Not wanting to spoil my MOTD experience (it’s time for me to say hello again to the remote control) I declined the greatest league in the world match choice, tolerated a small portion of one of the Matrix films and settled on the college football game between Army and Navy. I can’t say I know much about it but I enjoyed the atmosphere and the way the game clearly meant something to all involved, on the field and in the stands. Having done some minimal research it’s clearly mostly a tradition, and in the grander scheme of things perhaps not that important in the wider world of college ‘American’ football. But that doesn’t mean that the game lacked edge or import. The sight on the sideline of the disconsolate losing quarterback with head first in hands, then in a towel, was an image with which anyone who supports a sporting team can identify. Losing hurts. And when you’ve fumbled away the ball, grasping defeat to that forehead when victory was within the grasp, and that defeat is to a rival it’s utterly miserable.
Rivalry is primarily about wanting to beat your opponents, and being able as a club to gain more trophies and a competitive edge and as a fan to gain a temporary advantage in pub and work conversations, but it should also touch on the matter of matching yourself against someone for whom you have respect, if even in a grudging manner: after all, if you don’t see the games against your rivals as important in the basic sense then what are we really doing here? Where’s the enjoyment in beating them? It can be tribal, it can be a community thing or have a national or social dimension but when it tips over into nothing but hatred then it loses perspective and the ability to do the rivalry justice and keep it healthy.
Many of the greatest of players, some of the greatest men to wear either the blue or other jersey, have been good friends off the park and would often be much cosier than your average fan would be happy to contemplate. That doesn’t mean they were any less committed on the field or that the desire on the pitch to put the other side to the sword was compromised. These men were and are for the most case proper professionals. Most of us have friends, workmates, sometimes even long-lost cousins who support the other side and even if they sometimes slip from the Christmas card list (this is why having a wife is both good and bad) there are few instances where reasonable people cannot be tolerated in one’s life.
But I’m afraid as I look at how the rivalry in Glasgow terms has developed, that recent times have brought out the pernicious, petty, obsessive, creepy and in increasing number of cases, the mentally disturbed side of the Celtic support.
Not content with a form of mass hypnosis over the ‘Big’ tax case through the means of a partisan and increasingly messianic blog, it has spilled onto the airwaves, and sprouted as the proliferation of blogs and personal preaching posts has consumed and in some cases diverted more mainstream voices and what were once more responsible mediums.
At least one national newspaper had to close the comments sections on their articles due to the unchecked lunacy of the mob and in general terms the toxicity and unrestrained venom which was once the calling-card of the social misfit has become the common currency of the (admittedly small) self-elected voices of the support. All the while the most outrageous and actionable commentary has been excused all standards of decency, accuracy, moderation and temperance by the seized truth that the MSM (mainstream media) had failed the common fan and thus had surrendered the moral high ground and begat the monster, with all the poison and wildness that comes with it.
The growth in volume and importance of social media undoubtedly has something to do with it all, and of course larger congregations of fandom across the web (on message boards, private forums, newsletters, groups and other arrangements beyond the ken of this young fogey) have for years fostered a sense of shared identity and grievance alike, while offering a chance to develop arguments, strategies and confirming suspicions and condoning long-held slightly extremist opinions as some inverted case of groupthink.
Much good can come from all this: fans’ groups, supporters’ trusts, ways for the fans to get across their concerns and improve relations between them and their Club. And without the input from the fans the sporting media covering Glasgow and Scottish football, across print, web, phone-ins and all possible outlets, would be in a spot of trouble.
But here’s where it has gone wrong. People who have for a number of years been pushing away at what is possible and have at almost every juncture been patronised, then permitted before finally becoming indulged have lost track of what is decent and what is normal.
Spending hundreds of hours writing blogs about your rival, going to great lengths to publicise private and confidential material about them even if it may lead to prosecution, being en-masse more interested in the day-to-day reporting of the events surrounding that Club (to the point where you complain vociferously to media providers that fans of the team in question should not even be allowed to discuss matters on their platforms and phone up and write in merely to discuss that team with seemingly no real interest in your own sporting family) should have alarm bells ringing with neutrals or those still employed in the neutral mainstream.
This all became commonplace and was given the boost of life when the concerns and campaigns of supporters were taken up and adopted as hobby horses by certain journalists, academics and ‘social commentators’ who felt that the fans could be useful in a wider crusade. But once you start giving the tonic to the Buckfast maniac it’s hard to ask him to stop drinking.
Writing to UEFA, FIFA, the SFA, the UK Government, the Scottish Government in an attempt to place your rival in a position where they may be censured or denied assistance is one thing but when it becomes the case that you are, quite seriously, composing repeated missives to such as the local trading standards office to complain about RFC’s 140th anniversary commemoration then you know the game is up. It should be time to step away, to cuddle the kids, to take some nice walks or to put away the pen or the stimulants.
Sadly, all too many of those who are the forefront of such actions are not your stereotypical NEDs, who remain more likely to find themselves in trouble at games after one too many sips, or on social media where they seem to think themselves simultaneously invisible and yet worth reading. No, the campaigns are orchestrated by grown men, with wives and families, sometimes with responsible jobs and all too often adopting the cloak of respectability in the professions.
What we’re seeing, week after week, month after month, has gone way past that concept of healthy rivalry. It’s disturbing but unrelenting. And what’s to stop them continuing, save in some cases the threat of litigation reducing their once proud collection of articles to a blank space? It’s certainly not going to be widespread condemnation from the mass media. The mood is still one of bitterness, hatred and a pathological desire to reinvent history, redefine the meaning of words and phrases and to push a distorted and perverted viewpoint toward a place as the only accepted reality.
There is no sign of the madness abating and at the first signs of a return serve, which is welcome and all too apparent in recent months from both within and without the Rangers Football Club, all that occurs is a cranking-up of the demented dial: As was evident from a revealing if deeply disturbing conversation on the national radio broadcaster this afternoon wherein it becomes clear that the parameters of the ongoing case against Rangers are all that will change and we as supporters are permanently to blame and uniquely to be held to some standard that no other Club’s reps will ever have to consider. Had this level of sustained and borderline cult wish-fulfilment been presented in a case where an individual had suffered, it seems very hard to escape the conclusion that those continuing to press for blood, justice and revenge and to insist upon both guilt and inherent, unquestioned blame would be held up as fundamentalist lunatics or (depending on the target) unrepentant misogynists, zealots, racists or worse. And yet this is deemed acceptable and editorially normal behaviour for the national broadcaster.
It’s no longer about sport, if ever it were truly only about that, and it’s barely about different sets of similar people having a joke or attempting some form of borderline banter or understandable one-upmanship - it’s now nowhere near healthy and it’s baffling that more has not been made of it. There is now almost nothing that you could present as a comic scenario involving opposition fans that could not easily become true. Some on our side have been slow to come to the realisation that our permanent obliteration from the map, the leagues and the history books is the aim here for some. That is stiff language but it is hard to come to any other conclusion based on the events of 2012.
We’re not so much through the looking glass but turning one upon ourselves as football fans and rivals, and we cannot possibly like what we see.
As such, and with all due seriousness and taking into account all the great memories accumulated in nearly thirty years of going to, watching, listening and reading about games past and present, it must be the case that a good number of fans of the Rangers would happily take the pill offered to (and passed over by) Neo in the Matrix and never again have to contemplate another Glasgow derby.
That would be a terrible loss for the great book of sporting rivalry but when sport becomes war there are no real winners. Thankfully, despite the best efforts of some both inside and outside this greatest of institutions, and although we may have suffered a lost battle or two we have clearly turned the corner and with newfound, demonstrably reinforced spirit and strength are ready for any challenge to be faced.
And not before time: you cannot survive and prosper if you insist on playing by rules that no longer apply.