Brian Viner: It is thuggery, not sectarianism

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It has been a good week for those who believe that the game of football is unequivocally and irredeemably rotten to the core. According to Lord Triesman, who as former chairman of the Football Association has to be considered a pretty reliable witness, the corridors of power stink with corruption. And the stench is not exactly masked by sweet smells of harmony rising from the turf.

On Wednesday evening, during a match between Heart of Midlothian and Glasgow Celtic in which both teams had a player sent off, a man came thundering out of the crowd and assaulted the Celtic manager Neil Lennon. How, we might wonder, could such a thing happen at Heart of Midlothian, such a pretty name for a football club?

Well, first of all Heart of Midlothian derives not from the 1818 novel by Sir Walter Scott but, more aptly in Wednesday's circumstances, the name of a local Edinburgh jail. And secondly, there has been a poisonous atmosphere in recent fixtures between Hearts, as they are universally known, and Celtic. Although relations are not, of course, anything like as toxic as those between Celtic and Rangers, recently manifest in a touchline brawl between Lennon and the Rangers assistant manager Ally McCoist, and last month, more disturbingly, in a series of parcel bombs sent to Lennon and two prominent Celtic supporters. Three years ago, moreover, Lennon was badly beaten up in the street. He is a 39-year-old man with a young family. It can only be a misplaced resolve not to give in to intimidation that stops him from looking for another job somewhere safer, like Tripoli.

That other Lennon, who sang "Give Peace a Chance" before being gunned down in the street, would doubtless find a similar irony in the so-called Beautiful Game igniting acts of sectarian violence. Sectarianism, at any rate, tends to get the blame for the mutual loathing between those Protestant fans of Rangers who ritually chant obscenities about the Pope, and many of the Catholics who follow Celtic. It is also cited in the rivalry between Hearts, traditionally favoured by middle-class Edinburgh Protestants, and the city's historically more working-class, Catholic club, Hibernian. But the word sectarianism implies an enduring religious dimension to the hatred, and I'm not sure there is one any more. It's just thuggery, forged by ignorance and sustained by habit, which is perhaps why it is so much more prevalent in Scotland than in Northern Ireland.

I once talked to Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting and a huge Hibs fan who didn't mind admitting that he'd once been a football hooligan, about all this. He said, "It's very sad. I went to George Best's funeral in Belfast, which was basically the city's first big non-sectarian parade. There were Hibs banners, Man U banners, Catholics and Protestants, north and south, but there was no bother, it was just a great party. Pissing rain but a great party. In Ireland they're moving on. In Scotland we're still dragging our knuckles along the ground."

The image of football being followed by cavemen, and administered by corrupt men, has become considerably sharper these last few days. So thank heavens for tomorrow's big showpiece event, the English FA Cup final between Stoke City and Manchester City. Let's overlook the fact that most of the City players, now that their club is bankrolled by the Abu Dhabi royal family, get paid more in a week than a dozen nurses do in a year. I'd hate to give football a bad name.

The Eagle has landed - very comfortably

Two days ago in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister invoked Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards in a gibe directed at the Leader of the Opposition. Ed Miliband had suggested that his party's fightback would start in Scotland, claimed David Cameron, yet Labour then suffered a massive defeat there. "Rather reminds me of Eddie the Eagle," he quipped, having prefaced his insult with an acknowledgement that, like his other recent nods to popular culture, Benny Hill's song "Ernie" and Michael Winner's Esure commercials, it wasn't exactly up-to-date.

Well, he was right about that. But more heinously, it was not only out of date, but wrong. Eddie the Eagle's ski-jumping efforts in the 1988 Winter Olympics made him synonymous with heroic failure, not abject failure, two very different things. Besides, when I phoned him yesterday he knew nothing about Cameron's reference, the reason being that he was on a cruise ship just off the Italian coast, being paid to deliver a motivational speech. Next week he will be on a speaking tour in Sweden, and the week after that on another cruise, off the Greek islands. He wasn't surprised to have been mentioned in the House of Commons – it's happened before – but a little sorry that it was in the context of disastrous defeat. "I've never regarded myself as a failure," he said. "I did the best I could with what I had, and I feel I exemplified the original Olympic spirit, the little amateur sportsman taking on the goliath ski jumping nations."

Amen to all that. And it's also worth considering that Edwards is still cheerfully and astutely profiting from events 23 years ago. The reference doesn't insult Ed Miliband, it flatters him.

One magnificent romantic gesture

Gunter Sachs died last week. The name dimly registered with me, but I had to read the obituaries to remind myself that he was an "international playboy", who used family money (his great-grandfather was Adam Opel, founder of the car manufacturer) to whoop it up in style. He never really achieved anything to justify the affectionate, respectful obits, but maybe it's not such a bad thing to be remembered for hiring a helicopter to drop a ton of rose petals on Brigitte Bardot's garden.



b.viner@independent.co.uk

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