One of my media colleagues – a bloke who has copped more venom and flak than most of us over the years – stated words to this effect the other night: “The hatred between Old Firm fans today is worse than it has ever been.”
I was struck by the bluntness of this summary, given the progress I believed had been made across the rutted Old Firm terrain in recent years.
Peace, love and understanding I am not proclaiming. But more and more Rangers and Celtic fans, it seems to me, lead more rounded and integrated lives today, in which they share their love of football and their rivalry as friends or work colleagues.
This remains my optimistic take on the Glasgow football scene. So to hear it being likened to the bad old days of 40 years ago – “more hatred now than ever” – gave pause for thought.
It is true that Glasgow has never had Liverpool’s healthy rivalry. On Merseyside, famously, families are often split down the middle between red and blue, when brothers march off to Anfield or Goodison for the derby, stopping off to enjoy a pint together before separating for either end of the ground.
In the west of Scotland, the cultural baggage scarcely allowed it to be like this. Instead, a tribalism which was rooted in a fairly base view of religion – you’re Protestant so you support Rangers, you’re Catholic so you support Celtic – meant that the term “friendly rivalry” had little use in these parts.
I believe that we have moved on a lot from this. Bigotry and sectarianism remain issues in Scottish football – but in many ways they have become diluted. I’ve seen scores of Rangers and Celtic fans sharing friendship and social inclusion, thus betraying Glasgow’s bad old image. And nor is this just in middle-class enclaves.
So where do we stand? Can it truly be said that hatred among Old Firm fans is now worse than ever?
There are certainly two factors which have given rise to a new and fairly virulent form of aggression. The first is the rise of the internet, and the succour it offers to poisoned minds. And the second is the fate of Rangers.
Everyone today views the new social media as a mixed blessing, at best. Despite new laws purporting to govern it, as well as much decent and healthy debate going on, the internet remains a conduit for those who, with seemingly little else in their lives, spew their hatred in any given direction.
The worst excesses of Rangers and Celtic fans (and not exclusively them) have seized on this. It is a minor paradise to such people to have this facility at their disposal. The phrase “dripping with poison” at times does not do justice to some of the stuff you see online.
You can add to this the disintegration of Rangers FC last summer, and all the ugly consequences of that. On this score, Celtic supporters have indulged in a crowing rarely seen in Scottish football, while many Rangers fans have grown angry and resentful at the way events have unfolded.
The collapse of Rangers has certainly produced a new form of contempt among Old Firm fans, and it is tossed back and forth by the minute on the internet. There is a bonfire of dispute and argument out there, which often becomes insidious and ugly.
I guess if you have all these ingredients – crowing, blame, anger, plus a sense of revenge – among football supporters then it cannot add up to sweetness and light.
That said, I don’t believe the current flak being traded between Rangers and Celtic fans can dent a longer-term truth of Scottish society becoming more integrated and tolerant.
In football, what this means is many more Rangers and Celtic fans being friends, colleagues, family-related and the rest.
Certainly, bigotry, once a staple of Scottish life, is less prevalent today than it was decades ago. It was for this reason that some of us despaired of the crass football chants heard at Old Firm games in recent years: not only were they stupid, they also distorted what was a much better society out there.
I might be wrong on this. Perhaps the online venom, in fact, is a more accurate gauge of a renewed hatred among Old Firm fans.
But I still hold that we’re better off today than in decades gone by.