Thursday, March 24, 2011

Graham Spiers, Rangers And Sectarianism

Right, what have I missed?

I've taken the opportunity to have a couple of days away from the blog and enjoy a round of golf or three at La Manga.

No, not really. That's the Scotland players. I've mainly been asleep in Scotland.

What have I missed?

The League Cup final for starters. An impressive enough display from Rangers, to the delight of an emotional Walter Smith, captured the first of the season's trophies.

An oddly flaccid performance from Celtic, unexpected from the team that have dominated these fixtures in 2011 and were staring at the first leg of a treble.

I'm not sure what conclusions, if any, we can draw from Hampden on Sunday as the remainder of the season looms.

A lesson, certainly, for Celtic that they must guard against complacency. And proof that Rangers are not yet the busted flush that some suspected they were. Never, as I seem to be saying every week, write Rangers off.

An interesting run-in ahead.

The final led, to borrow a phrase he once used himself, to another bad week for Graham Spiers and the whole sorry search for ecumenicalism.

On Tuesday Spiers used his column in The Times to attack "large sections of the Rangers support" over their choice of songs and chants. More than that he criticised the club, the footballing authorities and the Scottish Government for their acceptance of what he deems sectarian behaviour.

What he said was nothing new. You'll hear the same accusations from fans of other teams week in, week out. I certainly heard it during consultations for the neutered government inquiry into sectarianism in Scottish football.

There was an idea that Spiers was breaking a media omerta on the subject. That might be right.

Fitba' hackery should not be confused with investigative reporting. Jim Traynor is not John Pilger and wouldn't claim to be.

More than that we, the fans who consume the media, have displayed an inexhaustible appetite for a type of reporting that demands access to clubs, players and officials. To guarantee that access the boat must not be rocked.

Silence reigns. A glorious victory for the fourth estate? Hardly, but maybe we get the media we deserve.

Then of course there is the lunatic element. Spiers attracted his fair share of that this week.

He's big enough to defend himself.

But to a few of the points raised to attack there are simple answers.

  • "He's a Celtic fan" - if you're not for us, you're against us. Unless he's undergone a Damascene conversion this is, I suspect, bollocks.
  • "They're as bad us but he won't mention them" - he's on record, within the last few weeks, of saying in print that Celtic have issues in their own support but that he does not think it's as large a problem as Rangers have. This is the schoolboy response. The teacher's answer might be "two wrongs don't make a right."
  • "He was just using the issue to get folk to buy his paper/register on the website" - stone the crows, journalist in attempt to get people to buy his paper shocker.

Like I say, just a few examples. And mild ones at that.

But examples that shed some light on this issue. And perhaps point to one of the reasons why other people prefer to keep their counsel.

Because it seems reasoned debate leaves these shores as the ranks close around the club.

Rangers supporters are, of course, not alone in that reaction to criticism. But it does make it difficult to find a starting point to discuss the concerns Spiers raised.

Where are we?

We are where we always are. Without simple answers.

Sectarianism in Scotland does not begin and end at the entrances to Ibrox. Nor should every Rangers fan be accused. They are not all guilty and I know of many who disassociate themselves with the unreconstructed sections of their support.

A story I heard at school concerned a footballer with a lower division team who had taught his budgie to say "f*ck the pope." Possibly apocryphal. But people who knew him were prepared to believe it. This was on the east coast.

This is not just Rangers' problem, not just Glasgow's problem. And Rangers can't be held responsible for the way someone like that chooses to pass on his opinions to his children.

But it does exist within Ibrox and that problem is not being dealt as actively as it could be.

Rangers have an issue in this area, how big or how small will depend on your own opinion, and it is not enough for them to say it is purely a societal issue that the club are the unwitting victims of.

Because, by putting their own house in order, they can send a big, big message to that society. The same society that they are a major part of and draw their support and income from.

Other clubs have problems and I would never argue that they don't. But Rangers are a massive club so the spotlight hits them harder. They get a lot of benefit from that and those benefits bring a responsibility to act and be seen to act.

The "ninety minute bigot" argument exists and perhaps has some depth to it.

But it's wrong headed to use it as an excuse.

"Ninety minute homophobes."

"Ninety minute racists."

"Ninety minute chanters of songs about the disasters at Munich/Ibrox/Hillsborough or the death of Wallace Mercer."

Are any of these things made acceptable because football's involved?

I think not. And they become less so as football positions itself front and centre of our culture.

Substitute the words of certain songs in the repertoire with other words and there would be outrage if they were sung. What relevance anybody's blood, anybody's religion or anybody's ethnicity or sexuality has in modern football is beyond my ken.

Is this an argument for football undergoing cosmetic surgery and being left a sterile, passionless sport?

No. Surely your passion can be better displayed without mindless vitriol. I know others disagree and say that such displays are part and parcel of football's heritage and football's enduring appeal.

As I say, no simple answers.

Credit to Graham Spiers for doing his job as a journalist, identifying what he sees as a wrong and speaking out about it.

I'm sure he could live without the hassle and I don't think he'll get very far. But at least he's made his point.

In the meantime, Scottish football goes on. But denial, silence and tit-for-tat bickering over these issues is making an anemic sport ever more unhealthy.