Ahead of a mouth-watering Scottish League Cup final next week, the jury have delivered their verdict on Celtic manager Neil Lennon and Rangers first-team coach Ally McCoist’s angry full-time exchange on the Celtic Park touchline last week. The Scottish Football Association (SFA) has revealed that McCoist will watch the final from the stand after being given a two-match touchline ban while Lennon, already banned for the match, will miss an extra four matches for his sanction is heavier as it is his second misconduct offence.
Taking into consideration the level of vitriol which is exchanged between Celtic and Rangers, the tempestuous incidents at Parkhead were effectively deemed unprecedented, since the Scottish Government intervened. A comprehensive rap sheet ensured that: three red cards, 34 arrests, player scuffles, angry exchanges between opposing coaches and sectarian chanting, none of which should be condoned, but what Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond has failed to gauge is that the Old Firm never has been, and never will be, a tea party between Glasgow diplomats.
Although few in an official capacity will care to admit it, the various controversies welcomingly compensated a match starved of quality yet brimming with passion and machismo as enemies collided with one another – literally at times. Hearts boss Jim Jeffries suggested it could be a good advert for Scottish football because whilst ninety-nine out of 100 derbies will conjure up fireworks, Celtic and Rangers engineer a blazing bonfire.
Neil Lennon’s combustible streak as a player hasn’t been channelled with the transition into management; usually the cue for one to mellow, while Rangers poured gasoline on the flames with the timely loan signing of El Hadji Diouf just as a quartet of fixtures between the Old Firm (two Scottish Cup replays, a league fixture and the upcoming Scottish League Cup final) commenced at Ibrox last month. The ingredients weren’t lacking spice.
On the pitch, risqué challenges were as ubiquitous as Rangers’ discipline was appalling. The confrontational Diouf stoking the flames as he needlessly barged into Celtic physio Tim Williamson as he raced onto the pitch to treat Emilio Izaguirre after a Steven Whittaker challenge, while Majid Bougherra was so incandescent that referee Calum Murray sent him off that he physically manhandled him. Diouf finished what he started by talking himself into a sending off after the final whistle had been blown.
Turf hostility aside, governmental intervention has reopened old wounds of the fixture’s darkest days. The unsavoury hatred is a brutal reminder for Mark Scott’s parents, whose 16-year-old son had his throat fatally cut for wearing a Celtic scarf in 1996. The father and uncle of offender Jason Campbell, sentenced to life, were Protestant terrorist paramilitaries.
Several more have died owed to sectarian bigotry while mercifully, just over a year ago, Strathclyde Police announced that domestic abuse on Old Firm match days had fallen by almost a quarter. Yet it still lurks and proves how the Old Firm really is a matter life and death.
Salmond’s intentions are to placate a rivalry, which in itself is a superfluous attempt when the clubs in question are divided by religion. Rangers supporters are dubbed ‘Huns’ by their Glaswegian in reference to the ‘Hanoverian’ Protestant monarchy from Hanover, Germany who came to the British throne in 1714 with King George 1st, which in turn led to the Jacobite rebellion, while Celtic’s Catholic affiliation is subjected to offensive chants detailing the Pope and paedophilia. The Famine Song mocks the Great Famine of Ireland in the 1840s, yet Rangers fans who sing it are ironically oblivious to the fact that survivors who were forced into mass emigration – some to Scotland – were from all faiths and traditions within Ireland.
Lennon himself has been caught mouthing ‘Orange bastard’ (referring to one of the largest Protestant organisations) to a Rangers official and clearly spat on a Rangers scarf in the same game back in 2006, which sets a dangerous precedent since his ascension to Celtic coach ticks all the boxes in becoming the epitome of Gers’ ire.
Considering the abovementioned storms, the timing of an Old Firm summit is peculiar when hatred has always been so deep for so many that it represents a badge of honour within a rivalry which has been brewing for centuries. Even on-pitch fracas’ have trumped last week’s, notably when blood was shed by a neutral in 1999 as referee Hugh Dallas was pelted with a coin thrown by a Celtic ‘fan’ in a title decider which saw three players sent off, two of them Celtic. Dallas also awarded Rangers a penalty and during the course of the fixture four Celtic supporters invaded the pitch to confront him.
Pressure is on the clubs’ players and supporters to refrain from repeating the dark night at Parkhead when they cross swords at Hampden Park on 20 March, but Salmond’s agenda, while attempting to douse the flames may have enflamed the blaze. By allotting events greater publicity, he has invited others to stick their oar in, with the Rangers Supporters Trust already demanding an SFA inquiry into the behaviour of the ‘out of control’ Celtic management team. While Gers manager Walter Smith reacted to the summit with minor exasperation, stating: “The problems being flagged up here are outwith the football side of it. So when are they going to look at that?”
The irony of this article is that the reflection on the Hoops and the Gers is owed to Salmond making it a prime agenda, under pressure from Scottish Police Federation chairman Les Grey even suggesting that Old Firm games no longer be played in Glasgow due to the various recriminations it entails. Salmond has labelled this proposal as ‘a council of despair’, not least for aside from punishing innocent match-goers, Scottish football is steeped so deeply in dismal football it cannot afford to deprive a worldwide audience of witnessing its sole A-list event.
It’s impossible to curb the infectious partisan devotion of Bhoys and Gers, but the irresponsibility of the duo and blame-shifting that has ensued for decades is unsettling for Catholics, Protestants and Glaswegians. Rangers owner Sir David Murray has made commendable strives to cease the sectarianism his Club’s fan base is synonymous with but the Fascist salutes raised in unison amongst the band of away supporters at Celtic Park last Wednesday plunged Rangers back into the medieval era. How can you stifle what is fast-becoming football’s equivalent of the Crusades?