Why Does Football Matter So Much? And is it about something else?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, May 25th 2016

Football saturates Scotland. It fills numerous conversations and dominates spaces, both public and private – and affects attitudes, thoughts and emotions. According to some measures Scotland is the most football mad part of Europe; in others, it comes third behind Iceland and Cyprus.

This isn’t just an essay about football – so if you aren’t a football fan, don’t stop reading as this affects you. If you are a football fan – and a partisan follower – let me be clear. I do not hate or want to denigrate any of Scotland’s football clubs, Rangers and Celtic included, while I do not see any club as beyond redemption or above reproach.

The Scottish Cup Final last Saturday between Hibs and Rangers was a captivating game of football. Hibs dramatically won the Scottish Cup for the first time in 114 years and then all hell broke loose.

A section of Hibs fans invaded the pitch. There was violence and chaos amongst a very small section of the minority of Hibs fans that breached the barriers. A tiny number of Rangers fans responded in a similar manner looking for trouble. All of this was on live TV. The police and security seemed briefly stunned and immobilised. But just as serious was the aftermath. Hibs and Rangers, fans and clubs, spoke in the immediate period – and days after – in what amounted to entirely different languages from completely different worlds. It was as if they were talking about entirely separate events – bereft of a mutual language and way of seeing things.

Many Hibs fans dismissed concerns about misbehaviour and violence. They ridiculed the claims of Rangers of aggression and assault of the club’s players and officials. They were ‘bad losers’, ‘typical Rangers’, ‘a club in denial’ and one with ‘a wounded entitlement culture’ – unable and unwilling to adjust to events of the recent years.

Many Rangers fans showed their anger and fury. They attacked anyone who wasn’t completely on their side and those opposed to their interpretation: ‘Rangers haters’, ‘out to do this club down’, ‘Celtic pedos’ and ‘terrorist supporters’. The Rangers blogger Jonny spoke of a systematic attempt to dehumanise the club’s supporters and what he saw as an ‘intellectually empty, sneering, faux moral superiority’ amongst other fans.

This is about so much. There is the near-universal loathing of Rangers in sections of society. Never the most loved institution in Scotland, this has reached new levels after the club imploded, went into liquidation, and what followed. This has been matched by the indignation and bewilderment that Rangers fans feel about being forced to start again in the lowest league, which they see (wrongly in the eyes of other clubs) as punishment.

Scottish football has always carried complicated baggage. There is the view of many Celtic supporters who view the game as shaped by an anti-Celtic/anti-Irish Catholic prejudice – from refereeing, to the media and SFA. Many even go further and think the roots of this are to be found in an organised Rangers conspiracy – which feeds into and shapes significant sections of the media. Some think the club has never been fully accepted as part of Scottish society, and perpetually see themselves as outsiders, even underdogs (which clearly has a historical basis in reality, considering how prevalent anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish sentiment was until relatively recently). All of this leaves for the moment the nature of the ‘Old Firm’ cartel, and how Scottish football has been run as a closed shop since the advent of professional football in 1893.

In the here and now, there is the big question of how we get past the hurt feelings and passions of the last few years. Rangers as a club never really said ‘sorry’ to their own fans and wider game for letting everybody down: for the administration, liquidation and years of maladministration and terrible stewardship of the club beforehand.

The rest of the game mostly saw it as cathartic that Rangers had to start again in the fourth tier. Little attempt was made to hold the olive branch out and understand how the good Rangers fans had first been betrayed by David Murray, Craig Whyte and a host of others, and then left feeling got at by the rest of the game. Whatever the many rights and wrongs, it isn’t a great place to be left: hurt, alone and badly bruised, and thinking no one understands you.

This isn’t just about football. It is much more important and serious. After all rumour has it that football is just a sport, and ultimately doesn’t matter too much. It is about society. And it is about, what can only be described across parts of Scotland as, a chasmic public empathy deficit.

This phenomenon could be seen in the recent Rangers implosion, reaction of others, and the club’s re-emergence coming through the lower leagues. It could be witnessed in many manifestations of the indyref amongst some of the most blinkered zealots. But it can be seen elsewhere in the way that Scottish politics hasn’t nurtured pluralism: from the pursuit of the toxic Tories in the wake of Thatcherism, to the desire to punish Labour post-Iraq war and post-Tony Blair and the dogmatic cheerleading of some Nationalists no matter what they do or don’t do.

None of this emerged overnight. There is a historical backstory founded in a myriad of factors such as religion, geography, terrain, climate, our ‘in bed with an elephant’ relationship with England, brutal industrialisation and endemic poverty and powerlessness in our past. It also has a more recent contemporary variant in public life and politics where people willfully sit in their own comfort zones and are happy to try to deny the right and legitimacy of opposing views.

It could be argued that all of Scotland’s underlying problems and challenges – economic, social, cultural, demographic – from the long-term lower economic growth rate than the rest of the UK, to the educational attainment gap now flavour of the month with the Scottish Government, and ‘the Glasgow effect’ of health inequalities – all have their origins in this empathy gap.

As a society we have done very little to recognise this. The exceptions are few and far between. There is the pioneering work of the Violence Reduction Unit attempting to address the origins of crime and violent behaviour; the trailblazing and liberating activities of Sistema in Raploch, Stirling; the argument of Carol Craig’s ‘The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence’ published over a decade ago as a counterblast to conformist thinking, and the writings, musing and free spirit of the rapper Loki. These are but a few examples, but while there are others, it would still be a very, very short list.

We have to talk about this. Rangers are whether anyone likes it or not a Scottish club and institution with Scottish traditions and histories. They represent and say something about all of ‘us’ as a society. The same is true in equal measure of Celtic. Both of them have things to be proud of, blemishes, and things they could do much, much better and confront.

How do we even begin to start facing up to this? There is the story of recent years and Rangers implosion and road back, and then the longer story of Rangers and Celtic’s dominance of the game. How can the mutual non-understanding, fear and loathing felt by many Rangers and non-Rangers fans towards each other be tackled? What do we do about the football and wider tensions between the ‘Old Firm’ and the rest of football? And what can be done about the relationship between the supposed beautiful game and everything else in society?

All of this needs context. A large part, if not most of the Celtic/Rangers rivalry today, even when it spills over into violence and intimidation, isn’t really in any literal meaning about sectarianism. This is used as a catch-all description to capture issues of tribalism, belonging and identity. The them/us duopoly of the ‘Old Firm’ with its well-worn historical reference points and inappropriate songs celebrating Northern Irish troubles isn’t really – to use a recent word – about ‘Ulsterisation’ in any form, but about mutually antagonistic sporting traditions which began with religious roots. The football historian Bob Crampsey used to have a brilliant description about how when the term ‘Old Firm’ was first coined in 1904, it caught the way the two clubs worked to play to their captive markets – fossilising part of Scotland in the process in a kind of Cold War permafrost.

It is also true that the football fans who cause trouble even in its broadest definition are not a majority of society – or anywhere near a majority of any club’s supporters. But there is in places – a culture of quiet acquiescence – whereby certain clubs, Celtic and Rangers in particular, have soft-peddled or refused to challenge the most problematic strands of their own traditions, and how some fans have chosen to represent it.

This reflects football’s place, dominance, and the emotional investment hundreds of thousands of fans put into it. It is about class, but not in any simplistic working class ‘bad’/middle class ‘good’ dichotomy, but what is seen as permissible and not permissible. There is a West of Scotland dimension – which then again isn’t to say other parts of the country are immune.

Then there is the thorny aspect of gender and certain manifestations of Scottish masculinity. A couple of years ago, St. Andrews University produced academic research which showed a link between ‘Old Firm’ matches and spikes in domestic violence in Glasgow. To some of us it didn’t seem surprising, but it was illuminating that Celtic and Rangers both chose publically to dismiss the research saying it hadn’t proved the link: the two clubs united once more in defence of denying domestic violence.

In the last four years, there has been an absence of regular Celtic v. Rangers matches, with a mere two cup-ties between the pair. After all the prophecies of ‘Armageddon’ and even one local economic development agency calculating that its absence could cost the Glasgow economy £120 million over three years, the city has felt a freer, gentler, safer place. You could almost sense it in the air: the absence of the merry-go-round and media circus, the build-ups and tensions, and expectation of altercations, even violence. Most of that is about Scottish (and a sprinkling of Northern Irish and Irish) men.

The Scotland with no or little empathy is a society which doesn’t acknowledge the rights of others. If you live and think in a bunkerist mindset, the world looks simple and like a battlefield. That kind of attitude is not particularly healthy for any individual, nor is it conducive to early 21st century life.

We do need to confront this difficult stuff. We need the courage to face up to our own internal demons, the bitterness and rage that still has hold in sections of our society, and confront those who reference past battles they know little about to validate problem views today. This is about so much more than football, and how for some, no matter how packed or empty their lives are, football is elevated into this uncontrollable passion when ultimately it is only a sport. What does that say about Scotland in 2016 and what some of us lack, and clearly revel in lacking?

Empathy requires putting yourself in other’s shoes. One standard defence of the Hibs pitch invasion on Saturday past was that it was in the words of Hibs fan Simon Pia ‘an explosion of joy’, a ‘carnival atmosphere’ and ‘the ecstasy after the agony’. Now while Simon did go on to condemn the violence, this was after several minutes in the above vein, and he still talked about the troubles being ‘overhyped’ and ‘overspun’. One Hibs fan reflected that in recent years, ‘the deep hatred of Rangers has gotten worse’ and that the Offence Behaviour at Football Act has made all this even more poisonous, as part of Rangers support is seen to act with ‘immunity’.

Imagine if it had all been the other way around and Rangers having won the cup in the last minutes coming from behind, celebrated in a cathartic way their first senior trophy triumph since the ignominy of liquidation. Would large sections of Scotland listen to their explanations of celebration and collective joy, or would they see it as something darker, about intimidation, wanting to settle old scores, and an element of triumphalism? The answer is obvious, and it cannot be right that we have such blatantly different criterion for one club and another for everyone else.

I have written this piece with a small amount of apprehension. At times in the last four years I have had negative comments and threats from some Rangers fans, when I wish their club no ill will at all, merely to challenge some of the worst things which have happened in that institution. But Rangers cannot be singled out and treated differently from everyone else, and the widespread conceit self-evident in many Celtic fans (some of who even go blue with rage at the mention of the term ‘Old Firm’ with its implied equivalence) is equally problematic.

On a practical level, any thoughts of the abolition of the badly put together Offensive Behaviour at Football Act can be forgotten, as can any Jim Murphy-like relaxation of alcoholic drinking at football grounds. There was an air of soft, misty booziness on the Saturday past around and in Hampden, aided by sunny Glasgow weather. It seems as if sections of Scottish society still don’t want to grow up: a judgement amply multiplied by the post-fracas reactions.

Somehow we have to heal the wounds of the last few years, of the Rangers crash and burn, and the ripples it sent through the game and society. These were momentous events, and we are going to live with their aftereffect for years to come: the normal order having been severely disrupted. At the same time, the motional baggage and weight the game carries in Scotland, and which in many respects, burdens it, needs challenging. This ranges from the ‘Old Firm’ dysfunctional relationship and dominance, to football’s place in the media and society, and why all of this matters so much to so many Scottish men. Why do some still choose to give such emotional credence to football, and in so doing cause such damage to themselves and others? This is still sadly for too many the Scotland of 2016, and we have to start facing up to it.