be able to take the slings and arrows of football without it engendering a violent reaction. There is no room for that in the job he is in.

Like Diouf, Lennon should by now have had enough bad experiences to know not to react.

These seemed to me to be the major talking points, fans of both teams and fans of neither will no doubt have picked out their own villains and flashpoints.

Sadly tonight's game followed on from Les Gray, chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, having this to say:

“How do you prevent this violence after the Old Firm? The only effective way to prevent it is to ban matches. They are just not worth the murder and mayhem that accompanies them. Every time we think we’ve got to grips with this issue, it just flares up again – as it did on Sunday.

“If the players are on the park squaring up to each other and being aggressive, I cringe. I know this violence will be replicated later on Scotland’s streets, but then it will be done with bottles and knives. Realistically it will probably never happen but something has got to give.” (Herald)

As he acknowledges, Mr Gray knows there will be no end to this fixture. He was simply illustrating a point.

And tonight's game will have done nothing to allay his fears.

You and I can watch a game of football without going mental afterwards. But we all know there are people who can't.

What should have been 90 minutes of football has this evening fuelled the arguments of those who feel that this is a clash that encourages the very worst in Scottish society.

That, in the coming days, is a question that both clubs and the SFA will be expected to address. For Rangers, already cash strapped, the likelihood of a fine for their ten yellow cards is unlikely to be welcomed.

So what? Who cares? This sometimes happens in football, it's an emotional game, get over it.

To an extent that is true. But these are our two biggest clubs. Their dominance brings privileges and also the burdens of scrutiny and responsibility.

Certain actors in tonight's drama should reflect in the morning that under that scrutiny their behaviour was irresponsible.

For a while at least that will mean the clubs are attacked from outside and find themselves under pressure from both the media and the authorities. Nobody in Scottish football needs that.

Old Firm games will always carry baggage. An intense local rivalry need not be a bad thing. But at times tonight it threatened to descend into mayhem. The main protagonists need to be able to rise above that or pleas for calm to their wider communities will inevitably fall on ever deafer ears.

As a neutral, as a football fan, tonight was a let down.

I even found myself feeling some sympathy for Neil Doncaster. As he tries to sell Scottish football these games are his crown jewels.

Jim White's smug laughter as he reported the half time controversies said everything about why, already saturated with football good, bad and indifferent, Sky want these games.

Their interest is the wider spectacle, the freakshow that sits alongside the game, the blessed moments of controversy they can drool over.

Because they know, we all know, that there are people who tune into Old Firm games to see the very behaviour they were treated to tonight.

But these are modern football clubs who should be aiming for something different, something better.

They failed tonight. Rangers were the more guilty but Celtic were not without blame. The way Rangers set up demands discipline. The best of Celtic demands tempo that constant distractions disrupt. At the most basic tactical level the idiocy that surrounded the game denied both teams of their best.

And, as compelling as all this drama might be, it's not about football and it's not good for Scotland.