James Lawton: It is especially sad that Lennon and McCoist could behave like that

The biggest casualty was the idea that a new generation of football men would do better
Click to follow
The Independent Football

It's true enough that if the Celtic-Rangers match was permanently banned as unfit for decent human consumption it would scarcely skim the surface of so much of the hate that so regularly masquerades as football passion. But then it would be a hell of a start.

What is particularly shocking after this week's eruption of the most scabrous tribal enmity – which led to 34 arrests and the claim by Scottish police that, at a time when they can scarcely afford to peek out into the street, the fixture has become a worthless, tawdry drain on the public purse – is that professionals like Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon were at the heart of the latest fomentation.

There is a particular sadness here in the case of McCoist because if he has never presented himself as an angel his natural conviviality has lit up many football travels.

When he was announced recently as the successor to Walter Smith as Rangers manager, there seemed to be some reason to believe that his humour might help to dissipate some of the worst of the institutionalised aggro.

He tells, for example, the story – which he insists is not apocryphal – of the time when a Catholic priest attended a fund-raising event at Rangers. The good Father won the lottery and went up to receive his prize. At the moment of presentation a portrait of a deceased Ibrox elder clattered to the floor.

The biggest casualty on Wednesday night when three Rangers players received red cards – the last of them, El Hadji Diouf, getting his at the end of game, presumably as he was in some panic at not previously having a significant impact on such a malignant evening – was the idea that a new generation of football men were capable of doing much better than previous ones in lifting the action out of the gutter.

Of course, down the years there has been some noble defiance to the most rancid of the prejudice. The great Jock Stein was never slow to express his contempt for the judging of a man on any other basis than who he was, and what he did, and at Rangers Graeme Souness made a two-handed attack on bigotry, not only in 1989 signing the club's first Catholic, Mo Johnston, but also sending out Rangers' first black player, Mark Walters,

Johnston, a former Celtic player, scored 46 goals in 100 appearances by way of supporting Souness's judgement and Walters also showed his ability – after surviving on his debut at Celtic Park some treatment that might have brought a pause in the Dark Ages.

Bananas were thrown on the field, there were jungle noises and some intellectual giants squeezed into monkey outfits. A number of Rangers supporters responded in a way they probably deemed gallant when they cried that they would rather be "a darkie than a Tim" – a Scottish Irish Catholic.

However, it should go without saying that anyone who regularly attends English football, several decades on from such horrors, has no reason to be sanguine about the level of obscene venom that can build so quickly south of the border.

A small relic of Scottish football history, though, did intrude into this week's frenzy. Reflecting on his time in Scotland, Walters said that his worst experience was probably at Tynecastle, the home of Hearts, whose current manager Jim Jefferies had an interesting reaction to events in Glasgow: "It was tasty, wasn't it? That's what they are saying TV wants. How is it a disaster?"

Could it really be that the old, shattered picture is back on the wall?