Scottish Football Goes Nuts

by | Aug 22, 2017

Football’s genuine status as “only a game” was perfectly demonstrated by comparing Scottish football’s descent into madness last week with the parallel fall and fall further into the arena of the psychologically unwell of US president Donald bloody Trump.

Trump’s week of false equivalence, ignorance of history and resultant encouragement to American neo-Nazis and white supremacists has been well-documented, by far better documenters than me. Suffice to say that the clownish rhetoric, schoolboy politicking and rank-rotten refereeing which pock-marked Scottish club football’s week was many times… MANY TIMES less dangerous.

For some observers, part of Scottish club football “tradition” turned upside-down last weekend, when Celtic got the benefit and Rangers the rough end of key refereeing decisions in their Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) matches… until the Scottish Football Association (SFA) disciplinary process restored some equilibrium.

Israeli international midfielder Nir Bitton was Nir Beckenbauer after his authoritative centre-back display in Celtic’s 5-0 Champions League play-off thumping of Kazakhstan champions Astana on Wednesday. Last Friday week, he was “Brendan Rodgers’ biggest Champions League gamble” after an unauthoritative centre-back display at Partick Thistle.

This culminated in, to paraphrase an old joke, Bitton’s one-man recreation of Tottenham’s 1951 English title-winning “push-and-run” team, when he “pushed” Thistle’s Miles Storey in the penalty box and “ran” away with the ball. It looked a clear penalty…even on radio. Referee Andrew Dallas is poorly-regarded by Celtic fans, even by their disapproving standards. Yet his mistake kept Celtic’s one-nil lead intact.

Eighteen hours later, whistler John Beaton made more mistakes, as Hibernian beat ten-man Rangers 3-2 at Ibrox. Much of the furore surrounding this game was a sturdy attempt to deflect from a defeat which had embarrassing consequences for the “people” of Rangers’ supremacist “we are the people” slogan, as the Hibees’ boss is one Neil Francis Lennon. But not all of it.

How Hibs’ Anthony Stokes stayed on the pitch longer than seven minutes will be an “eternal mystery for a long time,” as a discombobulated friend suggested. Stokes threw Rangers right-back James Tavernier to the ground in a manner worth ippon in judo, let alone a red card…or the yellow he actually received (Tavernier was also cautioned, for…erm…).

As mysterious was the red card for Hearts’ Isma Goncalves, after his lengthy hair was pulled by Killie’s Kirk Broadfoot and he…erm… It must have been assumed that Goncalves would retaliate to Broadfoot’s momentary reversion to childhood. The BBC commentator noted there were “arms flailing” as the players fell over. But he didn’t. And there weren’t.

Back at Ibrox, Jack was dismissed on 36 minutes, after grabbing Hibs’ Dylan McGeouch’s throat and nutting the still-active Stokes, who escaped a game-ending caution despite his involvement matching Tavernier’s earlier supposedly-cautionable offence. But despite cameras catching the headbutt, Jack successfully appealed his dismissal to the SFA’s independent (in this case, independent of common sense) disciplinary panel.

So, Stokes and Jack did SFA after all. In fact, three of the four red card appeals were successful, including Goncalves’, mercifully. A bad week for Scottish referees. Or, to put it another way, a normal week for Scottish referees. More cynical observers have already suggested that Scotland’s football authorities may be keener to address the problem of poor refereeing because it arguably cost Rangers at least a point. More cynical observers still (and file me under this column) have their doubts.

However, the “main event” was Lennon’s “vigorous” celebration of Scott Murray’s superb 21st-minute equaliser. As Scotland’s football press often euphemise, Lennon “courts controversy.” And he is certainly an outspoken figure. However, comparable figures such as Jose Mourinho have not received death threats, parcel bombs and bullets in the post. Nor have they been forced to retire from international football due to crowd abuse…by their OWN team’s fans. Nor attacked by an opposition fan while stood in their technical area, as happened to Lennon at Hearts in May 2011.

Scotland’s football press fights shy of explaining why that should be, as it exposes a fault-line in parts of Scottish society. Lennon is not just outspoken but proudly outspoken in defence of his Irish identity (and he’s a redhead too, which I know from personal pre-greying-hair experience, also attracts unwarranted abuse). And this, more than any number of other faults, attracts the greatest opprobrium from critics.

Unsurprisingly, Ibrox matchdays attract vast numbers of such critics. Thousands can publicly, regularly sing the praises of 1920s Glasgow street gang leader and fascist Billy Fullerton and show vocal pride during Rangers home and away games in being “up to their knees in fenian blood.” So, they have seen no impediment to persistently throwing verbal, often sectarian, abuse at Lennon.

Lennon’s response to the abuse he received last Saturday was encapsulated in a 20-second BBC video which the Beeb suggested “some people” might “consider to be offensive.” It is unclear if this was a sincere warning or the BBC trolling Rangers fans already whinging at Lennon’s antics. In “celebration” of Murray’s goal, Lennon turned to the Rangers fans behind his dug-out, cupped his ears, made a “get it right ****ing up you” (GIRFUY) gesture and…er…that was it.

Daft? Yes. Offensive? Really? Players often cup their ears after scoring near opposing fans. While the last recorded GIRFUY gesture to Rangers fans after a goal in a Rangers game was made by Graham Dorrans after he scored at Partick for…erm…Rangers. Indeed, arguably the most offensive thing Lennon did was squeeze his now portly frame into a way-too-small tracksuit. So, hardly worthy of further comment. Enter Club 1872.

Club 1872 is Rangers’ major supporters’ organisation and Rangers’ second-largest shareholder, with club secretary James Blair a director (briefly THE director during recent internal strife). It calls itself “responsible” and “independent and “(looks) to defend,” inter alia, “the reputation…of Rangers Football Club.”

Their responsible defence of Rangers’ reputation manifested itself post-Hibs in some prime fruit-loopery. A “Club 1872 Statement on Neil Lennon” expressed the “hope that Police Scotland will speak directly” to Lennon and “give him a warning over his future conduct at Ibrox.” They “(expected) the SPFL to take action” against Lennon “over his failed attempt to incite trouble,” an “attempt” which “failed” due to the “restraint of the Rangers support.”

They accused Lennon of “previous for abusing and goading Rangers staff and supporters,” being “completely unable to control himself at Ibrox” and of making “various inflammatory gestures” to fans which “were not becoming of any football manager, never mind one who likes to play the victim when things do not go his way.”

And in case anyone remembered that Rangers lost, they added: “It is inexplicable that the fourth official chose to take no action against (Lennon)…but, against the backdrop of possibly the worst refereeing performance ever seen at Ibrox, perhaps we should not be surprised.”

Police Scotland, of course, wanted nothing to do with such petty, pathetic nonsense. And even some Rangers fans were more “WTF” than “WATP.” If you have come across a lost plot this week, it’s probably Club 1872’s.

Yet Rangers themselves crossed some lines last week. Apparently. The Daily Record newspaper’s award-winning journalist Keith Jackson has been, apparently, “at the heart of the Rangers story from day one.” Hence his take on the recent “Rangers Tax Case” result (you know the one…). He wrote, and I’m quoting verbatim: “……………”

This rare silence was not-at-all a sign of embarrassment that his take on the case emanated from a body part rather lower than the “heart.” It ended with an “exclusive” report (inverted commas again wise) last Monday on “highly curious goings-on concerning the media” at Rangers’ training ground, one of many places from which Jackson is banned because certain football figures think he’s a knob. “Rangers,” he claimed, “have started training their own cameras on the pressmen who…ask questions of manager Pedro Caixinha.”

His nose for a story unblocked, Jackson smelled “a sinister sub-text. Ask anything too difficult and the club reserves the right to put it up online” so supporters “can act as judge and jury.” And (drumroll) this filming “resulted in a mass walk-out of football writers from Caixinha’s pre-match briefing.”

Fans have long-urged hacks to resist Rangers’ ham-fisted attempts to “control” of media narratives, rather than prostitute their journalistic integrity by succumbing to them. However, Jackson’s tale was oddball. The “walk-out” occurred on a Friday. Jackson’s MONDAY column was all that anyone heard of it.

A poster on fan-site “Follow Follow” said “not a single Rangers fan noticed.” Another added, albeit with bone-headed naivete: “our in-house club channels are absolutely fine for what needs to be communicated.” And a third poster claimed, correctly: “If there was a mass media walkout, we’d have seen it plastered all over the rags.”

So, there was a press walk-out with no discernible effect on pre-match coverage that no-one who walked out thought worth writing about? As preposterous as…an absent journalist fabricating it. The third poster’s conclusion makes much more sense: “Utter bollocks again from KJ.”

Still, there was unity on Wednesday, with Celtic’s afore-mentioned near-certain Uefa Champions’ League group stage qualifica…ha…no…only kidding. Rangers fans’ tribalism would deny them appreciation of the qualification’s positive impact on Scottish club football’s reputation, even if they weren’t smarting from their own ludicrous Europa League exit to Luxembourg’s fourth-best team, Progres Neiderkorn (who themselves lost home and away to Cyprus’s fourth-best team, AEL Limassol, in the next round).

However, even Rangers will benefit by £200-350,000, depending on the reports you read (which could be various degrees of necessary for their financial survival, depending on the reports you read). This “windfall” is each SPFL Premiership club’s share of the “solidarity” payment Celtic will earn if they don’t collapse in a six-goal heap in Kazakhstan. Significant money for all other SPFL clubs.

Nevertheless, it seemed more important to Scotland’s football press that ex-Kingstonian coaching assistant Martin Tyler called Rangers a “new club,” as in Rangers’ “demise…and demotion to start again as a new club” in his Fox Sports USA Celtic/Astana commentary. So focussed were they on “new club” that they forgot that the “demotion” was recently proven in court to have never happened.

Meanwhile, one Billy Weir(d) thought petitioning Uefa “to think of the good of Scottish football and ban Celtic from the Champions League” was helpful. This has a whiff of wind-up about it (though after last week…).

And Guardian newspaper golf correspondent Ewan Murray, whose football opinions are sought because…erm…. tweeted hope that “we are spared ‘great for Scottish Football’ chat. Great for Celtic. A widening chasm not at all great for others.” So unlike the five-year-old tweet “a welcome boost for Scottish football’s standing, to have Champions League games again” by…oh…Ewan Murray.

For every contemporary tweet, it seems, there’s a contradictory tweet somewhere. Very Donald bloody Trump…which is where we started. Thankfully, Murray is ONLY a sports journalist and Scottish football is ONLY a game.

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