Could Old Firm boardrooms step further away from sectarianism?

Its not religion that’s the problem, it’s the lack of it’ – Protestant Jock Stein, Celtics most successful manager, summed up his and the majority of Scotland’s views on the Sectarianism and bigotry that brutally divides the supporters of Glasgow’s ‘Old Firm’, Rangers and Celtic. Stein made this observation towards the end of his glittering managerial career whilst managing Scotland in the early 80s. So here we stand, as a nation, almost thirty years on, and it’s safe to say Scotland is no more religious now as it was then. But what have the boards of these two clubs that dominate Scottish football done to tackle the problem? Have they done their utmost to curb the cancer of Scottish football?

David Murray, who has recently stepped down as rangers chairman, claimed last year that ‘in the 20 years I’ve been at this club, there has been a vast, vast improvement on the behaviour of sectarianism at the club’. How much of this is down to Murray and his board? In 2002, Rangers launched an orange strip, a colour that they have never sported before. Immediate comparisons were made to the orange order (Rangers fans have worn orange clothing to games for years) and Rangers were accused of profiting from their sectarian overtones. Despite proving hugely popular, Rangers dropped the strip after only one season. Last year, Celtic wore a strip with famine memorial crests across the centre of the shirt against Hibernian. Hibernian, who were also founded by Irish immigrants during the potato famine, didn’t feel the need to mark the occasion.

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Almost every Saturday between August and May, one stadium in Glasgow (it is still unthinkable to pit the two teams playing at home on the same day) will be packed with tens of thousands of Celtic fans in the East End, or Rangers fans in the Govan area. The matchday experience at both of these grounds consists of  the PA system blaring songs right up until kick-off. At Ibrox, Tina Turner’s ‘Simply The Best’ is one of the highlights. Gaining popularity in the 90’s during Rangers period of dominance, the breaks between lines in the chorus are taken advantage of by the Rangers fans to add in ‘F**k the Pope and the IRA’. For years, it seems the only person in the stadium who doesn’t hear this is the DJ, who insists on playing it week in, week out, along with ‘The Billy Boys.’ Of course, this only highlights how little encouragement some fans need, but it also shows how Rangers could do a lot more to step away and prevent bigotry.

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Across the city at Parkhead, things aren’t much better. There, the DJ opts for a more traditional approach, playing Irish anthems and toned-down republican songs like ‘Let The People Sing’, that urges the crowd to ’sing their stories and their songs, and the music of their native land, their lullabies and battle-cries and songs of hope and joy.’ Songs at these grounds are then sung throughout the match, often started by official singing ‘groups’ that were created in recent years in attempts to improve atmosphere. At Parkhead, the main group is titled ‘The Green Brigade’, an obvious reference to the ‘brigades’ referred to in Irish republican anthem ‘The Boys Of The Old Brigade’. Rangers attempts are similarly blatant, with their chief group called ‘The Blue Order’, a clear reference to the Orange Order.

A fortnight ago, as Rangers approached their champions league game with Romanian side Unirea, they decided to halt the slump in ticket sales by giving almost two thousand free tickets away to the British army. This was done amid a wave of publicity created by the club, stating that the club were ‘in total support of these brave individuals.’ On the face of it, this is a kind gesture. But when investigated, perhaps cynically, the move by the club could easily trigger reactions from certain sections of the Celtic fans. Also, Rangers didnt make the move until Unirea declined their allocation of tickets, meaning there was at least 1800 tickets that wernt going to be sold at least. Perhaps ill-advised, it would have been more beneficial for Rangers to keep distance from these issues and publicity. For the bigoted minority amongst the Celtic fans, their hatred of the British army is so strong that several hundred walked out of the stadium after the poppy featured on their shirt last year. Last weekend, the Celtic chairman John Reid, an ex home and defence secretary, didn’t wear a poppy to Parkhead.

The mindless element of these supports will, if things continue as they are, always be present. From PA speakers to strips, the clubs are still enshrined in politics of no importance to what the vast majority of fans are there to see. Lots of older fans were raised in age where Sectarianism was more acceptable and present all around them. It is clear the Celtic and Rangers could be doing a lot more to ensure that more young fans don’t suffer the same fate.