This has not been a good week for Scottish football nor indeed Scottish society. The ignorance and bigotry which scars the footballing rivalry of the country’s two biggest football clubs has dragged the game through the gutter again. Steve Clarke, the manager of Kilmarnock, was subjected to sectarian abuse at Ibrox during his side’s Scottish Cup tie and said during a somewhat emotional press conference after the match…
“When I was approached by Rangers about taking over the job here I was assured that ‘we don’t have that in the west of Scotland any more. It’s gone. They can call me a bastard or a wanker. No problem, thanks, guys. But to call me a Fenian bastard, come on. Where are we living in, the Dark Ages? They are not allowed to call my assistant a black bastard but they can call me a Fenian bastard. What are we doing in Scotland? I wake up every morning and thank Chelsea for coming and taking me away from the west of Scotland because my children don’t understand this. Thankfully when I go down there my children, my grandchildren don’t have to worry about this.”
Clarke has been refreshingly honest and direct since returning to Scotland and has had the balls to hold a mirror up to the unacceptable face of Scottish football and ask us what we see. The events at Ibrox may have been depressingly predictable but nonetheless we owe Clarke a debt of gratitude for saying; hold on, what are we doing here? Is this being accepted as normal in 2019? It is deplorable that Keith Downie of Sky Sports reported his statement as an ‘astonishing rant,’ when in reality it was a brave man calling out bigotry.
Reaction to events at Ibrox also came in depressingly predictable form as a storm of ‘whataboutery’ on social media drowned out the voices calling for change. It was, according to some, the fault of everyone from the SFA to the police and of course the denominational school system. In reality it is the personal responsibility of every single adult who engages in bigoted chanting. Every large football club has its share of fools and knaves following it and the club I hold dear is no different. There is no moral high ground from which to pour scorn on the bigots at Ibrox when some in the Celtic support behaved in a similar manner towards Kris Boyd at Rugby Park. I know this makes for uncomfortable reading to the vast majority of decent Celtic supporters who don’t engage in such chants but it has to be said, it was and remains hypocritical to engage in the very thing you claim to despise in others. There are very real issues about historical and current prejudice Catholics have had to deal with in Scotland but the moronic minority among the Celtic support give a cheap and easy get out of jail card to those in the media who like to say it’s both sides of the coin; both as bad as each other and thus avoid tackling head on the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice which still lingers in the dark corners of our society.
Catholic Schools, as usual, were held up by some as the reason for prejudice in Scottish society despite no evidence whatsoever that this is the case. Anti-Catholic prejudice in Scotland is centuries old and existed long before Catholic schools did. I did my final thesis at University many years ago on the subject of denominational schools in Scotland and interviewed people as wide ranging as Cardinal Winning and Jack Ramsay the then Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland. My historical research explored incidents such as the Gordon riots of 1780 when Parliament sought to reduce the level of official prejudice against Catholics set out in the Penal laws. This led to serious rioting by anti-Catholic mobs in London which soon spread to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Such was the fury of the mobs seeking to halt the lessening of Penal laws against Catholics that one historian spoke of events in Edinburgh with the following words…
‘From Bishop George Hay we have eyewitness accounts of the disturbances in Edinburgh in early February 1779, written a week later. He begins by saying that Roman Catholics had been forced to stay indoors as their appearance in the streets of Edinburgh would be met with calls of ‘Here is a papist, there is a papist, knock him down, shoot him. The mob soon returned to Bishop Hay’s new property in Trunk’s Close. They attacked the outer door with stones and hammers. They forced the doors and in a moment the house was full of rioters. Using stones and hatchets, they began breaking all the doors, cupboards and drawers. By now a huge crowd had surrounded the house and all its approaches. The cry went up to set fire to it immediately. Straw, tar barrels and other combustible materials were placed in all parts of the house. Before 10 o’clock that night, the whole house and most of the furniture, which belonged to the five families that lived there, was reduced to ashes. The mob expressed their delight with shouts of glee—their only regret being that they did not have one of the priests to throw into the flames.’
All of this was going on in Edinburgh long before Catholic school existed in any real form in Scotland. One historian noted that in 1790 there were just 39 recorded Catholics in Glasgow while simultaneously there were 43 anti-Catholic societies! The Orange Institution was introduced to Scotland by soldiers returning from fighting in the 1798 Irish Rebellion and found a fertile soil in which to grow. It is long past its peak but still offers a focal point for bigots despite their protestations to the contrary. I could continue in this vein but the point was to demonstrate that historically and indisputably anti-Catholic prejudice in Scotland far outdates Catholic Schools. Indeed in post reformation Scotland barely 1% of the population held onto the old faith and that was only changed by the arrival of thousands of Irish migrants in the years after An Gorta Mor.
It is also a matter of historical record that the success of the new ‘Irish’ club Celtic in late Victorian times led many in Scotland to lament which Scottish club would put the ‘Irishmen’ in their place. Celtic’s strong links to Ireland and Catholicism touched a raw nerve for some in Scottish society and the club suffered prejudice from the start. Indeed their inspiration Hibernian FC, were denied entry to the Scottish game initially on the grounds that they weren’t a ‘Scottish club but an Irish one.’ As it transpired Rangers grew to be the main challengers to Celtic and around them gathered many decent supporters but also many who saw the club as a bastion of Protestantism and Unionism. Thus was born one of sport’s most eager and bitterly contested rivalries. Celtic had from earliest times played a mixed team but in the years after World War One Rangers avoided signing Catholic players. This situation continued until 1989 when Mo Johnstone joined Rangers in the Souness era. Scottish society and indeed the League and SFA should have had the moral courage to challenge Rangers on this blatant bigotry but instead they ignored it and in doing so gave it tacit approval. In discriminating in this manner, Rangers were mirroring what went on in other spheres of Scottish life at the time but it soon became a millstone around their necks as once the club attracted the more strident bigots to their support, it became impossible to get rid of them when more liberal days dawned.
The Church of Scotland debated the expulsion of Irish Catholics from Scotland in the 1920s and by the 1930s serious rioting occurred in Edinburgh when a Catholic Eucharistic Conference was being held in the city. Priests were assaulted and Catholic churches vandalised before the Provost sent in the Police to break a few heads and make arrests. He said at the time…
‘The sectarian spirit is a heady thing and some people seem to have lost their moral and mental balance over this subject. Every honest minded British citizen deplores Jew baiting in Nazi Germany, we want no baiting of Roman Catholics here. There is enough ill will in the world, even in our own country, without adding the fires of religious fanaticism to it.’
Nothing occurs in a vacuum and the situation we find ourselves in today is simply the next phase of a deep rooted problem that is, despite all the chatter, receding with every passing year. Many of those posturing and chanting at football matches are not particularly religious rather they are engaging in tribalism and empty gestures. A more dangerous minority does exist though and the sort of virulent hatred they have been taught needs to be rooted out. Education is part of the answer but when this fails the full force of the law should be brought to bear on those who go too far. Some zealots may be beyond redemption but the new generation must be taught a better way.
It is the task of everyone involved in Scottish football to help educate those who behave poorly at football matches to see that they not only damage the game but also the reputation of the clubs they claim to love. I accept that everyone has the right to believe in whatever political or religious ideology they want but there should be no scope for the expression of hatred or bigotry in a public arena like a football stadium. If it does rear its ugly head then the sporting and governmental authorities have a duty to act. For far too long we have accepted behaviour in football grounds which would be considered out of order anywhere else. I’m all for rivalry and passion at football but I’m also for leaving the politics, prejudice and other baggage at the door. We can be so much better than this. It’s up to the decent fans at all clubs to speak up and tell the bigots and racists that they belong in the dustbin of history.
Steve Clarke held up a mirror to the face of Scottish football and it wasn’t a pretty sight. We can wring our hands and then when things die down allow it all to go on as before or we can try to be an influence for change in our society and tell the bigots their time is up.
It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.