Union Bears: The Men In Black

by | Mar 17, 2018

Sunday’s Rangers/Celtic encounter was, for a pleasant change, a very good football match. And not just because, from a personal perspective, Celtic won 3-2. Quality goals and high drama contributed as much to the atmosphere at Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium as the usual hateful stuff from the stands about boys belonging to “Billy” and “the Old Brigade.” However, as ever, the build-up to the occasion was over-hyped and often just as hateful.

There was a genuine story to be told. Rangers were the form team going into the match. And victory would have potentially set up a Scottish Premiership title race. They played well, too, albeit against ten men from the 56th minute. And striker Alfredo Morelos hit the game’s last chance against the post from four yards. But Rangers fans’ pre-match confidence included an ugly, supremacist arrogance which was manifested in a bizarre, sinister pre-match event.

Rangers “ultras” supporters group the ‘Union Bears’ organised a “Derby March,” which a promotional leaflet called “a fans march to Ibrox” before the game “against the fenians,” while “wearing dark clothing” was “encouraged.” And the banner heading the march bid a “Good Night” to “Green White.” But lest anyone thought that was a mis-spelled, grammatically sloppy valete to hated ex-club chiefs Charles Green and Craig Whyte, the accompanying graphic was a grounded figure in green-and-white hoops getting their head kicked in.

The Union Bears could be excused some over-confidence, as the readers among them were told all week that Rangers’ time had come, with Celtic “there for the taking.” One Rangers fan was moved by the hype to put £15,000 on Rangers winning. If he wasn’t already single, he probably is now.

But that didn’t excuse the Union Bears’ threatening tone. Nor Police Scotland allowing the march. And one footnote provided an(other) indication of the (low) level of debate generally surrounding Scottish football.

Some observers blamed the march on the repeal of the widely-despised ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (2012),’ an SNP brainchild/freeze. The Act, the logic ran, would have stopped the march, specifically designed as it was to “create offences concerning offensive behaviour in relation to certain football matches and concerning the communication of certain threatening material” (my emphasis).

One TINY problem. The campaign to repeal the Act succeeded this Thursday (article soon, be warned). But it was law last weekend. And the argument that the Union Bears were emboldened to march when and how they did by its up-coming repeal is risible. Writing this before Rangers host Kilmarnock, I suspect there won’t have been a black-shirted, black-jacketed march behind a “Goodbye Blue White” banner with a logo depicting a Killie fan getting his head kicked in.

There were other, ‘mere’ football issues last Sunday. Not least Conservative MP Douglas Ross screaming “Red card! Red card!” and waving his colours maniacally, seconds before Celtic’s Jozo Simunovic was dismissed. Fair enough. Rangers fans all around him did similar. The problem is, Ross was the referee’s assistant.

Meanwhile, as English football fans and paid observers are discovering, a genuine title race is always desirable, ‘for the neutrals’ anyway, even if Manchester City’s joyous football has made the processional nature of this season’s EPL a little easier to stomach. For Scottish football’s paid observers, however, only a Celtic/Rangers one is desirable, a bias exposed by contrasting last week’s build-up with the week before Celtic’s trip to Aberdeen on February 25th.

An Aberdeen win would have left them six points behind Celtic, with ten games left (a Rangers win would have left them three points back, having played a game more, with eight games left). And Celtic were again “there for their taking,” journeying to Scotland’s north-east two-and-a-half days after a dispiriting, arduous trip to St Petersburg to “crash” out of the Europa League.

Yet the Aberdeen game’s significance regarding a title race was barely mentioned, with a prime visual example offered by the updated Scottish Sun website. Their narrative was largely limited to Aberdeen never having “a better chance” of ending their shameful record against Celtic under manager Derek McInnes (whose record against Rangers is little better).

Roger Hannah acknowledged that Aberdeen winning “might lend weight to the argument that there could be an unlikely title race on the cards” (might…could…unlikely). In paragraph 26 of a 35-paragraph article. Ex-Celt Davie Provan didn’t even broach the subject in his duplication of effort on Aberdeen’s Celtic record. But this piece linked to another Provan piece, headlined: “Title race is ON if Graeme Murty outfoxes Brendan Rodgers.” Spot the difference?

Ex-Rangers player/boss Graeme Souness was obviously promoting Sky Sports’ match coverage, as a dutiful employee. But his assertion that “Rangers are a wee bit closer and that’s good for Scottish football” was entirely evidence-free. And his thoughts on a Celtic/Aberdeen title race being “good for Scottish football” were unexplored, although, in fairness, BT Sport covered that game (and we’ll ignore his assertion that Rangers have “never been closer to them” #newclub).

But the “Football Insider Verdict” which tailed that website’s report on Souness’s comments inadvertently exposed those comments’ intellectual deficit. “Souness is right,” Football Insider proclaimed. “Having someone, anyone, challenge Celtic would be good for Scottish football.” But, of course, Souness didn’t say that.

In fairness, without the execrable David Tanner, Sky’s coverage was a less-rabid Rangers-fest. Celtic were even mentioned during the half-time analysis, unlike last year’s Scottish Cup semi-final, which they were WINNING after 45 minutes.

Still, Ian Crocker shoe-horned plentiful nonsensical ‘Old Firm’ references into his match commentary (even if the ‘Old Firm’ still existed, viewers don’t need telling what they’re watching while they’re watching it, commentators don’t say ‘Merseyside Derby’ 100 times during Merseyside derbies). His claim that all five goals were equally brilliant was absurd. Studio analyst Kris Boyd’s assertions that Rangers had “the bulk” of the first-half play went unchallenged. And at full-time he said Simunovic’s dismissal had “suited Celtic.” No…really.

This was “just” football, though. The march was something else entirely. An ugly manifestation of an ugly, unjustified supremacism, unimpeded by a watching police force, uncondemned by wide sections of Scotland’s society and media. And some media elements truly came into their own. The Scottish Sun again, unsurprisingly, led the way within a day, two of their articles topping the ‘Google’ search for “Union Bears march.” Not that these were about the march itself.

The headline to Laura Murray’s article referenced the “Union Bears Old Firm march.” And she wrote that “flares were thrown as hundreds of Gers fans wearing dark colours marched towards (Ibrox).” As if the pyrotechnics were the key issue. SNP councillor Julie McKenzie had called out the march as “truly shameful” and asked why “rampant sectarian hatred and balaclavas” were being “allowed on the streets of Glasgow in 2018.” Even with her distaste for balaclavas, it was a fair question.

The answer? In 2014, she tweeted about “the hun in my house,” hun being a long-used pejorative word for Rangers fans, which somehow recently morphed into a ‘sectarian’ term for all protestants. And…er…that’s it…

What the hun in McKenzie’s house thought of the tweet, Murray didn’t say. No indication either why they were there if McKenzie could spew such ‘sectarian hatred.’ But logical conclusions were not the point. It was ‘two wrongs make a right’ nowadays.

Even the headline to a reasoned article by Herald Group senior news reporter Martin Williams referenced a “Rangers v Celtic march.” Williams referenced a “sectarian flyer…at the centre of a criminal investigation,” as, three days before the march, the Sun’s Rebecca Gray ‘exclusively’ reported in the paper’s inimitable ‘style’ that the flyer had “triggered a cop probe.”

She quoted “top footie cop” (probably not his formal role) Superintendent Alan Murray, who made it clear that Police Scotland were treating the flyer as potentially criminal but the march as a public order issue, announcing “a criminal investigation” into the flyer’s “wording and logo” while urging fans “not to join in” as “large groups…moving together can cause problems.”

Officers, he warned, would “respond appropriately” if “large” numbers marched and “anyone intent on causing disorder, indulging in antisocial behaviour or hate crime” could “expect to be arrested.” Most importantly, he said it was a march “which permission has not been granted for.” So, you would have to be distracted by Murray using a preposition to end a sentence with (an old sub-editors’ joke there, sorry) not to see that Police Scotland would stop the march.

Nevertheless, the Union Bears declared that the march was still on “despite intimidation by the media and visits to our members houses by Police Scotland” and urged “all Rangers fans to join us on the streets,” signing off with a cheery “no surrender.” One wonders what the Bears told the house-calling police. Because Police Scotland’s response was effectively: “Oh…OK, march away.”

Perhaps they didn’t think the 200 or so marchers constituted a “large group.” And maybe that wasn’t the greatest response to a call for “all Rangers fans” to march, when 43,000 were at the game. Still, away they marched, police looking on. I wonder how long a criminal investigation into a 53-word, A5 flyer takes and whether marching behind a banner with such violent imagery constitutes a hate crime.

Celtic’s “ultras” supporters group, the ‘Green Brigade’ march to Celtic Park matches against Rangers and, with depressing inevitability, the ‘Irish Republican Army’ are invariably paid what I’d hesitate to call ‘musical’ tributes along the way. But that simply cannot justify the Union Bears’ efforts. Not with those words, over that logo.

Sunday’s Rangers/Celtic encounter was, for a pleasant change, a very good football match. What surrounded it was worse than unpleasant. Plus ca change.