The Old Firm: Mea Culpa
The main hazard attached to stridency of opinion is that you are often wrong. Sometimes, my success rate is in line with a stopped clock. And it appears my suggestion that Celtic were more sinned against than sinner in their recent Scottish Cup victory over Rangers was wide of the mark. The Scottish Football Association’s disciplinary process has found Celtic manager Neil Lennon to be primarily responsible for the disgraceful scenes during and after the match, scenes that were so shameful they needed a Scottish government summit to sort out.
So what else can I say but sorry? Watching the game on TV, wanting Celtic to win, I allowed myself to be swayed by the card count (thirteen – three reds and seven yellows to Rangers ), by Rangers defender Majid Bougherra’s so-called manhandling of match referee Calum Murray and the parallel-universe behaviour of El-Hadji Diouf. This was, of course, unfair. Lennon was clearly the main culprit. Rangers didn’t go looking for the cards. And they signed Diouf as a former African Player of the Year with extensive experience in the English Premier League. How could they know he was going to behave like that in an Old Firm game? Referee Murray’s card-happiness was certainly exposed by Steven Whittaker’s unfair dismissal, as I acknowledged in my original article on this site on this subject (Celtic and Rangers: Old Firm, Old enmity, new century, March 10th 2011). Little wonder, then, that cards were being waved in all directions. And it was just bad luck that so many were waved in the direction of blue-shirted players.
If I’d done my research a little less hurriedly, I would have got closer to the truth of what happened on that shameful early March night at Celtic Park. Rangers Chief Executive Martin Bain made a pertinent point after a Scottish Football Association official’s emotional comments on Rangers players’ behaviour. Bain’s SFA equivalent, Stewart Regan, expressed his “dismay” the morning after the game at having to “witness the match official being manhandled while another player who had been dismissed brazenly walked to his own supporters in defiance.” Bain regretted the fact that Regan “leapt to conclusions” that incidents in which Rangers’ Majid Bougherra attempted to snatch a yellow card from the referee, and team-mate Diouf marched towards Rangers fans after being sent-off, instead of marching down the tunnel, had taken place.
And Bain was right. Regan leapt to these conclusions on the basis of nothing more than TV pictures of Rangers’ Majid Bougherra attempting to snatch a yellow card from the referee, and team-mate Diouf marching towards Rangers fans after being sent-off, instead of marching down the tunnel. Bougherra felt he got the ball in the tackle on Celtic’s Kris Commons for which he received his second booking. And he was right, too, as TV pictures showed the ball hurtling towards the stand at roughly the same speed as Commons. TV pictures also showed that Bougherra was only trying to grab the yellow card that he was about to receive anyway and only grabbed ONE of the referee’s arms.
The offence of “brazenly walking” is a new one on me, for sure. Quite how else Diouf was supposed to get to Rangers fans at Celtic Park to throw his shirt to them, confronting police and stewards along the way, is a mystery. The referee dismissed him and asked him to leave the field. And Diouf would have done so, if Strathclyde’s finest hadn’t blocked him. So he had to “brazenly walk” all the way back again to leave the field down the players’ tunnel instead, compounding his so-called felony through no fault of his own. And he HAD to walk. There are no buses on that route at that time of night. And Diouf wouldn’t have had time to wait for a taxi – or have the fare to hand, as he was wearing shorts with no pocket.
Bougherra and Diouf were fined £7,500 between them – more than they would have earned in the time it took them to leave the field. And such a savage sanction must have been partly down to Regan’s comments. The SFA disciplinary process could hardly not have been influenced by their own CEO’s opinions. So, yes, Bain was spot-on. Chief Executives shouldn’t express such sensitive opinions at such a sensitive time. And Bain added that Rangers players were verbally abused after the drawn cup-tie at Ibrox – an accusation he only made after the replay, in order not to inflame any situation.
The punishments meted out to the hot-headed Lennon and Rangers’ ice-cool assistant Ally McCoist had to be different. As former SFA CEO Gordon Smith said, Lennon didn’t appeal and McCoist did, which proved the offences were different. And as the saying goes: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Even Lennon’s outspoken lawyer must have recognised that McCoist clashed with Lennon, who has red hair, whereas Lennon clashed with McCoist, who has been a team captain on A Question of Sport. So it was unfair of Paul McBride QC to equate McCoist’s role with Lennon’s.
There were other key differences. TV pictures clearly show Lennon’s face contorted with anger, but you can see no such look on McCoist’s face, or even see McCoist’s face at all. Lennon received a four-match ban, whereas McCoist wasn’t punished. And, as the BBC’s match report said at the time, “they exchanged words.” McBride suggested the SFA was “not merely dysfunctional and not merely dishonest but biased,” simply because Lennon was banned and Bougherra, Diouf and McCoist weren’t, on a night when there were thirteen cautions. But only ten cautions were to Rangers players. And as Smith said: “I never saw any evidence of bias” at the SFA, where the former Rangers player worked for “almost three years.” So I hold my hand up. I let myself be swayed into thinking that the “Old Firm night of shame” was somehow dominated by Rangers misdemeanours. I was clearly wrong. And I am truly, truly sorry.
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