This is a grand old book to read
Richard Wilson has done something very brave in today’s anti-fan atmosphere: provided a joyous account of the fierce rivalry between Glasgow’s football giants, Celtic and Rangers.
Many years ago, I took a new girlfriend to an Old Firm game: a match between Glasgow’s great footballing rivals, Celtic and Rangers. Standing in the appropriately named ‘Jungle’, surrounded by uncouth fans in a state of heightened aggression and tension, I realised early on it was a big mistake. Yet despite vowing never to go near a football game again, she admitted to envying me my love of Celtic and conceded that shopping trips and spa weekends don’t quite compare.
One thing that comes up again and again in Inside the Divide, the latest book about the Celtic-Rangers divide, is the noise at these infamous ‘Old Firm’ games. Top striker turned TV presenter Gary Lineker is quoted as saying: ‘I can testify that there is nothing to compare with them in terms of their intensity and ferocity, not to mention the sheer noise.’ Similar sentiments come from Richard Gordon, who presents a show on BBC Radio Scotland: ‘They [Old Firm games] are an absolute assault on the senses in so many ways; they do excite me, and they quite often leave me feeling drained…The wall of noise completely blew me away.’ Author Richard Wilson tells us that the noise is so loud at Old Firm games that the engineers have to turn up the fader that mixes out the sounds of the crowd in the commentators headphones.
What is immediately striking about this new book is that the noise, intensity and passion of Celtic v Rangers games are described in positive terms – something that I had not dared to expect after a year in which the criminalisation of the two teams’ fans has culminated in draconian new laws which could imprison them for up to five years for chanting the wrong slogans or singing the wrong songs.
No new book on Celtic and Rangers could avoid references to the widespread problematising of the behaviour of these fans, but this book is refreshingly different. Rather than hearing from the politicians, chattering classes and media commentators who have dominated the debate about football in Scotland, this book interviews fans, players, referees, backroom staff, stewards and even the staff on the ferries that transport the many fans who come from the north of Ireland, week in, week out. The overwhelming picture is of people who are insanely and irrationally in love with their football team and the experience of watching them play. The pain of losing and the joy of winning – emotions all too familiar to lifelong fans like me – are described in graphic detail. One Celtic supporter sums up the feeling of watching his team score in an away game at the Rangers ground, Ibrox: ‘It’s group delirium – 8,000 people hugging strangers, you feel part of something. I always feel sorry for people who don’t understand football because they will never get to experience that.’
Another says ‘It’s frightening, terrifying, exhilarating and inspirational all at the one time. It is the fastest 90 minutes of the week. So wrapped up in the affair are you, so joined to the action like a limpet mine, that you daren’t check your watch or look up at the scoreboard to see how long there is to go.’
Even when Wilson addresses the issues that have been at the centre of the recent controversy, like the singing of ‘sectarian songs’, he brings a radically different take to the one we have been subjected to in the media and political arena. Describing Rangers songs, he says: ‘For all the focus in recent years on songs which may have naughty add-ons or be slightly south of politically correct, what you often find at this game is a rich variety – a more impressive repertoire – of the whole associated songbook: songs about the Union, monarchy, loyalism and rivalry sitting comfortably with traditional Rangers anthems.’
That the preferred songs of Rangers fans can be described as a ‘rich variety’ would have Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, choking on his biscuits, and shines a light on how distorted and irrational the debate about sectarianism in Scotland has become. For most of the people interviewed in this book, the songs that could now land fans in prison for up to five years are ‘part of the heritage of Rangers and Celtic’. As if to prove his point, Wilson peppers his chapter on the experience of fans in the stands with verses of the respective songs. Read from the page, a verse of a Celtic favourite, ‘A Grand Old Team to Play For’, looks strikingly similar to a Rangers standard, ‘The Sash My Father Wore’ – and both look pretty innocuous. Wilson also injects a note of reality, quoting fans pointing out that the whole point of songs and chants at football games is to wind up the other side and songs that are not offending rival fans are not worth singing.
Nor does Wilson appear to accept the terms of the debate in wider Scottish society about the supposed dangerous rise of sectarianism in Scottish football. Echoing points I have made in previous articles on spiked, Wilson points out: ‘Religion is a presence at Old Firm games, but in the way that it provides forms of expression rather than as an influence on behaviour… The vast majority of supporters on both sides of the Old Firm divide do not believe they are defending their faith so much as their club; old insults and provocations that linger from previous generations are grasped as part of the identity the fans are embracing.’
So why the feeding frenzy in Scotland over the past few years that has demonised and criminalised these fans? This book will not provide the answers, but by examining the reality of what happens at the match, Wilson raises very important questions about why we have had this debate at all. Contrary to widely held perceptions, he points out that arrests have decreased and reports that violence at Old Firm games has declined in recent years.
In another revealing extract he reminds us that Glasgow’s biggest attendance to A&E departments on the day of a football match was after the apparently respectable Scotland v France game in October 2006. ‘Much of the rivalry today is good natured, or at least lacking a savage edge compared to the 70s, 80s and into the 90s, when violence invariably followed an Old Firm game.’ The myth of sectarianism is further slayed when Wilson reveals that most new marriages in Glasgow are between Catholics and Protestants rather than within the same religion and that church attendance is in decline, adding to the increasingly secular nature of Scottish society.
In other words, the increasing political obsession with sectarianism is in inverse proportion to the influence of sectarianism in everyday life. Yet Wilson shows that the decline in violence has coincided with an exponential rise in police activity around Old Firm games – with police now patrolling all the pubs, filming in the stands and even visiting the homes of fans with records of domestic violence in advance of games. Wilson points out that ‘sectarian offences’ are ‘now the most likely to result in police action’ with fans being charged for shouting ‘Fenian’ or ‘dirty Orange bastards’.
To the extent that Wilson concedes problems with football fans, he locates these firmly in wider Scottish society and culture: ‘The game is not some kind of isolated expression of anger, recklessness or drunken aggression.’ Wilson believes that problems with alcohol in Scotland are deeply rooted. He writes: ‘Scotland is a country in which parts of society display a blithe attitude to alcohol and violence. Masculinity, conformity and a sense of belonging are all indelibly linked to drinking, which is so prevalent that members of the older generation will often mutter, “I dinnae trust anybody who’s no a drinker, son. Never.”’
To use words like bravery and courage about a book about football seems strange, but simply writing about Celtic and Rangers in such positive terms is brave in the current climate – a point driven home by the outraged online reaction to a positive book review in the Observer by football columnist Kevin McKenna. His crime was to defend Old Firm passion. For his sins, he was described variously as reckless, irresponsible and lending respectability to thuggery and tribalism.
This book shows that one person’s violent criminal thug is another person’s loyal, passionate and intense football fan. This book should be compulsory reading for all those politicians and commentators who have played such a major part in criminalising all fans. Though not its main aim, the book sticks two fingers up at those who wish to pathologise the behaviour of Celtic and Rangers fans and it cocks a snook at the political elites and moral entrepreneurs who look on such fans with contempt and would have them locked up just because they don’t like the songs they sing.
For the rest of us, Wilson’s book is a must-read for different reasons: because it is a reminder of everything that is good about the Old Firm. Celtic and Rangers fans share something important – a unique and passionate love for their respective teams that is envied around the world, even by that former girlfriend of mine – now my wife!
Kevin Rooney is a teacher based in London.