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Rangers in Scotland

First things first: an apology. The day after the Scottish Cup Final I posted this on Twitter:

In the heated aftermath of a torrid day this was misjudged. I was initially baffled as to why Rangers fans took such vociferous exception to this poll, when I was clearly being neutral, but at a few days’ remove it is obvious. In what conceivable world could Rangers have been ‘mainly to blame’ for Hibs fans tearing up the Hampden goalposts or for their players being attacked on the pitch?

I’ll briefly explain my motive: I was seeing a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on social media between fans of Rangers and those of other clubs, highlighting this or that unsavoury aspect of the respective fans’ behaviour. I had my own opinions, but simply wanted to gauge the mood out there. If I’d led with my own views then, clearly, the question would no longer have been neutral.

To Rangers fans, however, even presenting their possible culpability as an ‘option’ felt itself agenda-driven, when what they were looking for was straightforward condemnation of the provocative actions of Hibs fans.

As such, I accept that the experiment was probably insensitive, but the backlash against the poll on Twitter caused me to reflect on where the Bears are collectively and the ways in which their relationship with Scottish football – indeed, Scotland itself – has changed. I’m now seeing posts on Rangers forums in which fans are renouncing their own Scottishness. Quite a step.

Aware that I’m walking into a minefield, I’d nonetheless like to attempt some kind of analysis of the current situation in a way that is hopefully non-tribal. Almost no-one in Scotland can be completely unbiased when it comes to Rangers, myself included, but I’ll still reach for some sort of bipartisan approach to the widening gulf between Ibrox and Scotland which the club itself has highlighted in recent, charged statements.

Firstly, let me make my own relationship to Rangers clear: while I’d probably hesitate to call myself a ‘fan’ I do have a vested interest in Rangers, based on past connections. This will be enough to anger some Bears, who will be looking for absolute loyalty or nothing at all, but such a pose would be disingenuous on my part. I’m far from being a diehard.

I did not grow up in a Rangers household, although some in my extended family have Orange sympathies and my Dad did take me to Ibrox as a boy. From 1986, with the arrival of Graeme Souness, and for about ten years after, however, I was an avid supporter. Most of my social circle were Rangers fans. I had each new strip as soon as it came out. I saw Rangers win the Skol Cup Final twice against Aberdeen in the late 1980s, and the signing of Maurice Johnston was one of the most exciting moments of my adolescence. I worshipped at the church of Souness, Butcher, Roberts, McCoist and especially Davie Cooper, whose skills were mesmerising, whose testimonial match I attended, and whose tragic early death I still feel to this day.

I barked the word ‘Fen!an’ or sang ‘The Billy Boys’, as I associated these things with supporting Rangers, but I didn’t really understand what they meant. They were just things that wound up Celtic fans, a sport I enjoyed as much as they enjoyed winding me up when the Hoops were winning and Rangers were down.

As I grew older, though, and my awareness increased, I became more concerned by these aspects of Rangers’ identity and how easily I’d ingested them as a youth. The more time I spent with Celtic fans the less I saw them as an ‘other’ or enemy, to the point where I found myself quite relaxed about expressions of Irishness, Catholicism or republicanism. This isn’t to say I’ve ever been comfortable with sectarian murder, but I soon realised that a great many Celtic fans aren’t either.

Gradually, Protestantism, monarchism and Britishness themselves began to feel like alien concepts to me. As this happened, my Rangers supporting became skin-deep. My enthusiasm was going. I drifted from the club. When the referendum came I was vocally pro-Yes, which probably put some of the more diehard elements of the Rangers support at odds with me and me with them.

And yet, Rangers never fully left me.

Creatively, they have kept coming up again and again in my writing. The main characters in two of my novels – Boyracers and Pack Men – were Rangers fans. The latter novel was based around the UEFA Cup Final in Manchester in 2008, which I’d headed down to experience like so many others. I’m currently working on a play about Graeme Souness’s time at Ibrox. In 2013, I co-edited a book of essays with the Standard’s own Alasdair McKillop about Rangers and Scottish independence, in which the formidable John DC Gow narrowly bested me in a debate. My approach in these projects has never been to bang a big drum for Rangers, but to explore the complexities and nuances surrounding the club, which many who have never had any connection with it simply overlook.

I am, weirdly, both for and against Rangers, in a way that satisfies nobody else but me. When I was asked to appear on BBC’s Scotland 2015 in advance of last year’s Old Firm match, as a nominal ‘Rangers’ voice, I had the strange experience of being attacked from both sides afterwards. Supporters of other clubs wrote me off as a ‘Hun’, as ‘one of them’, as though I was an automatic apologist for sectarian bigotry. On Rangers’ forums, meanwhile, I was denounced for being pro-independence and anti-British. More worryingly, one Bear’s anonymous post made reference to my mother’s Facebook page as evidence of my family’s ‘nationalist’ sympathies.

I’m everywhere and nowhere, as the song goes, but hopefully this vantage point allows me to recognise the problems which Scotland has with Rangers while understanding why Bluenoses may feel sometimes victimised.

Rangers fans have always known that the rest of Scottish football doesn’t like them. That comes with the territory. There’s even a song about it. But when it comes down to certain matters – such as violence and physical safety – it’s not unreasonable to expect fellow humans to lay down their tribal loyalties and empathise where it’s due. As far as Rangers fans are concerned, ‘blame’ at the Scottish Cup Final is clear-cut.

Hibs invaded the park. Fans of other teams who have endured long waits to lift major trophies, such as Dundee United, St Johnstone, Kilmarnock and Inverness Caley, have not done this. Even given that, had Hibs’ fans contented themselves with congratulating their own, or stayed in their half of the park, Rangers would’ve found themselves in a forgiving mood. But players were assaulted and spat on. Hibs fans raced to the Rangers end and goaded supporters. A Rangers fan was hospitalised after being attacked at Waverley Station after the match. There was a similar incident on a train to Paisley. There is simply no excusing these actions.

Of course Rangers shouldn’t have been singing certain songs or reacting to provocation by entering the pitch. Let’s be equally clear: these things are also unacceptable, whatever the club’s statement says. But what Rangers fans witnessed on social media was a rush from the rest of Scotland to condemn those transgressions, rather than the actual violence against players or the Hibs fans’ incitement to riot. About this, there were denials aplenty. Many Bluenoses argued, quite reasonably, that had the roles been reversed – had Rangers fans ran across the park to the Hibs’ end and goaded their fans, attacking players on the way – that the wrath of Scotland would’ve descended upon them. Why weren’t the same rules applied?

This fracas comes on the back of further incidents, which have been seemingly ‘because it’s Rangers’. Lee McCulloch was hit with a flagpole on the touchline against Motherwell last year. Motherwell fans invaded the pitch and made their way towards the Rangers end. There has so far been no punishment for this. A ten year-old was hit in the face when a Rangers bus was bottled before the Old Firm game last year. Recently, graffiti mocking the victims of the Ibrox Disaster – ‘66 Ha ha’ – was sprayed next to the old stairway at the stadium. Disliking Rangers should be no barrier to decrying these acts.

It would, of course, be useless to present Rangers fans as paragons of virtue, with the Manchester riots and bullets posted to the Celtic manager in the not-so distant past. No-one can deny the seriousness of these events either. All Bluenoses would ask is that condemnation is applied where it is due: when Rangers are the victims of violence not just when they are its perpetrators.

There has always been a resentment towards both halves of the Old Firm from those with no interest in their bitter feud. But there has been a perfect storm of disparate and powerful events in recent years – including the liquidation of Oldco Rangers, the rise of nationalism, both Scottish and British, and the introduction of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBFA) – which have inarguably worsened the relationship between Rangers and Scotland.

It would take several essays to fully explore the vast complexity of these factors, but suffice it to say that their confluence has created a foreboding about Rangers’ imminent return to the top flight and a worsening antagonism towards the Ibrox club, even in cases when Rangers are clearly the victims.

At the same time, Bluenoses have to understand that there is a single reason why the rest of Scotland remains deeply uncomfortable about Rangers: the songs.

Commendably, Rangers ended their sectarian signing policy thirty years ago, which has made for a welcome diversity on the park. But despite Scottish society sending the message loud and clear that certain songs are unacceptable, and frankly frightening, they continue to be belted out with gusto and defiance. The claim that it’s a ‘minority’ simply doesn’t wash with anyone. Given the evident noise, it’s far more likely that the actual minority engage in an ineffectual silent protest. Self-policing has failed. The unworkable OBFA has failed. Nothing has shifted these chants from the Rangers songbook.

It is very, very difficult for Rangers fans to clamber to the moral high ground while the songs continue to exist, but it is also clear that though these lyrics glorify violence they do not themselves constitute violence. There isn’t an equivalence between the singing of them – however sinister they are – and players being attacked on the field.

Condemn the bigots, sure, but a scattergun approach in which Rangers are never given the benefit of the doubt is counter-productive. Under such pressure even moderates cling ever-harder to the club and a siege mentality develops.

Rangers fans are hardly angels, but people sometimes forget that they are human beings, who can be right as well as wrong. In the words of the poem ‘King Billy’, from the late Edwin Morgan, himself a Scottish nationalist:

The shrill flutes
are silenced. The march dispersed.
Deplore what is to be deplored,
and then find out the rest.