A matter of respect
A few years ago I took a group of children on a tour of Ibrox Stadium as part of an anti-sectarian initiative. There were supporters of both Celtic and Rangers in the group as well as a few lads of Scottish-Asian heritage who were more interested in cricket. They had been well prepared before the visit and knew a good deal about the slowly dying bigotry which scars west of Scotland life at times. The kindly old chap who guided us around the stadium took us up the marble stairway to the Blue Room with its frescoes of past Managers of the club. We toured the dressing rooms and were cut loose to wander the trophy room too. As we gazed at the mementos of a century or more of sporting success, the old chap asked if anyone had any questions. It was one of the Scottish-Asian lads who raised his hand and asked why Rangers didn’t sign a Catholic player for a large part of their history. The old chap looked flustered and said was answering questions about the ‘trophies and stadium’ only. That old fella was working from his script and was unwilling or unable to go beyond it and such hiding from the facts doesn’t help the new generation understand why things were as they were in the past.
We saw this week a new young manager trying to manage the media and fan expectation as he sets off on his first ever club management job. The arrival of Steven Gerrard at Ibrox was a curious affair. He looked very awkward as he toured the dressing room and was greeted by gruff kit man Jimmy Bell who gives a good impression of the stereotypical dour Scotsman. Gerrard was an excellent footballer in his time although the hyperbole describing his the ‘greatest ever signing by a Scottish club’ was plainly nonsense as Roy Keane had a glittering career which saw him win 19 major honours while Gerrard won 8 and never got close to a championship badge. Press fawning aside though it is an exciting signing which might raise the profile of the game in Scotland. Talk of Gerrard ‘putting Scotland on the map’ is at best patronising claptrap and at worst insulting. The game here is on the up with crowds increasing, stadiums being modernised and some fine young managers building decent sides.
One supporter speaking on the tv news said he hadn’t been so excited since the arrival of Souness. There are, however, huge differences between now and 1986 when Souness first marched up the marble staircase, the chief among them being the paucity of resources at Ibrox now compared to the free spending days of the Murray regime. Celtic has become far more powerful too and is not the poorly run and financed outfit Souness took on in the 1980s. One thing which hasn’t changed though is the fan culture Souness encountered. He once remarked, ‘Here I was married to a Catholic and having to listen to my supporters singing songs about killing Catholics.’
Souness, whether you loved him or loathed him, had little time for such behaviour which most sensible people knew belonged in the dark ages. That being said there is footage of his players singing the ‘Billy Boys’ in the dressing room after clinching a league title at Tannadice and this showed how deeply embedded the bigotry culture was at Ibrox in the 1980’s. I’m sure many players and fans who sung those songs back then would argue that it’s not meant and that they wouldn’t hurt a fly but they created the mood music for more dangerous elements, who certainly would and that is unacceptable.
As Gerrard strolled the corridors of Ibrox taking in the history of the place, a throng outside the stadium celebrated his arrival by singing about being ‘Up to their knees in Fenian blood’ as the Police guarding the door looked on and said nothing. Gerrard, coming from Merseyside with its huge Irish population, will have some inkling of the attitudes he’ll meet in Scottish football. Liverpool and Everton left any such baggage behind a lifetime ago and in general their rivalry is free from any unsavoury undertones. Not since the Juvenal Street riot of 1909 had sectarianism been a cause of serious violence in Liverpool.
Much has changed in Glasgow over the past three decades but Gerrard will soon learn that his new club’s support contains a sizable minority of individuals who have evolved little since Souness arrived in 1986. They are being presented with a manager who has a genuine pedigree in world football and respond by singing the same tired, old trash which has sullied their reputation for decades. They appear to have no self-awareness at all and some seem to actually wallow in their ignorance.
When Charles Green took control of Rangers in 2012 he missed the historic opportunity to tell the less cerebral among the Rangers support that the times are changing and people should change with them. Instead, no doubt with his eye on a fast buck, he started the ‘No Surrender’ nonsense and played the victim card to explain Rangers self-inflicted demise. As one cynic said at the time, ‘A free cup of tea and a quick ‘No surrender’ and suddenly he was the Messiah.’
No one expects a young, rookie Manager to comment on the evils of sectarianism in Scottish society. It’s still there festering away in the darker corners, even if the vast majority of Scots have long since called it out for the patent nonsense it is. I do however hope Gerrard conducts himself with dignity and does his job without paying any lip service to the ‘WATP’ mentality. He is a young coach starting out on his managerial career and should be allowed to focus on his job and nothing else. As a lifelong Celtic fan, I hope Rodgers and his Celtic side continue to dominate their rivals and that Gerrard has little success on the field of play, but I also hope Celtic supporters treat Gerrard with the same respect he has long showed them and their club.
Scottish society has changed so much since Souness walked in the door of Ibrox in 1986 bringing with him the unbridled capitalism which changed Scottish football forever. He had little time for the culture surrounding Rangers then and whatever you thought of him as a person, he signed players on football ability alone and dragged Rangers into the modern era.
Some of their supporters have still to make that journey.