Only a game
More years ago than I care to remember I took part in one of those rough-house ‘ten-twenty wanner’ scheme football matches on the big black ash pitch which once stood behind St Roch’s Primary School on the Royston Road. The game had all the usual thundering tackles and squabbles over decisions and I wisely used my speed to steer clear of the more aggressive defenders. On one occasion I tackled a guy who bumped me with his shoulder causing me to spin around and my flailing arm caught another guy square in the face. I could see that he thought I’d just thumped him but nothing could have been further from the truth. It caused a tension between us which lasted years and all of it based on an accident.
Football is a passionate game and we all get overly emotional about it at times. You may recall the story of a chap who knocked on his Celtic supporting neighbour’s door at all hours to remind him that Rangers had won the league that weekend. The same chap thought nothing of setting off fireworks in the wee small hours again much to the annoyance of neighbours. Their feud went on for quite a few years and involved episodes which were violent in nature. All of this didn’t take place in a Glasgow Scheme or Lanarkshire Mining Village; it happened in a plush suburb of Glasgow and involved two players at the country’s biggest clubs. Alan Thompson and Fernando Ricksen were brought together as neighbours by fate but there was little love lost between the two. Thompson, you may recall, smashed an unstoppable late winner past Stefan Klos a decade back and as he celebrated performed a ‘knock knock’ gesture in the direction of Ricksen. The meaning was clear to all who knew the story of their troubled relationship. Thompson and Ricksen were both committed and whole hearted players and no strangers to the odd red card. Neither gave an inch during their many clashes and on more than one occasion the intervention of team mates was required to stop their tangles developing into an open fight. As the years advanced though and their careers wound down, they did realise that their hot headed ways were over. Thompson said…
"Fernando and I are not getting any younger. We might as well put what has gone on before behind us and get on with things now."
Ricksen, as we all know, has been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, the illness which took Jimmy Johnstone. This utterly dreadful condition also claimed the life of Sam English, the Rangers striker who was involved in the tragic accident which killed Celtic goalkeeper John Thomson in 1931. Fans across football recognise that some things make our petty rivalries fade into insignificance. Fernando Ricksen was no angel on the football field as Alan Thompson, Derek Roirdan and many other players would testify. His aggressive character, linked to his admitted alcohol problems also brought him into conflict off the field. However his indiscretions were not dissimilar to those of many young men with anger issues. He had the added pressure of life in the Old Firm goldfish bowl. Whatever your opinion of his abilities as a footballer, there is no disputing that he gave his all for Rangers in the years he was there. Yes, he was wildly erratic at times and on his first trip to Celtic Park was substituted in the first half as he looked likely to implode as Bobby Petta ripped him apart. Some of his tackles were crude in the extreme but there was a bit of football in him too. You don’t play 12 times for Holland if you’re useless.
So as we enter the week in which Celtic and Rangers (however you perceive them) square off at Hampden Park in the League cup semi-final, it is perhaps worthwhile keeping some perspective on the game. I will never forget the night we lost Jock Stein as his Scotland side qualified for the world cup. A distraught Scotland fan said afterwards, ‘I’d rather we had failed to qualify and the big man was still with us.’ Stein seemed so strong, so in control and yet he was taken on the cusp of another triumph. Bill Shankly, Stein’s great friend, once famously said,
‘Some people say football is a matter of life and death, I can assure you it’s much more important than that.’
He was wrong on that one. So when the whistle sounds and the thunder starts at Hampden Park next weekend, shout your head off, sing like there’s no tomorrow, but try to remember too, it is only a game.
Watching the tribulations of Jinky and Fernando should teach us that much.