A newspaper column by former Rangers striker Mark Hateley about Celtic's attitude to the Ibrox club's financial traumas brought a withering reply from Neil Lennon.
The Celtic manager responded not only with a personal rebuke to Hateley, but also a measured dismantling of his critical opinions. Football coverage is often incendiary, and the language of sports writing tends to shy away from restraint. Hateley's column described this season's Clydesdale Bank Premier League championship as a "tainted title", and recent comments by Lennon and Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell as "ill-judged at best and, at worst, deliberately inflammatory".
The headline read, "Celtic are wrong to dance on Rangers' grave", itself a provocative statement.
Hateley was responding to remarks Lennon and Lawwell made when Rangers went into administration. When asked if Celtic needed a strong Rangers to survive, both said the Parkhead club did not, and that its financial status was secure. There is seldom room for nuance in the constant wrangling between the two sets of supporters, and Celtic fans have been resourceful in the means they have explored of wallowing in their rivals' plight, but the column drew a blunt reaction from Lennon.
"At the end of last season I said there were a lot of people outside of the game who don't put anything constructive in, just take, take, take," he said. "And Mark I'd put into that bracket. We've never mentioned dancing on Rangers' grave at all.
"We haven't taken a gloating theme. He's using the words dignity and class, well Rangers are the ones under investigation, they're the ones who the police have been called in to look at. It's nothing to do with our football club. We were asked the question, 'do we need a strong Rangers?', and we don't. We are self-sufficient. The question wasn't, 'could you do without Rangers?' Someone in his position should know better."
Lennon was composed as he delivered his admonishment on Friday afternoon. There was no supposing the response was light-hearted when he mentioned that the column "caused a lot of amusement among us".
He would never let a slight pass, but there was also a sense of Lennon defending his own club. Hateley's comments were needlessly controversial, and conflated some of the Celtic fans' gloating – he mentioned the jelly and ice-cream references that are made to suggest partying in celebration of Rangers' demise –with the Parkhead club's official response. Lennon and Lawwell might have chosen to answer the questions they were asked by identifying the influence of the Old Firm rivalry on the stature of both clubs, on the derby's standing as one of remarkable fixtures in world football.
Nobody would have expected them to express their distress at the difficulties the Ibrox side are enmeshed in, but their comments were disingenuous. Rangers and Celtic grew because of the extent of the hostility between their communities of supporters, and a diminished Rangers would soon lead to a diminished Celtic.
Hateley's reference to a "tainted title" was crass, though, since Lennon's team were already four points ahead at the top of the SPL when Rangers fell into administration, as well as being on a run of consecutive victories that was extended yesterday to 20 across the three domestic competitions.
Lennon said: "He [Hateley] says, 'I don't care what you think, but your title's tainted'. To me, that's inflammatory to the supporters, the club itself and certainly my players. It's just pub talk.
"Our boys have played brilliant football since the first week in November. He's brought this up two weeks after we've done the interviews. Why? I find it embarrassing. And if he's speaking on behalf of Rangers – I don't think he is, it might be his own opinion, which he's entitled to – but it's one that we don't agree with.
"I found the tainted title tag very disrespectful. We've done nothing wrong. We've played the game on the pitch as honestly as we can, and off the pitch we do our business properly. It's a poor excuse to try to devalue what we're doing here."
Hateley is employed as a club ambassador by Rangers, and does promotional work at Ibrox. His weekly newspaper column is a personal endeavour, though.
Given the intensity of the Old Firm rivalry, and the animosity that is constantly stirred among the supporters, it sometimes feels as if officials of the two clubs should constantly be striving to calm the passions. Celtic might have been more compassionate, since they endured their own threat of bankruptcy during the 1990s, but then Sir David Murray always veered into the brash during his reign as Rangers owner. Hateley is a veteran of these tensions, and he ought to have known that his column would rile Celtic.
"It was a very cheap shot," Lennon says "These guys have a platform and they lack credibility and responsibility in what they write. He's been banging the Rangers propaganda drum for a long time. There's no impartiality in what he writes."
Lennon was bound to react, and so another strain of hostility has been established. In light of the gravity of Rangers' plight, it is a spat that should have been avoided.