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Spiers on Sport: how long to kill off bigotry at Rangers?

It is 37 years since Willie Waddell, once a mighty Rangers player and successful manager, but by then the club’s managing-director, strode warily on to the Ibrox pitch to try to establish a defining moment in Rangers FC’s historic sectarian policy.

In recent years Rangers have made considerable strides forward in addressing the issue
In recent years Rangers have made considerable strides forward in addressing the issue

I was there that day at Ibrox as a 12 year old kid, and can still recall the episode, though the details of it that afternoon completely passed me by.

Rangers suffered a series of riots and setbacks involving their fans in the 1970s, and the latest incident had occurred in Birmingham, when a friendly against Aston Villa had been marred due to further delinquent behaviour by the Rangers hordes.

Amid all this – and believe this or not - the Ibrox club had been coming under increasing pressure from some sections of the media in Scotland to bin its century-old, Protestant-only signing policy on players.

It is true that this sectarian policy had never been water-tight in practice: a number of Catholics over the decades had slipped the net and played for Rangers. But in the main Rangers had historically been a sectarian institution.

So Waddell this sunlit afternoon duly appeared, brandishing a prepared statement to read out to the crowd. Some older Rangers fans might even remember this moment.

Strangely, he was wearing a Rangers top for the occasion. Indeed, my own recollection is that he wore the red “away top” of Rangers at the time, though black and white pictures of the moment cannot confirm this.

At any rate Waddell that day in 1976, under duress, made it clear that Rangers would no longer make religion a reason for not signing a player.

The Glasgow Herald reported that Waddell intended Rangers to “divorce itself completely as a club from sectarian or religious bias” and went on to specifically quote him saying: “No religious barriers will be put up by this club regarding the signing of players.”

Get this: that was in May 1976. Fully 37 years ago. In this most recent weekend of February, 2013, Rangers have just suffered their umpteenth embarrassment of supporters chanting bigoted slogans.

My point is this: it is going to take Rangers about 50 years to fully erase the stain of bigotry around the club. That is how deep-rooted and embedded sectarianism is among – and I speak euphemistically here - some of the club’s more “traditional” followers.

No-one has editorially kicked Rangers more than me in the modern era for this blight – and it has been a thoroughly merited kicking. But, in fairness, I think it should be pointed out that in recent years Rangers have made considerable strides forward in addressing the issue.

The club has run various campaigns – such as “Pride Over Prejudice” and “Bigger Than Bigotry” – in its attempt to re-educate sections of its support. As recently as seven years ago Ibrox still reverberated to the idiotic din of The Billy Boys, but no longer.

It was quite a feat by Rangers getting rid of this anthem. Pressure from the media to a degree forced the club’s hand but, nonetheless, Rangers attempted to purge such chants from their fans’ repertoire and, I would argue, saw some success to that end.

Alas, the problem, as Willie Waddell and others discovered, is that Rangers’ “unwanted baggage” was nearly a century in the making, and was not going to go away very easily. Over all these decades Rangers merely planted the seeds of its own bitter harvest.

In recent days it has been alarming to skim, fingers over the eyes, some of the more hardcore Rangers fans’ websites. “Loud and proud, lads!” the cry goes up from those fans who, far from being embarrassed by bigoted chanting, appear to believe this is how it should be for a “loyal” Rangers supporter.

Against this has been a heartening rush of condemnation from scores of other Rangers fans who, time and again, are sickened by these offensive eruptions, such as occurred at Berwick on Saturday.

Let it be said that sectarianism in Scottish football is pretty complex. Strict interpretations of words and chants can become a maze. Today, in the internet age of fans arguing and disputing, “whataboutery” has become a rampant cottage industry.

But the Rangers problem, as tedious as it now is, is still with us. The 2011 League Cup final, with its sudden eruption of bigoted chanting by the club’s fans, totally shocked Ibrox officials. Now we have Berwick, and ESPN having to apologise to the outside world for the Rangers support’s conduct.

This cancer is being killed off, but only slowly, and hardly smoothly. It is deep-rooted and it lingers – we have the evidence for that.

I now believe, taking Willie Waddell’s seminal statement in 1976 as a starting point, it will take fully 50 years for Rangers to finally gouge out this sickness.

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