From those to whom much is given…….

An awful lot has been written after last Wednesday’s Old Firm shennanigans, but then, there’s an awful lot to write about – or is there? I think I heard ex SFA supremo, Gordon Smith, say on Good Morning Scotland that the problems couldn’t be dealt with because the match was ‘too big’. At the time I was annoyed with that reaction, but, on reflection, I think, in a way, he may be right.

In the wake of any Old Firm outburst of unacceptable behaviour, when the consequent rise in arrests, in domestic violence, in drink fuelled mayhem, is mentioned, the causes are always related to sectarianism and bigotry. This is useful for those who gain from the attention drawn to the fixture by bad behaviour – the media, the subscription tv channels and, ultimately, the clubs themselves. Various football figures have been spouting this week telling us how it ‘shows the passion for this great rivalry’ when grown men square up to each other, on and off the pitch. The ‘sectarianism’ answer is useful for those who suggest it, because we all know you can’t solve sectarianism overnight, and there will always be another Old Firm game coming up in a few weeks, so let’s just thole it and enjoy the talking points it provides. In other words, there’s nothing that can quickly change our society’s ills, so let’s do nothing.

Actually, this won’t wash. Sectarianism is blamed for far too much in a country where attatchment to religion is at an all time low; how many Scots genuinely KNOW the differences between Catholic and Protestant theology, and how many fewer give a toss? It’s a convenient tribal label – for those who fight and for those who write – but the Celtic v Rangers aggro merely reflects a particularly obnoxious element of Scottish male society – the need to be ‘hard’; to stand your ground; to prefer physical to intellectual conflict. Maybe it’s something to do with a post heavy industrial society – who knows. However, in that connection, you would note that the bile and hatred is entirely absent in derby games in a city with a similar demographic history – Liverpool.

The fact remains that we have, in Scotland, about as many terms for fighting as the eskimos do for snow. Linked with the predeliction for abuse of alcohol, it leads to an unacceptable level of violence in many areas of our society and goes hand in hand with a worryingly nihilistic approach to health and fitness, ambition and motivation. It’s a massive and important subject but not totally relevant to eradicating what happened on Wednesday night. And why?

Well, because what happened on Wednesday night was about nothing more than responsibility. And about the way football clubs, desperate to maximise cash intake, will pervert sport in the name of profit. I’m not about to point the finger at either of Glasgow’s football clubs; I’m not really bothered about ‘who is most to blame’. Viewed from the relative safety of Edinburgh, they look pretty similar. However, certain facts apply, and apply across football these days. Putting pressure on the referee, whether in pre or post match quotes or by encouraging players to mob him after debatable decisions is now seen as a ‘professional’ way of going about your business. Self justification by club directors, using press contacts, is also seen as the way to get the best treatment for your club. Managers are praised for their ‘mind games’ before major fixtures. Using short language, you could say ‘anything you can get away with that is to your advantage is permissible’. In football now, mostly, the end justifies the means. Maybe it should be ‘all about winning’, but the problem is that all of these actions have consequences.

Routinely questioning referee’s decisions leads to disrespect of the game’s rules and of fellow players; attacks on the integrity of opposing officials or players set a negative atmosphere; seeking to cheat – the referee, the fans, your teammates, or opponents means, ultimately, that anything is permissible – if you can get away with it. Macho expressions of intent on the field, and, no, I don’t mean heavy tackles or fierce competition, send simple and wrong messages to many of those in the stands who revel in the heady mix of testosterone and linament. For those of us who work with young people it becomes increasingly difficult to encourage the positive values of integrity, acceptance, truthfulness and fair play, when those whom they idolise spectacularly seek to prove on a regular basis that ‘keeping to the rules is for mugs’.

Those who control football clubs do not live in a bubble. They well know the aftermath of Old Firm games, the violence that simmers, the retribution that is meted out randomly after a defeat. The same applies to the players, though, increasingly, you do have to wonder about the connection of some of them to the real world.

When Rangers buy a player with the history of Diouf, they know what they are getting – a player with a penchant for controversy, or, in modern football terms, good box office. When Celtic employ Neil Lennon, along with his history, they know he will be totemic to a certain element of their support and negatively so to others in the city. So, yes, there IS great pressure on these employees, but it was certainly predictable – both to themselves and those who employed them.

So we come down to responsibility. What I have written above may be anthema to some folk, there’s no reason why my views on ‘why we are like we are’ should carry any weight at all, but what cannot be denied is the need for responsibility. If two teachers in front of a class, two pilots in the cockpit of an Airbus, two doctors in an AEU, or, despite the ‘Clydebuilt’ myths, two dockers on the quayside, had come together, publicly, in their workplace, as Lennon and McCoist did the other night, they would be dismissed. The fact that they were ‘under work pressure’ would have carried no weight in mitigation: part of their job remit would be to be calm under pressure and not exacerbate any emotions generated by the situation. These men, better than any of us, should know the passions generated by this particular football rivalry – whatever the debated causes. They should know, for instance, that ‘doin a Broony’, staring down an opponent deliberately and exaggeratedly, transcends gamesmanship when, away from the football pitch, it is imitated as a prequel to that all too common pre-fight inquisition: ‘What are you looking at?’. I’m sure, for Scott Brown, the whole performance is tongue in cheek, but he should know that, to thousands of fired up, agitated young male supporters, it comes across as deadly serious, an invitation to be hard. Part of the team talks should be focused on the consequences of thuggish behaviour on the pitch. It should be punished, if not by match officials, then by immediate substitution by the manager, because no tackle won or goal scored is worth the kind of violence away from the ground we are told results after the euphemistically described ‘feistier’ matches.

If managers know they have a short fuse, their place is in the stand, not in the dug out: away from possible confrontation or incitement. Football is passionate, yes, we all know that, but I know every week at the game that I cannot accost fellow supporters, that I have to control my anger, frustration or whatever. Why should managers or coaches – in a much more critical role – be any different? I understand why people say that football managing is not real pressure compared to being unemployed or seriously ill, but that’s a bit of a precious statement. Rightly or wrongly, football matters greatly to lots of folk, and a manager has the pressure of keeping his job and satisfying the fans. He IS going to feel pressure, and everyone can see the particular weight that is on Neil Lennon at present. But that pressure can never be an excuse for putting your own feelings ahead of the general good, for forgetting yourself to the extent that the two coaches did on Wednesday night. Like anyone else, those two, and their employers have to take responsibility for their actions, have to see the consequences of thuggish behaviour on or off the pitch. For, while the conflict on the pitch may be pretend substitution for warfare, the random violence often meted out in the streets after the game is very much real and lasting in its effects.

Afterwards, attempts were made by both clubs and, disgracefully, by some sports pundits, to minimise what happened. These people need to understand: it doesn’t matter who is to blame – though it always takes two to make a fight; it doesn’t matter whether they laid each other out or merely pushed and mouthed; and it certainly doesn’t matter, that, as reported, they ‘made it up afterwards’. I don’t care if they shared a pot of tea and looked at each others’ baby photos – that’s not what the public saw; what was beamed around the world was leading officials from two leading football clubs, brawling in front of 60,000 supporters. That was the image that was taken into hundreds of pubs and streets late on Wednesday night. That was the lead that was followed by those without the wit to separate sports rivalry from real life.

So, with responsibility, we have an attainable way forward to cooling this particular heat. Before the next game, irrespective of any official bans, Lennon and McCoist state that they will sit in the stand for future Old Firm games. Peter Lawwell and Martin Bain announce jointly that they have told the players that unacceptably violent play on the pitch or inciteful behavior will be met with instant substitution and a massive fine; then the ‘fourth official’, who currently seems largely redundant, will meet with both benches before kick off and will keep talking to them throughout the game in terms of their demeanour. Then the teams will play with the aggression and passion that teams all over the world manage in derbies, without overheating the fanbase. In other words, clubs and players will admit that their behaviour at the stadium affects the behaviour of their fans during and after the match and they will send out, clearly, the very rare message in Scottish society, that masculine aggression is not to be admired but to be pitied as a loss of control and intellectual capability. Then it will be up to the fans to get the message.

Crucially, we are told that the part of the brain that works out consequences develops more slowly in the male than in the female; in the male it is only fully developed at the age of 25. All the more reason then, that those involved in football who are over that age should bring positive pressure to bear on those – on the pitch and in the stands – who still have to reach that stage. The background to Glasgow’s football related violence may be long debated and slow to be changed, but at least, with this approach, the clubs will be absolved of some of the blame for instigating or exacerbating the mayhem.

The suggestions I’ve made are neither radical nor unfeasible. They tie in with the expectations and organisation of thousands who bear responsibility in the public eye in the course of their jobs. Nobody has yet convinced me that there is a reason for football employees to be any different in their approach and demeanour. Responsibility comes with the territory. Until we realise that, we will continue to have nightmares on, and off, the field of dreams.

Published by seánmcp

Former deputy headteacher; Edinburgh born Leitrim man; family man; writer, photographer and sports fan: cricket, football, GAA, athletics. Education & Welfare Officer at Hibernian FC; follow Hibs, Southport FC, Leitrim GAA, Dunedin Connollys GAA, Drumkeerin GAA, Cricket Scotland and Scottish Wildcats.

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