THIS is a tale of two ill-considered decisions involving the Old Firm
and both are likely to leave Celtic's supporters, in particular, asking
if there is no justice for them anywhere in this world.
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While it was still being reported that Lou Macari was on the trail of
former Rangers striker Robert Fleck, whose contempt for Celtic fans was
shown when he dropped his shorts at them during an Old Firm reserve
match in his younger days, Rangers were imposing an indefinite Ibrox ban
on Celtic's fans.
Rangers chairman David Murray and his directors say they no longer
wish to be left to pick up the pieces after visits by Celtic fans and
that these people will not be allocated tickets for the next Old Firm
match on Saturday, April 30. The Ibrox club are peeved that Celtic have
refused to accept responsibility and pay compensation for the damage
caused by their supporters.
Celtic claim that they, too, have experienced damage at their ground
but chose to keep it quiet, saying it is up to all clubs to make
adequate provision for policing and stewarding inside their own
properties. It is, they say, the only sensible approach.
Perhaps also the suggestion of Peter Rafferty, chairman of the
Affiliation of Registered Celtic Supporters Clubs, that the away club
use their own stewards to police their fans is another way of curbing
vandalism, and while the practice of damaging someone else's property is
abhorrent, I have to say Rangers' decision is wrong. It might also
deflect the game down a dangerous avenue.
Denying the people who keep the game alive, i.e. the fans, access to
the main events is a negative response, usually one of the consequences
when dialogue breaks down.
Talking towards a compromise -- perhaps Celtic paying the additional
police costs -- would have been much more desirable than imposing a ban
which will do nothing to foster relations between Scottish football's
Rangers, however, will be saved a good few thousand pounds but
something more valuable than seating will be ruined. The most renowned
club game in the world will now be devalued, and it is alarming that
this truth seems to have been overlooked.
It is widely accepted that Old Firm matches are unique and they are so
simply because of the contributions from both sets of supporters. Very
often the people in the strips are no more than bit-part players and
they themselves can be overawed by the noise and passion of such
An Old Firm match is often an ugly, deranged beast, but there are
times when it is possible to marvel at the beauty of its power and its
ability to arouse so many.
The atmosphere which hangs over matches between Rangers and Celtic,
wherever they are played, owes much of its strength to primitive
religious hatred and, were Rangers and Celtic striving to spare us all
from that particular evil, they would deserve applause, but fans are not
being kept out of Ibrox because of sectarian chants. A faction is being
denied entry because a small minority within it break seats and threaten
the sales people in kiosks when, in fact, the perpetrators should be
arrested and locked away.
By banning Celtic's supporters the games will become less of a contest
and ultimately football will suffer.
The logic may be that no-one in his or her right mind would allow
visitors to their homes to break the furniture, but no-one charges
admission money when others come calling. If they did then they would
expect to make sure there were enough law-enforcement people around to
Football essentially is a spectator sport and to keep out all fans of
one club because of the actions of a few makes little sense, and I
sincerely hope Celtic will not respond by issuing statements about
damage caused when Rangers visit their ground. Two wrongs do not make a
right and Celtic should not even consider banning Rangers' fans. At
least the tradition of the Old Firm match will be retained in one part
of the country.
But what if Rangers' fortunes were to decline and their supporters, as
they have done in the past, stayed away in considerable numbers? Would
Rangers then be willing to lift the ban on Celtic supporters so that all
tickets could be sold?
It might be sheer cynicism, but those Rangers fans who are season
ticket holders and who normally stood in the West enclosure will have to
be accommodated somewhere. The Broomloan Stand, traditionally given over
to Celtic, seems good enough.
There is no doubt the Ibrox side have embarked on a course fraught
with dangers, whether now or sometime in the future. The traditions and
unwritten laws of the game demanded that the Ibrox club find another way
of dealing with their grievance. Rangers are a big and burgeoning
concern and they ought to have displayed a magnanimity to match.
However, while Rangers were making a wrong move, Celtic also were in
danger of fouling up in a big way by trying to sign Fleck. That would be
an act of sheer folly.
Fleck, who left Rangers for Norwich City before moving on to Chelsea,
is hardly a favourite among Celtic's supporters and his presence at
Celtic Park at this time probably would lead to further trouble for the
club and himself.
Some might argue that Alfie Conn crossed the great divide from Rangers
to Celtic and survived -- Maurice Johnston made the journey in the
opposite direction -- but they went to teams which were playing well and
winning. Fleck would be going to a Celtic team which has not won a
trophy in four seasons, a depressing run which could become five if
Motherwell beat them in the Scottish Cup on Saturday.
Also, it was suggested that Fleck left problems behind in Glasgow and
returning in this way would only add considerably to any difficulties.
He would not be accepted unless his scoring rate was prolific -- and
even then few would be willing to acknowledge him as a saviour -- but
current form suggests he may not be the player he was.
A great many Celtic fans would not like to see Fleck in their team and
attendances, which are already dangerously low, could fall further. The
chances are that someone like Fleck, who would experience mighty
pressures off the field, would not be given a fair chance by the
Macari has the backing of the club's supporters, but Fleck would
probably represent an error of judgment and erode his popularity.