Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Old Firm: Summit's Up

This is the blog post I wasn't going to write.

The media and the internet has been convulsed by Old Firm hysteria to the point that it's been turning me off Scottish football.

Certainly it's been turning me off blogging about Scottish football, a game entirely distorted by the power of the big two.

But here I am writing it anyway.

Writing it as a neutral. A neutral who didn't enjoy the scenes at Celtic Park and has been ever more dismayed by the fallout from that game.

Writing, also, about the Old Firm as a single entity. I know that annoys people.

But it is how they are viewed from the outside, it's how they are marketed by the SPL and it is how they draw much of their immense power in the Scottish game.

That is not to say that I apportion blame for recent events equally.

Just that the clubs should work together to acknowledge certain problems and to help find solutions. Problems which, most certainly, can't be blamed entirely on the clubs themselves.

It wisnae me


And so the Old Firm summit hastily convened by Alex Salmond resulted in that woolly outcome of many a hastily convened summit, a point by point plan:

  • The creation of a stand-alone pan-Scotland police football intelligence unit as part of the ongoing review of police forces in Scotland
  • Greater enforcement of existing legislation to deal with sectarianism and drink related offences
  • The establishment of a task force comprising senior police officers, government representatives and club security personnel to deliver more consistency in policing of football matches across Scotland
  • A detailed academic study into the extent of the linkage of football to violent crime committed domestically and in the community
  • Celtic and Rangers will commit to playing an enhanced role in a partnership approach to encourage responsible drinking
  • A re-enforced code of conduct for players and officials

Accepting their summit summons, all involved turned up and signed up.

Not, perhaps, without reservations.

The SPL's Neil Doncaster couldn't have appeared more akward at the merest hint that the authorities could impose a blanket ban on weekend SPL games. The face of a man being told he could keep his goose but that the golden eggs would be confiscated.

Peter Lawell of Celtic and Martin Bain of Rangers acquiesced but couldn't quite shake the impression of schoolboys summoned to the headmaster's office while remaining adamant that it "wisnae me."

And they do have a point.

The Old Firm game last Wednesday night was hardly the start of the issues discussed yesterday.

And nor is football in general, the Old Firm in particular, to blame for many of the ills that still curse modern Scotland.

Issues that surround this game, and the wider sport, are caused by all manner of problems that blight Scotland and often seem most focused in the west.

And yet.

I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the game that their dominance brings Celtic and Rangers both privileges and responsibilities.

In a season that has seen the refereeing farrago, in a week that saw the Scottish Police Federation's Les Gray make quite a widespread attack on the issues that surround game, there was a responsibility for last Wednesday's game to be conducted better than it was.

Just because the clubs are not to blame for society's ills does not mean they can stand clear of accusations that they let that scarred and often broken society down with their conduct.

It does not mean they can quite happily do whatever they want in a vacuum, removed from real life.

They are part of society, they have a responsibility to society.

I've been interested in Scottish football all my life. I have friends who support both sides of the Old Firm.

But still I've been wearied this week by the internet reaction in the aftermath of the game.

Each new accusation against this player or that official or those fans has been met with glee by fans of the other team.

"We're better than you." "No, we're not as bad as you."

It's been apparently without end and it's been incredibly tiring.

For my part, I feel it's possible to say that Rangers have a more serious problem with sectarianism than Celtic without ignoring issues that Celtic still have in their own support.

I feel it's possible to argue that Neil Lennon's behaviour has been questionable at times this season while still feeling absolute disgust at the threats he has been subjected to, the internet lunatics who abuse him.

I feel it's still possible to follow events in the Scottish media without seeing bias in every comma, prejudice in every full stop.

I feel it's possible to have watched last Wednesday's night's game and been depressed by the spectacle without feeling emasculated or the need "to grow a pair."

I feel it's possible to acknowledge that Old Firm games like that increase interest in the Scottish game while arguing that "the football's shite, but there might be a rammy" is not a sustainable marketing campaign for the SPL.

I feel it's possible to support a football team without embroiling yourself in a battle of good versus evil and engaging in cyber-McCarthyism to prove your point.

Because the summit yesterday was dealing with more nuanced issues than this constant, self perpetuating cycle of mud slinging allows.

Lawwell and Bain have to rise above that. They are right that there are burdens of responsibility that every member of Scottish society must share.

But Celtic and Rangers can still be a part of the solution, a powerful part. I got the impression yesterday that for all they signed up to the plan they were still too keen, like those supporters with their accusations and counter-accusations, to shift blame.

"It wisnae me. And anyway they started it."

Aye, society is to blame. But that same society gives Rangers and Celtic massive power.

They could use it better.

Salmond's Summit


I am, incidentally, no great fan of Alex Salmond. In fact his undoubtedly deserved pre-eminence among Scotland's politicians is often depressing to me.

But yesterday his hand was somewhat forced by the police asking for him to intervene. Had he done nothing he would have been accused over his lack of activity. The minute he called the summit he was open to accusations of political posturing.

I'm sure he would rather not have touched this with Iain Gray's bargepole. I can't see how it's a vote winner as it was always likely to be derided by one or both sets of Old Firm supporters. Fans of other clubs seem so sickened by the whole rigmarole surrounding these games that nothing Salmond could do would be enough.

If that is his judgement then it might explain his inactivity up until now. I agree with the six points, even if I find them a bit blurry on actual details, but I fail to see why Salmond, his predecessors, the football authorities or the clubs themselves haven't taken these steps before now.

That seems to me a failure of leadership from a number of organisations.

A week on from the game we're still in a situation where the Old Firm is the subject of UK wide phone ins, providing a national stage for the unreconstructed fan to humiliate the game.

It would be nice if that didn't happen again. But that needs people to stand up and be counted over the long term and to look deeper into Scotland's problems.

I'll not hold my breath.