Desmond Kane

Old Firm conduct no worse than Europe’s elite

Desmond Kane

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Face contorted with rage, wild eyes bulging and arms moving as freely as windmill sails, he cut a figure of fury when it was all over. This was not the Celtic manager Neil Lennon after last week's much-maligned Old Firm match in the Scottish Cup, but Arsene Wenger venting his spleen after his Arsenal side had been stuffed by Barcelona in the Champions League.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the referee Massimo Busacca's decision to red card Robin van Persie last night, Wenger's reaction was no better or worse than the Rangers coach Ally McCoist whispering 'sweet nothings' in the ear of Lennon that prompted an untimely rant from the Celtic coach, and a period of unseemly squabbling.

If Lennon had emulated Wenger's lead in chastising the referee Calum Murray in such a fashion, Strathclyde Police would have charged him with a Breach of the Peace. It was not Lennon or McCoist's finest moment, but if the erudite Wenger can lose it, then the passion of two learning rather than learned coaches in Glasgow is surely understandable. 

Passion is what makes such football clubs tick. There is a myth that suggests Celtic and Rangers seem to own the copyright on unpleasant rivalry in British football. This is a suitable aside dreamt up by some English commentators who appear fearful of what may happen if the Glasgow clubs ever gain access to the monied Premier League.

Some slothful English cynics attempt to hold up the Old Firm's protruding masculinity and their respective band of supporters as a reason why they should never be allowed access to the Premier League, which is of course ill-founded tosh.

It is convenient to forget that Celtic fans were awarded the FIFA fair play award for their good-natured conduct in the Spanish city of Seville at the 2003 Uefa Cup final, but why let the facts of the matter get in the way of a good yarn? An estimated 80,000 fans travelled to Seville. The final was a celebration of all that is good about football as the hardy, but smaller band of Porto fans were welcomed with open arms after travelling over the border from Portugal.

One of the dubious delights of being a Scotsman stationed in England, is the recurring theme of trying to explain away some of the seemingly outlandish goings on in Scottish football. This can become particularly monotonous.

It did not take long for the issue of last week's shenanigans at Celtic Park to rear its already tiresome head while watching Fulham confront Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League at Craven Cottage last weekend. "I saw the Celtic and Rangers match the other night. That was a bit tasty," said a home fan as we luxuriated in an atmosphere that felt like a kindergarten kickabout on the scenic Thames compared to the Glasgow knees up.

The Old Firm match is always tasty, but no more tasty than Wenger's tete-a-tete with the Swiss referee. No more tasty than the former Rangers player Rino Gattuso (pictured, above) nodding his head in Scotsman Joe Jordan's face after Tottenham won 1-0 at Milan in the Champions League a few weeks ago. No more tasty than Liverpool's somewhat rancid encounter with Manchester United on Sunday.

There is a general confusion about the Scottish game, borne out of ignorance towards the social issues that continue to swirl around the match. The only way you can come to understand what the Old Firm match entails is to live in the country for a while. Even then it is not rocket science. Many impoverished fans in Scotland identify with these clubs, because they give them their identity in the world at large. The same could be said for most clubs in Britain.

Unemployment, domestic violence, anti-social behaviour and alcohol abuse are problems facing British society. They are not exclusive to Scotland.

A poll by a Scottish newspaper eight years ago found that 47 per cent of
Scots wanted to see a ban on marches such as the Orange Order and those
of the Republican variety. They were viewed by almost half
those questioned as sectarian, divisive and anachronistic. They were viewed as moments that encouraged drunkenness and violence in Scotland.

Before the Police can bemoan the £40 million costs of policing seven Old Firm matches, why in this age of austerity is the public purse being spent on policing such marches that bear no relation to the idea of a progressive Scotland?

Where does the Scottish Government draw the line on what is in the public interest? If
a group of Nazis wanted to walk down a street in Glasgow or Edinburgh
wallowing in the demise of others, would it be seen as socially acceptable? It is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point.

Bigotry has yet to be consigned to the dustbin of
history in Scotland, but this has nothing to do with football or the custodians
of the Old Firm clubs, who can only do so much to preach the benefits of a tolerant society. 

Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell and his Rangers counterpart Martin Bain commented that there was an overreaction to last week's events. This is very true. Two football clubs cannot be held accountable for the actions of individuals on the street. A timely reminder that this is only a sporting contest - held in the guise of yesterday's summit of the clubs in Edinburgh - is always a praiseworthy initiative. 

Ironically, two Scots and two former Old Firm players in the form of the Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United managed to shake hands after the home side's 3-1 win over United. What went on in between was every bit as unappealing, if not worse, than the happenings at the Old Firm match.

Two players departed during the Old Firm match. Steven Whittaker and Madjid Bougherra went, perhaps harshly, for two tackles and two mistimed challenges on opposing players, but they were never as malicious as a couple of those that went unpunished in the North West derby.

How Jamie Carragher avoided a straight red card for the horrid career-threatening tackle that punctured a hole in the leg of Nani on Sunday remains a mystery that can only be solved by the hesitant referee Phil Dowd. Rafael decided retribution was the best course of action after being tagged by Maxi Rodriguez. He was fortunate Lucas Leiva saw him coming seconds later as he missed the Liverpool player, but not the ensuing melee. 

The only difference between the matches was the reaction afterwards. Rangers manager Walter Smith is an example of how to show some decorum on such occasions. McCoist should be thankful he had the arm of Smith to pull him away from one confrontation during the match, but he will not have him next season when he is thrust to the fore of the fixture as the Rangers manager. 

Lennon and McCoist, two well-versed footballers, should have discussed any grievances with each other in a quiet room afterwards, while El Hadji Diouf's lack of self-discipline makes him ill-suited to such a sticky situation. He is already looking like a gamble of a signing that has backfired.

It is also too easy to package the Old Firm clubs as one brand, when they are two distinctive clubs. All they have in common is that they are based in Glasgow, but as the two main protagonists in Scotland they tend to come across each other more often than not in a season before the prize-giving ceremonies are held.

Seven times is too many times in football, especially in a Premier League of only 12 clubs. Familiarity breeds contempt in any walk of life. This does not help the general health of the fixture.

It was heartening to hear Scotland's first minister Alex Salmond, Bain and Lawwell speak out at the summit to denounce the ongoing sickening treatment of Lennon, who needs police protection after being sent bullets and a hoax bomb in the post. 

If Lennon is forced to give up his job because of the actions of the mentally unhinged, then the game really is up for football in Scotland.

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