Hanging effigies, offensive banners, sectarian chanting… so why did police praise Old Firm fans?
By Graham Grant
WITH 100 million TV viewers globally and the celebrity endorsement of Sir Rod Stewart, Old Firm clashes are deeply embedded in Scottish culture.
Few sporting fixtures can equal their sheer sense of occasion — and without them the game would be deprived of one of the world’s greatest footballing rivalries.
And yet underlying that tradition, stretching back more than a century, is a poisonous sewer of sectarianism whose stench refuses to go away.
This weekend’s clash at Celtic Park was — in relative terms — a policing success, with just one arrest inside the ground, leading police to praise fans for their good behaviour.
But the bar has been set low: anything short of the city being razed to the ground appears to count as a triumph for the forces of law and order in the wake of these extraordinary games.
For all their popularity, palpable tension surrounds them and the frequently reported phenomenon of a spike in domestic violence in their aftermath only serves to underline the powder-keg nature of these deeply tribal fixtures.
Police Scotland recorded a 43 per cent rise in domestic abuse incidents on Sunday, April 17, when Celtic played Rangers at Hampden Park in Glasgow.
On Saturday, at the first Old Firm league game for four years, there was also the appalling spectacle of effigies wearing Rangers scarves hanging from the Jock Stein stand, in a sick stunt by a section of the Celtic support.
Pictures of the sex dolls — with their hands bound behind their backs as if they had been executed — appeared on social media, ensuring a mass audience was able to witness the disgraceful scenes.
The effigies — one wearing a Rangers scarf and the other an Orange sash, with nooses around their necks — had been hung from a banner reading: ‘This is it bhoys, this is war.’
That it happened only days after former Rangers star Kris Boyd spoke out about his brother, Scott, taking his own life made it all the more abhorrent.
A huge banner on display in the Celtic end read: ‘Know your place Hun scum.’
Chants aimed at Celtic fans from their Rangers rivals included one of ‘paedo’ and ‘Jimmy Savile is one of your own’ by groups carrying flags bearing the Red Hand of Ulster, as well as the Union flag.
There was also loud pro-IRA chanting and singing from some Celtic supporters.
The toilet and washing room area in the visiting supporters’ end of Celtic Park were badly vandalised, and outside the stadium were flags and banners associated with the Northern Ireland Troubles.
Some observers also saw aggressive incidents in the vicinity of Celtic Park. But despite the bigotry and violence, only a 22-year-old man was arrested for an alleged alcohol-fuelled incident.
Later, police were called to an incident at the Rosevale Tavern on Dumbarton Road in the Partick area of Glasgow, following reports of ‘blood all over the steps’, after what was believed to be a glassing attack. The pub was previously owned by former Rangers manager Walter Smith.
A man, believed to be in his 30s, was taken to hospital after apparently being injured, but no arrests were made.
Earlier, Chief Superintendent Brian McInulty, commenting on Police Scotland’s matchday operation, had praised ‘all the supporters who came to enjoy the match today in a safe and responsible manner’.
It seems that the avoidance of outright anarchy is counted as something of a coup for police. Much of the hatred festers online. As the Nil By Mouth anti-sectarian group said, there remains a ‘voyeurism’ around the Old Firm, with ‘people spending time on social media antagonising others’.
Spokesman Dave Scott said: ‘There are people who use this match as a hook for wilful, hateful ignorance. It’s a size-able minority that are living in the Dark Ages and clubs have to deal with this issue.’
Mr Scott is right to identify that Neanderthal ‘minority’ as the source of the hate that blights the game.
The vast majority of supporters of both sides were appalled by the scenes on Saturday.
The thousands of Scots who are not Old Firm fans — or even football fans — also looked on in despair and horror.
There are many who feel that there are deep-seated cultural issues at play which require a complete change of mindset to overcome — a change that they fear will probably never happen.
In that context, the police response perhaps reflects that fatalism: you have to tolerate some level of anti-social behaviour and bigotry because, well, that’s just the way it is.
Police are also in an unenviable position, trying to contain an event that at every turn threatens to escalate into outright violence, and they must be careful not to inflame those tensions with a heavy-handed approach.
While we can sympathise with the challenge they face, that single arrest — paraded as proof that the event was an unalloyed success — does not in any way tell the whole story of what happened on Saturday.
Not for the first time, open and blatant prejudices were given full voice in the stadium which — had they been exhibited in the street — would have led to arrests being made.
But is the corrosive hatred that defines these fixtures truly ineradicable?
Attempts to legislate the problem away, beginning with former First Minister Jack McConnell’s condemnation of the ‘secret shame’ of sectarianism, have ended largely in failure.
The SNP’s Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act, intended to crack down on sectarian chanting, has been widely condemned by fans and politicians alike — and was once memorably dismissed by a sheriff as a ‘mince’.
But the ultimate proof of its failure was evident in those bigoted chants at Celtic Park on Saturday, which it seems police were prepared to ignore on the day — despite officers having been taught the lyrics of sectarian songs as part of their preparation for such events.
Just as objectionable is the apparent inertia of the clubs themselves, which too often appear to be in a state of denial about the extent of sectarianism among their supporters.
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has issued a ‘get tough’ warning to all clubs that they should adopt strict liability — where clubs can be punished with points deductions for the conduct of fans, regardless of whether the club itself is to blame.
Unsurprisingly, there is little appetite among football bosses for such a move. But Mr Matheson should be commended for at least attempting to broker an innovative solution.
As much as both Rangers and Celtic will look to police to ensure the fans behind the worst bigotry are brought to justice, they cannot avoid their own responsibilities.
The scores of fans holding those offensive banners can be located by their seat numbers, and season ticket holders can be expelled — for once, sending a clear signal that this kind of conduct is utterly beyond the pale.
It is clear that the yobs who fuel sectarian hatred are in a minority and their behaviour shames law-abiding fans.
But club bosses need to wake up to the reality that they have a vital role to play in lifting this darkest of shadows from our national game.