Football Twitter’s Wild St Patrick’s Day

My eyesight has been poor for some weeks. And I have been unable to read computer screens for long enough to adequately research the articles I’d had planned for those weeks. Last week’s article on Video Assistant Refereeing in the Uefa Champions League ‘merely’ required an ability to listen to Alan Green on BBC Radio Five Live without stabbing my good eye out in exasperation. And this article merely required mercifully cursory glances at Twitter.

Sunday’s episode of the American HBO channel’s political satire show ‘Last Week Tonight” contained an extended feature on ‘Public Shaming.’ This focused on the horrible 1990s public shaming of Monica Lewinsky  and included a ‘must-see’ interview with Lewinsky. But it also focused on the shaming/shameful role of social media generally.

This was remarkably good timing, as I’d spent a significant chunk of Sunday pondering the ‘Twitterati’s’ attempts this weekend to publicly shame certain football ‘people,’ not all of whom, the most perfunctory searches behind the headlines revealed, deserved it all.  Two incidents were, some of you will be unsurprised to learn, related to Celtic’s ugly win against Dundee at Dens Park on St. Patrick’s Day. The third dates back to early February but, presumably by dint of some algorithm or other, only came to my attention on Sunday.

A ten second video appeared on Twitter during half-time in the Celtic game, showing Sky TV footage of an Irish flag being ripped down from a balcony edge in a stand packed with Celtic fans and one of those fans leaping off said balcony edge in hot (and risky) pursuit of said flag. It looked odd but not overly surprising, given the recent fraught history of fan ‘treatment’ in Scottish club football.

I assumed the flag was removed because, as the video showed, it covered an advert. But further video emerged of the fan’s (successful) attempt to retrieve his flag and his (failed) attempt to retrieve his seat. ‘Celtic twitter’ instinctively screamed ‘anti-Irish racism.’ And Dundee’s statement, by managing director John Nelms, that the flag was “only” removed because it covered a “board paid for by (club) patrons” dissuaded no-one of that notion.

I could understand the patrons’ anxiety. Dundee were employing the lowest of ‘low blocks’ (see below). So the board was only going to get the paid-for exposure when Celtic were attacking that end… although many more people have saw the board than if the flag was never there. But Nelms didn’t explain why the flag was removed so violently, why the fan was removed too, or whether the option of displaying the flag unobtrusively elsewhere was explored.

Whatever the truth, it highlighted an on-going absurdity of which English football fans are probably less aware, with two Fulham fans seemingly unaware entirely. They waved the flag proudly to mark Fulham’s St. Patrick’s Day introduction of substitute and Ireland right-back Cyrus Christie during their home game with Liverpool which immediately followed Celtic’s match on Sky Sports.

Naturally, Fulham’s stewards let the flag flutter, and Sky cameras naturally focused on it, given the date. Police Scotland, though, would deem the merest display of the Irish tricolor, inter alia, a Breach of the Peace. Even on St Patrick’s Day. (They would have had a collective seizure if they’d had jurisdiction over a Kingstonian game where fans welcomed new manager, Dubliner Dean Brennan, with a bizarre but delightful mass display of tricolors, hung from and draped over every part of the ground).

The background to this selective vexiphobia (irrational fear of flags) is rooted in Scottish attitudes to ‘its’ Irish community (check the on-going absence of St Patrick’s Day parades in Glasgow for details). But such issues were not relevant to Sunday. The Irish flag was just minding its own business at Dens Park. Like the ‘Stars-and-Stripes’ United States flag draped over an advertising hoarding, visible in pictures of Celtic players’ post-match celebrations in front of the same stand.

And Dens Park post-match celebrations sparked St. Patrick’s Day’s second twitter storm, instigated by walking nominative confusion, BBC Scotland’s Irish-born chief sports writer Tom English. He tweeted of Celtic interim manager Neil Lennon’s celebrations of his side’s 96th-minute winner at Dundee: “Mmmm, way over the top this.”

Lennon’s celebratory waddle from dug-out to corner flag (“the length of the pitch,” Scotland’s Sun ‘newspaper’ lied) was less that of an international-class professional athlete of the 2000s, than a (failed) audition for the role of ‘The Penguin’ in a new Batman movie. And English expressed “curiosity” at a “Celtic manager celebrating a win over Dundee like he’s just beaten Guardiola’s Man City.”

This made sense…ish. Celtic struggling against a side with just one home win all season would ordinarily be an embarrassment, spun as “the mark of a good side, winning when playing badly.” Celtic’s 1-0 win at ninth-placed Dundee in October 2016, with captain-then-and-now Scott Brown’s 47th-minute goal deciding it, was more ‘ordinary,’ and therefore less celebrated, which English would know, as that game’s BBC’s on-line match reporter.

But English missed the point. Lennon’s celebration was actually the very product of how (s)crappy Sunday’s win was, a huge relief at avoiding a terrible result, intensified by his wanting the Celtic job full-time and fear that failing to go ten points clear twice in eight days would hand second-placed Rangers a psychological boost for a title run-in with two Celtic/Rangers matches.

And he missed it again when noting that Celtic fans were “very quick to mock Rangers” for “reacting like that to a win over a relegation struggler” when “clinching European football was the source of their celebrations.” This, though, was Rangers fans invading Partick Thistle’s pitch in May 2017 after a stoppage-time winner… when the draw “clinched European football.”

‘R4tser’ tweeted that English sounded “like a rugby fan looking in on a sport you don’t care about” and whose team “had never scored a late winner before.” And ‘Pat©’ recalled that Lennon “was constantly told he ‘brought’ attacks on himself, by sections of the media” and asked pertinently if we were “at that point again with him.”

English’s misunderstanding of context and emotion was odd and oddly-timed from a “rugby fan.” Had Scotland drawn four penalties each in England on Saturday, the game might be forgotten already. But, as English himself noted, Scotland “scored more tries” at Twickenham “than any other country in the history of the game.” Hence the column inches/miles subsequently devoted to the game, to which English contributed. Context over result. Like a 96th minute winner in Dundee.
Indeed, English eventually admitted to R4tser that Lennon’s celebrations were “a bit embarrassing, that’s all.” Which made his original tweet “a bit embarrassing” too.

English’s compatriot, Graeme Souness seemed a bit embarrassed during a brief exchange with Sky Sports punditry colleague Alex Scott, on (Super) Sunday 3rd February. “Souness slammed on social media for interrupting Scott,” screamed the headlines, with the story I read on the ‘Give Me Sport’ website including a 35-second clip of said ‘incident,’ from the ‘Best of Football’ twitter feed. Having ‘enjoyed’ past Souness TV outbursts and confident that Scott could handle him, I took the clickbait.

Scott was explaining “a common theme this season…a lot of teams playing that low block…willing to have less possession and hit teams on the counter-attack.” Souness interrupted, asking “What is a low block?” and sniffed about “modern terminology.” Scott answered him. And when the penny dropped, Souness said: “Defending deep.” Scott said “yeah.” Souness nodded politely. And er… that was it.

I’ve watched plenty of football punditry without encountering “low block.” And I’d never have guessed it meant defending deep, although the phrase makes more sense alongside “defending high up the pitch.” But Souness’s question was fair, he readily accepted Scott’s answer and Scott seamlessly continued her analysis. So…was there a longer clip, of a more-agitated Scott and/or a ruder Souness?

Whatever, the anti-Souness narrative on ‘Give Me Sport’ was based on the 35-second clip. Yet the direct responses to the ‘Best of Football’ clip  slammed everybody involved, quickly descending into a typically-mindless twitter back-and-forth.

And the story, to use more “modern terminology” which I fear will stand the test of linguistic time, was a nothing-burger. Two experienced ex-internationals. One offering good tactical analysis of this Premier League season. The other, with huge observational experience of modern football as a pundit on Sky, Ireland’s RTE and TV3 and Qatar’s BEIN Sports, asking a question about a term he hadn’t heard. And a ‘twitterati’ superimposing their pre-judgments. Nothing new(s) there.

I haven’t penned this piece to make big issues out of these issues, Even my American sense of irony would sense that irony. Ultimately, though, the flag should have been moved not confiscated. English’s views weren’t really worth tweeting. And Souness was a bit rude for a bit. It is just a further reminder of the good, bad and ugly faces of public shaming attempts on Football Twitter. And how St. Patrick’s Day proved a wild day for it.