“Choosing a football team as a kid is a once in a lifetime call…”
... You’re stuck with them. You belong to that tribe and what they stand for - for life. Welcome to the : you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.
That’s certainly how it is for me. Hi-bees till I die. So why is it so hard to understand the behaviour of Rangers fans in Glasgow’s George Square in May this year? (Note that I choose the word ‘understand’: to empathise with; to be able to put yourself in their shoes. Not endorse, judge or condemn.)
This month Hibs lost in the Cup Final again; to a Hibee of my vintage, such an outcome is all too familiar territory. (This time to a good team from a nice club, St Johnstone.) Many a year I’ve been at Hampden more than Easter Road. Only to make the disappointed trek home, weighed heavy with meat pies and chagrin.
What is so hard to understand about another sporting ‘tribe’ getting out of hand in their explosive expression of relief and joy at their crowning as supreme Champions! - after near extinction followed by a decade of humiliation and what felt like a long, long road back. ‘The dark years are finally over. Let’s party!’
I remember a very similar feeling when Hibs won the Cup in 2016. The 114-year wait was finally over. Hibs will win the Cup again soon I’m sure, but I was there at that pivotal moment when our curse was buried - and in what style with 10 minutes to go against Rangers. Days don’t come much better than that.
Many of us misbehaved that day too. When remembering 2016 with Hibees I meet, the question always comes up: “were you on the pitch?” (I wasn’t by the way). “Were you at George Square?” will become the same for Rangers fans. So, the overwhelming outrage at Rangers must be about something else.
Covid? Well yes, people will have been infected after events in George Square but also from the outpowering of direct action in Pollokshields and the Palestinian solidarity demos over the same weekend. Glasgow, at the time of writing, is paying the price for all of them.
Of course, it is the charge of sectarianism that raises the George Square scenes to new levels. Much shaking of heads, Twitter outrage, condemnation by politicians, and criticism of police tactics, followed by official statements from the Club reassuring us that such behaviour is not, and never will be tolerated by Rangers FC. Yet we all know that it will.
Sectarianism is an interesting word, one that seems to be used exclusively for referring to the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the West of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Is it worse or better than racism, homophobia, or plain old inter-ethnic conflict? The Serbs and the Croats are as similar and as different as the Scots and the Irish. The glue that binds their different Slavic tribal allegiances is also religion: Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. But ‘sectarianism’ is the word reserved for our bespoke shame and our centuries of entanglement with our Ulster cousins on both sides of the divide.
‘Sects’ conjure up images of crazy people, brainwashed by fundamentalist teachings from deranged self-appointed gurus. Could it be that by labelling our conflict ‘sectarian’ it gives us the moral authority to condemn outright from a comfortable distance and thus avoid taking any of the grievances on either side seriously? The mirror image of the same sense of rooted superiority that Walter Smith spoke about when reflecting on his time as manager of Rangers.
A football crowd is a mob, a mob that it is usually hugely enjoyable to be a part of. No elected leaders or system of government, but a bond of belonging and an ever-changing mood. Moods that can sometimes turn ugly in a heartbeat.
I know it’s just a game but the Old Firm are a significant and visible part of Scotland’s cultural fabric. Two teams that thrive on a sporting rivalry without equal, and who also divide along political/religious fault lines; international sporting emissaries for our country, yet neither rally round the flag of Scotland.
Throughout my life I have befriended many Rangers supporters. Fine people who care about the things I care about, including many who devote themselves in their daily lives to resolving some of the social injustices that stubbornly persist in Scotland today. Then I see Rangers fans draping themselves in the relics and colours of Protestant Unionism, and I think; “how can you be a Rangers fan?”
It’s not the songs I object to. In my youth in the 70s I joined in with We’re off to in the Green on the terraces at Easter Road; a considerably more bloodthirsty song than The Sash – which is actually a damn good tune - what on earth possessed the Scottish Parliament to ban these songs? Pointing an accusatory finger at singing crowds, backed up with hollow threats, rarely works. Far from it. Such heavy handedness only makes disobedience more attractive. Didn’t these people ever go to school?
It shouldn’t be illegal to be proud of the story of your tribe’s victories or defeats. Both Rangers and Celtic grew out of the communities who lived through the religious divide that shamed Scotland for much of the last 150 years.
Communities who were - because of how life was in those days - homogeneous in their separateness and united in their differing religions and symbols of belonging
But in these days of quick judgements, openly declaring a Protestant identity feels borderline ‘hate crime’ territory.
So, carry on singing your songs that honour your heritage and bragging about your victories on the park. Be proud of the red, white and blue and your protestant roots, but please, please, also be proud of being Scots. It’s easy: get a saltire and stick a red rampant lion on it. And Celtic: as much as I love the colours, the design, and the country whose national flag it is – lose the tricolour!