Rangers: The unheard story
- 03 May 2012
It is now fifty years since Rangers undertook their tour of Russia and returned home undefeated to a heroes’ welcome. In retrospect this probably marked the peak of the club’s identification with the Scottish nation. The press in general – the bourgeois ‘Glasgow Herald’ was a notable exception – praised the team’s efforts as a service to Scotland and the image of the country. In the manner of the times and with a nod to Empire, it was viewed as another example of the Scots showing the English which partner in the union was really excelling itself.
Between 10 and 15, 000 flooded into the precincts of Renfrew Airport to salute the team on their return that June evening, with thousands more stuck in traffic jams on the roads from Glasgow. The fans indeed swarmed on to the runway. One journalist proclaimed that the ‘No conquering army ever received a more vociferous homecoming’, while the late James Sanderson, then a journalist for the ‘Scottish Daily Express’, called it ‘the greatest homecoming of any sportsmen to Scotland – bar none!’ It was noted that many Scots at the time looked to Rangers to boost – and often salvage – national pride. The previous year Rangers’ memorable defeat of Wolverhampton Wanderers had helped soften the humiliation of Scotland’s 9-3 hammering at the hands of England at Wembley a few days before.
In 1962 Rangers already had a long history of being regarded as a surrogate for the Scottish nation in a sporting sense. This dated back to the beginning of the Struth era and the pursuit of a global fame, and continued through unofficial ‘British Championship’ triumphs over Arsenal; long successful tours of the USA; glamour matches against Rapid Vienna, Benfica, and most memorably of all Moscow Dynamo; and the early floodlit encounters in European competition in the late 50s and early 60s. No other Scottish club was so distinguished by its history and its role as a vehicle for the hopes and pride of the country more widely. Celtic in a way pivot on 1967. Their narrative sees this as the moment adversity was overcome, the adversity of being a club for a largely poor immigrant community. Celtic fans and literary cheerleaders like to depict the moment in terms of the despised and downtrodden snatching the prize as a prejudiced nation looked on sullenly and offered only begrudging recognition. The facts are radically different: the day following Lisbon the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland passed a motion offering warm congratulations, and the Rangers Chairman, John Lawrence, turned up at the airport to welcome Celtic home. The ‘Celtic-Minded’ can’t deal with inconvenient facts like this: they spoil the cosy, self-righteous story of glory being wrenched out of oppression. The only Church of Scotland General Assembly reference they are interested in quoting is one from a very different era: the ‘State and Nation’ report on the Irish in Scotland in 1923.
But Rangers, it has to be said, have never really recovered from 1967 if that historical moment is taken as representing an important shift in broader trends and attitudes in Scotland and of course far beyond. Maybe it’s no coincidence that it was in the same year that the SNP finally made a political breakthrough and more and more people began questioning the value of the Union, notwithstanding the fact that the Nationalists attracted very little support from non-Protestant Scotland. The fact was that the nature of the cultural Protestantism that had long shaped the country was changing, and Rangers appeared overnight to be the emblem of the country’s past rather than its future.
Rangers in many ways have been on the defensive since the late 1960s. A combination of typical Scottish thrawnness about not being dictated to or forced to conform to the mood of the times, and a paternalist desire on the part of the Board to do what they thought would please the ordinary fan, prevented the reform of the discriminatory signing practice that continues to fuel the antipathy of the club’s detractors today. Change only came very late in the day of a century scarred by exclusivist doctrines. The century in a sense accelerated away from hidebound and deferential attitudes from the late 60s, but Rangers refused even to break into a jog. The price the club is still paying for the failure to address the sectarian question between the late 60s and late 80s is evident in the knee jerk hostility to the club in the current crisis. The issue is utterly irrelevant to what has caused Rangers to fall on such perilous times but as far as many of the club’s enemies are concerned it’s all that matters.
Everything is traced back to it regardless of the fact that the man whose maverick way of doing business has jeopardised the club’s very existence and future, David Murray, was adamant that the practice should end and that Rangers had to move away from what outsiders perceived as a preoccupation with religion. There is no evidence either to suggest that Craig Whyte cared one jot for any ‘Protestant’ or ‘Loyalist’ cause. These Gordon Gekko characters cared only about business and the thrill of casino finance – and about using Rangers to promote themselves as men of influence. Such ironies are lost on those – not all Celtic fans by any means – who need their villains to conform to the caricature of what they are pleased to call the nation’s ‘shame’. Such arbiters of opinion in today’s Scotland are never happier than when they’re on a righteous crusade, and when they are wielding the trusty weapon of a past signing policy with which to strike us continually. This goes some way to explaining why we can’t receive a fair hearing over a situation created essentially by two autocratic individuals; through sleight of hand reasoning the affair is routinely presented as an institution receiving just desserts for the sins of the past.
So what? So, we as Rangers fans in this time of crisis need to talk about the ‘policy’. It is not enough to fire-fight and to go into reactive mode whatever the provocation and the vilification. We need to acknowledge that there is something in our past that, with facile and uncontextualised use of selected evidence, enemies are able to skew public perceptions against us. Until very recently we have not attended sufficiently to the club’s story: we have been too content to accept a simplistic notion of being the ‘establishment’ club when our history is so much more complex and grounded in the struggles and sacrifices of ordinary and often poor people. Since the cultural swing of the 60s, being in any way ‘establishment’- orientated has been a curse rather than a blessing and too few of us have appreciated this.
We need to respond to our antagonists by admitting that the signing practice is part of our history and identity. However, we also need to explode some myths about it and ask some searching questions of it. We need to ask why it dates from the socially tense and turbulent years following the First World War. We need to explore the full significance of the Irish troubles of that time and their impact on Scotland. We need to ask why it appeared to harden during the 20s and 30s. We need to know more about how it was regarded by players. Did the players reflect on it after they left and went elsewhere? What of the suggestion that it was player-led in the early days? To what extent did those in control of the club make too sweeping assumptions about opinions among supporters on the issue? Was the outbreak of the Northern Irish Troubles in the late 60s a factor in preventing the question being addressed? To what extent was inaction the result of the prevalence of intermixing and ‘normality’ outside football – that in a sense it was felt that civic society in Scotland was strong enough in other ways to offset any manifestations of sectarianism in football? There seem to be interesting contrasts with Northern Ireland here: in the Province there was a marked separation of communities residentially/ socially, and in employment, yet a relative degree of mixing in football – Linfield after all had notable Catholics before the outbreak of the troubles in 1969 and one of their players from the 1920s, Gerry Morgan, became a club talisman through the 40s and 50s as trainer and all-round ‘club man’. Why could Rangers not have preserved their Protestant identity as Linfield did and as Celtic did with their Catholicism, if that was considered important by the Rangers support, without practising exclusivism?
The answers to such questions will not be as simple and straightforward as Rangers haters assume. We need to remind the country about how we contributed so much of what sustained and boosted Scotland in the eyes of the world for many years, and how much we have done to mould Scotland’s reputation as a passionate football hotbed. We also need to speak frankly about the issue that we have too easily allowed others to define for us with the purpose of burying us; as a consequence the positive story we have to tell has been too often unheard.