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The Old Firm: Action and Reaction

Monday night’s under-17 City of Glasgow Cup Final at Celtic Park was overshadowed by the lighting of flares, smoke bombs being set off and seats being torn out. The dangers of using such pyrotechnics, particularly when there might be young children in close proximity, really shouldn’t need to be explained yet football fans of many teams seem to think they add to the occasion. They do not. Dangers aside, it is obnoxious to use something that is intended to distract attention away from the football on the pitch. Such was the atmosphere that the police recommended that representatives of the media in attendance should stay in the press box.

It is worth underlining that this was a game involving school-age teenagers. For many this would have been the pinnacle of their football career to date. For others it might well be their greatest achievement in the sport as a result of injury or the pursuit of a career away from the game. In short, this should have been a special occasion for the players and their families and yet they had to contend with two sets of fans who were seemingly more interested in hurling abuse than in encouraging the young participants. Reports ahead of the match claimed 2500 tickets were to be given to schoolchildren. Interpret that comment as you see fit.

The obsession with those on the other side of the police line is a damning indictment of both sets of supporters. It validates the arguments of those who claim supporting Rangers or Celtic is more about hating the other than supporting your own team. Why would you pay money to primarily go and abuse someone else rather than back your club? It’s a mind-set that is hard to fathom.

The most we can do is provide some context for what happened on Monday night. With Rangers consigned to the lower leagues for at least three years, the two clubs don’t have the chance to meet on a regular occasion and this has perhaps resulted in passions building behind a dam. That doesn’t adequately explain, however, why some people so desperately need to release these emotions on a regular basis. Old Firm games shouldn’t be some sort of social necessity. Scenes at last season’s match at Firhill would also have been uppermost in the minds of some, not least Police Scotland which probably explains the decision to escort fans to the ground. The kick-off for that match was delayed as fans threw smoke bombs and ripped up seats. Arrests inevitably followed and there have been reports that three fans have already been detained as a result of last night festivities. At the 2012 match, Celtic fans ripped up seats and ignited flares at Ibrox. Pride was restored last night, with reports Rangers fans ripped out seats on leaving the stadium. The club will pick up the bill for that vandalism.

Fans on either side of the Old Firm divide must now surely dread the staging of the real thing, which could happen as early as next season depending on the developments in the Scottish and League Cups. While the heart might desire an encounter between the two old adversaries, the head can’t help but imagine the outcome of such an encounter if things don’t improve. Following Monday’s game, Billy Kirkwood was quoted as saying: “There’s going to be a time when Rangers are going to play Celtic at first-team level and all I can say to that is, oh dear.” It’s now two years on from Rangers insolvency crisis and the passions roused by associated events don’t seem to have been extinguished. Social media is much to blame and Rangers fans continue to bridle at Celtic fans (and media enablers still coming up with ways to avoid saying Rangers) droning on about Rangers being dead. One Celtic fan said to me on Twitter recently “never mind, your grandchildren will all be Celtic fans anyway.” Sympathy is certainly there but it can be hard to find amidst the bitterness. Perhaps some level-headed Celtic fans should examine exactly what this behaviour is achieving and how compatible it is with the club’s much publicised charitable ethos. Peter Lawwell laying a wreath in memory of Sandy Jardine should really be taken as an opportunity to reassess relations between the two clubs and sets of fans.

Perspective is lacking on all sides. For Rangers fans, last night’s actions were the equivalent of standing out in the back garden shouting at the neighbour while your house and all your possessions burned down behind you. Taking all of the above context into account, we still don’t have an excuse for the behaviour of those who participated in a charade that has resulted in yet more negative headlines. We need to learn that in the Old Firm universe that not every action requires an equal and opposite reaction. Even more importantly, we shouldn’t be responsible for initiating activity that will result in negative headlines and have financial repercussions for the club.

The haste with which a national summit was convened following events at the Scottish Cup replay in 2011 was rightly derided and the treatment of fans since, including at the recent Ayr United game, has contributed to a general rise in tension at football grounds across the country. But a low-key stakeholder summit in advance of the next first-team meeting might not be an entirely bad idea given the scenes at youth games in three consecutive years. Rather than considering draconian restrictions on the activities of fans, it should start from the position that they are capable of acting like adults and focus on coming up with ideas to reduce the tensions between the two sets of supporters while there is still the luxury of time.