If They Come From Dublin We Will Follow On

It is an alarming statistic, if for no other reason other than to prove to myself that I really am advancing in terms of age, that come this summer it will be 24 years since Maurice Johnston signed for Rangers.

Since that historic day – one that is wrongly portrayed as the day Rangers signed their first ever Catholic – it is fair to say that attitudes that were once intrinsically linked with Rangers and their support have softened. At the time of Johnston’s signing it was predicted that a now disgruntled and alienated support would turn their back on the club. That scenario never materialised, indeed Johnston went on to enjoy a thoroughly productive career at Ibrox in the two years he served the club – his first season being particularly productive.

The much anticipated refusal to accept him never really materialised, and I certainly don’t recall too many bums sitting in seats in disgust anytime he hit the back of the net in a Rangers jersey.

So given that it is nearly 25 years since Johnston lanced that particular boil and since then we have since seen a procession of Catholic players including Lorenzo Amoruso, Neil McCann, Chris Burke & Gabrielle Amato ply their trade at Ibrox, as well as a Catholic manager in Paul le Guen, you’d have thought that attitudes amongst others would have moved forward too. Apparently not.

Step forward Jon Daly. His signing for Rangers appears to have gotten quite a few flapping in search of a controversy that quite simply isn’t there. I have no doubt that the fact that he comes from Dublin will irk a very small minority, but most fans I have spoken too have only one concern about Daly – his age and whether he is the type of player the club should be signing at this stage in its recovery.

I have to admit that I didn’t even know Daly was Irish until a few within the media started bumping their gums on the issue. I have watched Daly a few times this season and frankly I’m delighted we’re signing him as he has been a constant threat every time I have seen him. That he is from Dublin doesn’t concern me, so why should it concern others?

The whole issue of Daly’s signing has exposed the inconsistency in how sectarianism in football is reported in this country. For the main part, it is viewed thusly: Rangers are bad, Celtic are good. This is the simplified version that suits a lot of people. Dig deeper, though, and true attitudes are exposed.

Firstly we need to explore why attitudes are what they are regarding Rangers, Celtic and sectarianism. For me it will always come down to one thing: Lisbon. By winning the European Cup, and becoming the first to do so from British shores, Jock Stein inadvertently exposed Rangers and their signing ‘policy’ at the time. Celtic were by no means innocent on the issue of sectarianism. Stein was their first Protestant manager and any Protestants they did have were limited to the two or three they had on the park. But that scattering was deemed enough to laud Celtic as a shining example on the subject and to expose Rangers as behind the times.

However Stein’s time at Celtic as both player and manager was blighted by sectarianism. As a player, he was never really accepted by some and had to convince hard-core Catholic’s like Jimmy Mallan and Charlie Tully, suspicious of Stein’s Protestant upbringing, of his worth.

Indeed, Archie MacPherson’s brilliant book Jock Stein: The Definitive Biography describes an incident in the away dressing room at Ibrox after a particularly heavy defeat to Rangers. Stein had performed poorly on the day and this was enough for Tully to aim the accusation at Stein that there were ‘too many Protestant’s in this team’. It took the intervention of the late Sean Fallon to prevent the verbal spat escalating to a full blown fist fight, but the unease felt by some about Stein’s religion remained for the rest of his playing career at Celtic Park.

There is also the well publicised issue of Stein’s inability to secure a job upstairs after his time as manager came to an end, instead insulted with an offer to run the Celtic Pools. Stein was frequently made aware that his religion was an issue at his time at Celtic and claimed to several journalists that a prominent figure from the Celtic board had boasted to Stein that only ‘over his dead body’ would he ever become a director at the club. Such comments should not be taken as anything other than what they are: religious prejudice.

But these incidents are deemed insignificant due to the achievements of Stein – with Lisbon being the crowning glory. From that moment on, Rangers were under pressure on the issue of signing Catholic players – and there can be no denying that the club was slow to move – however, there are still inconsistencies on how both clubs are reported on the issue. Two incidents from yesteryear that occurred on the same day expose this problem.

At the beginning of the 72/73 season, after more criticism aimed at Ibrox on the issue of sectarianism and hooliganism, Willie Waddell took to the pitch at Ibrox and addressed the support on the subject. Insisting that Rangers were not a sectarian club and that supporter behaviour on the issue had to improve, Waddell felt that he had played a PR masterstroke. However, at Stirling Albion on the same day, Jock Stein, aware that Waddell was making his pre-planned announcement that day, had vaulted the barrier, gone in to the Celtic support to challenge supporters singing sectarian songs and stripped them of an Irish tricolour. This act gave Stein victory on the PR stakes and Waddell’s gesture became diluted and questioned.

The two incidents are viewed very differently now, despite both tackling the issue of sectarianism. Waddell having to take to the park has is cited as evidence that Rangers had a serious problem on the issue of sectarianism. Stein’s act is seen as one proving Celtic’s sectarian free image – the fact that he was tackling supporters singing inappropriate songs is somewhat forced into the background and ignored. It is hard to imagine Rangers being afforded such leniency if Ally McCoist had to challenge supporters singing inappropriate songs in the modern day.

The fact that so many journalists seem keen to make Daly’s signing an issue raises the question of just how much they want Rangers to move away from their non-Catholic image? If it is still an issue nearly 25 years after Johnston’s signing was proclaimed to have ended the sectarian image, then you can only come to conclusion that they don’t want it very much.

One shining example of this is ex-Celtic View editor, Andrew Smith, proclaiming in the Scotsman that Daly could well face a backlash from supporters and citing the plight of former Ranger Alex Stevenson, and Protestant, attracting ‘much grief’ from the Ibrox faithful in the 1930s for the sin of being from the Irish Republic. The paper had to issue an apology and retraction and admitted the story had no ‘written evidence’ to support the claim that Stevenson was barracked from his own supporters. It is worth pointing out, however, the ‘retracted’ story remains on the paper’s website in its entirety. This is a stunning example of the journalistic integrity Rangers are afforded on the issue of sectarianism; why bother with facts when you’re allowed to go with assumption?

It doesn’t seem to matter that the club is moving away from the image of the past, it doesn’t seem to matter that the vast majority of supporters don’t care about Daly’s religion or birthplace and it certainly doesn’t seem to matter that signing for Rangers isn’t an issue for Daly himself – yet is still seems to be an issue at all with some within the Fourth Estate. Why?  

Maybe Smith’s former place of work is the key. Maybe there is a concerted effort amongst a few ‘Celtic Minded’ journalists to make mischief on the issue. Maybe the fact that printed press is dying and they’ll do anything to increase circulation is the reason. Who knows?

What is evident is that Rangers, despite making hugely positive steps, are still taking a battering in the press on this issue while Celtic seem to be on easy street.

Questions like why Maurice Johnston will never be welcomed back at Celtic Park are never asked. Is it simply because he signed for Rangers or because he was the first high-profile Catholic to sign for the club in a number of years? It’s a debate worth having, but I doubt the likes of Andrew Smith, Tom English or Graham Spiers will be asking it anytime soon.

Incidents like the St Mungo’s High School pupil in Falkirk who had to move to a non-denominational school because of bullying from pupils and teachers after he signed on at Rangers are also never reported. No. Sectarianism in this country is a one-way street to the point that a man’s place of birth combined with his religion becomes newsworthy when he signs for Rangers.

What makes the whole thing even more laughable is that the same journalists who are making a hue and cry about Daly also claim Rangers are a ‘new club’. Much the same as the Celtic fans who will no doubt be giving Daly ‘much grief’ for signing for ‘Sevco’.

I welcome Daly to Rangers and look forward to him displaying his wares at Ibrox. His birthplace, religion and general background are of no interest to me. Maybe some journalists in the press rooms across the country would be better served to act responsibly, maturely and with some journalistic integrity and do likewise, rather than lowering themselves to levels of gutter press standards and morals. They demanded Rangers move on from their ‘sectarian past’. A near quarter-of-a-century after Maurice Johnston walked into The Blue Room and confirmed his arrival at Rangers, maybe it’s time they let them.

Colin Armstrong is a former columnist for the Rangers News and match-day programme. He has also written for When Saturday Comes and contributed to the book Ten Days that Shook Rangers. Follow Colin on Twitter: @moonman1873