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A question of empathy

The aftermath of this year’s Scottish Cup final says much about the state of the game – and the state of the country.


This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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while there was the knee-jerk rush to condemn and blow up into apocalyptic proportions, just as serious and damning was the collective denial of large numbers of those connected in some way to the day and to the two clubs.

Football saturates most of Scotland. It is one of the things which defines us, creates numerous identities, and for many years, was the sole way Scotland had a profile on an international stage. It fills numerous conversations and dominates spaces, both public and private – and affects attitudes, thoughts and emotions. According to some measures Scotland is one of the most football mad parts of Europe, coming third behind Iceland and Cyprus; the former of course, now turn out to have got the hang of how to play the game too!

This isn’t just an essay about football. Instead it is about the wider and cultural impact of the game in Scotland and what it says about us. Too many football conversations here take place as if the sport was played in some kind of hermetically sealed-off bubble – unconnected to our many contested histories, identities and stories. If you are a football fan (I guess reading Nutmeg you might be) but also somewhat partisan in your support, let me be clear. I do not hate, or want to denigrate, any of Scotland’s football clubs, Rangers and Celtic included, while I do not see any club as beyond redemption or above reproach.

This year’s Scottish Cup Final between Hibs and Rangers was a captivating game of football. Hibs dramatically won the Scottish Cup for the first time in 114 years and then the chaos and trouble began. A section of Hibs fans invaded the pitch. There was aggression and violence amongst a very small section of the minority of Hibs fans that breached the barriers. A tiny number of Rangers fans responded in a similar manner looking for trouble.

All of this was on live TV. Police and security seemed briefly stunned and immobilised. Just as serious was the wave of reactions, both in the immediate aftermath and subsequently. Initially, there was an element of hyperbole, with various TV commentators comparing it to the Celtic v Rangers riot at the Scottish Cup final of 1980. This was over-the-top sensationalism: the 1980 final involved pitched battles between fans, scores injured, and violence which lasted for a prolonged period, rather than the 10 to 15 minutes in May this year.

Yet, while there was the knee-jerk rush to condemn and blow up into apocalyptic proportions, just as serious and damning was the collective denial of large numbers of those connected in some way to the day and to the two clubs. Hibs and Rangers, fans and clubs, spoke in the immediate period – and days after – in what amounted to entirely different languages from completely different worlds. It was as if they were talking about entirely separate events – bereft of a mutual language and way of seeing things.

Many Hibs fans dismissed concerns about misbehaviour and violence. They ridiculed the claims of Rangers of aggression and assault of the club’s players and officials. They were ‘bad losers’, ‘typical Rangers’, ‘a club in denial’ and one with ‘a wounded entitlement culture’ – unable and unwilling to adjust to events of the recent years. Many Rangers fans showed their anger and fury. They attacked anyone who wasn’t completely on their side and those opposed to their interpretation: ‘Rangers’ haters’, ‘out to do this club down’ and ‘terrorist supporters’. The Rangers blogger Jonny spoke of a systematic attempt to dehumanise the club’s supporters and what he saw as an ‘intellectually empty, sneering, faux moral superiority’ amongst other fans.

Why this happened seems to say much about the state of the game and more today. The cup final troubles seems to act as a tinderbox and amplification of a whole pile of simmering resentments which have been building over the last few years, and which the football authorities, rather than addressing, have just hoped would go away. There is the near-universal loathing of Rangers in sections of society. Never the most loved institution in Scotland, this has reached new levels after the club imploded, went into liquidation, and the subsequent train of events. This has been matched by the indignation and bewilderment that Rangers fans feel about being forced to start again in the lowest league, which they see (wrongly in the eyes of other clubs) as punishment.

Scottish football has always carried complicated baggage. There is the feeling of many Celtic supporters who view the game as shaped by an anti-Celtic/anti-Irish Catholic prejudice – from refereeing, to the media and SFA. Many even go further and think the roots of this are to be found in an organised Rangers conspiracy – which feeds into and shapes significant sections of the media. Some think the club has never been fully accepted as part of Scottish society, and perpetually see themselves as outsiders, even underdogs (which clearly has a historical basis in reality, considering how prevalent anti-Catholicism and anti-Irish sentiment was until relatively recently). All of this leaves for the moment the nature of the Old Firm cartel, and how Scottish football has been run as a closed shop since the advent of professional football in 1893.

In the here and now, there is the big question of how we get past the hurt feelings and passions of the last few years. Rangers as a club never really said ‘sorry’ to their own fans and the wider game for letting everybody down: for the administration, liquidation and years of maladministration and terrible stewardship of the club beforehand. The rest of the game mostly saw it as cathartic that Rangers had to start again in the fourth tier. Little attempt was made to hold the olive branch out and understand how the good Rangers fans had first been betrayed by David Murray, Craig Whyte and a host of others, and then left feeling got at by the rest of the game. Whatever the many rights and wrongs, it isn’t a great place to be left: hurt, alone and badly bruised, and thinking no one understands you.

This isn’t just about football. It is much more important and serious. After all rumour has it that football is just a sport, and ultimately doesn’t matter too much. It is about society. And it is about what can only be described across parts of Scotland as a chasmic public empathy deficit. This phenomenon could be seen in the recent Rangers implosion, the reaction of others, and the club’s re-emergence coming through the lower leagues. It could be witnessed in many manifestations of the indyref amongst some of the most blinkered zealots. But it can be seen elsewhere in the way that Scottish politics hasn’t nurtured pluralism: from the pursuit of the toxic Tories in the wake of Thatcherism, to the desire to punish Labour post-Iraq war and post-Tony Blair and the dogmatic cheerleading of some nationalists no matter what they do or don’t do.

None of this emerged overnight. There is a historical backstory founded in a myriad of factors such as religion, geography, terrain, climate, our ‘in bed with an elephant’ relationship with England, brutal industrialisation and endemic poverty and powerlessness in our past. It also has a more recent contemporary variant in public life and politics where people wilfully sit in their own comfort zones and are happy to try to deny the right and legitimacy of opposing views. It could be argued that all of Scotland’s underlying problems and challenges – economic, social, cultural, demographic – from the long-term lower economic growth rate compared with the rest of the UK, to the educational attainment gap now flavour of the month with the Scottish Government, and ‘the Glasgow effect’ of health inequalities – all have their origins in this empathy gap.

As a society we have done very little to recognise this. The exceptions are few and far between. There is the pioneering work of the Violence Reduction Unit attempting to address the origins of crime and violent behaviour; the trailblazing and liberating activities of Sistema in Raploch, Stirling and elsewhere; the argument of Carol Craig’s ‘The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence’ published over a decade ago as a counterblast to conformist thinking, and the writings, musing and free spirit of the rapper Loki. These are but a few examples, and while there are others it would still be a very, very short list.

We have to talk about this. Rangers are whether anyone likes it or not a Scottish club and institution with Scottish traditions and histories. They represent and say something about all of ‘us’ as a society. The same is true in equal measure of Celtic. Both of them have things to be proud of, some blemishes, and things they could do much, much better and confront.

How do we even begin to start facing up to this? There is the story of recent years and Rangers’ implosion and road back, and then the longer story of Rangers and Celtic’s dominance of the game. How can the mutual non-understanding, fear and loathing felt by many Rangers and non-Rangers fans towards each other be tackled? What do we do about the football and wider tensions between the Old Firm and the rest of football? And what can be done about the relationship between the supposed beautiful game and everything else in society?

All of this needs context. A large part, if not most of the Celtic/Rangers rivalry today, even when it spills over into violence and intimidation, isn’t really in any literal meaning about sectarianism. This is used as a catch-all description to capture issues of tribalism, belonging and identity. The them/us duopoly of the Old Firm with its well-worn historical reference points and inappropriate songs celebrating Northern Irish troubles isn’t really – to use a recent word – about ‘Ulsterisation’ in any form, but about mutually antagonistic sporting traditions which began with religious roots. The football historian Bob Crampsey used to have a brilliant description about how when the term Old Firm was first coined in 1904, it caught the way the two clubs worked to play to their captive markets – fossilising part of Scotland in the process in a kind of Cold War permafrost.

It is also true that the football fans who cause trouble even in its broadest definition are not a majority of society – or anywhere near a majority of any club’s supporters. But there is in places a culture of quiet acquiescence whereby certain clubs, Celtic and Rangers in particular, have soft-peddled or refused to challenge the most problematic strands of their own traditions, and how some fans have chosen to represent it.

This reflects football’s place, dominance, and the emotional investment hundreds of thousands of fans put into it. It is about class, but not in any simplistic working class ‘bad’ / middle class ‘good’ dichotomy, but what is seen as permissible and not permissible. There is a West of Scotland dimension – which then again isn’t to say other parts of the country are immune.

Then there is the thorny aspect of gender and certain manifestations of Scottish masculinity. A couple of years ago, St Andrews University produced academic research which showed a link between Old Firm matches and spikes in domestic violence in Glasgow. To some of us it didn’t seem surprising, but it was illuminating that Celtic and Rangers both chose publicly to dismiss the research saying it hadn’t proved the link: the two clubs united once more in defence of denying domestic violence.

In the last four years, there has been an absence of regular Celtic v Rangers matches, with a mere two cup-ties between the pair. After all the prophecies of Armageddon and even one local economic development agency calculating that its absence could cost the Glasgow economy £120m over three years, the city has felt a freer, gentler, safer place. You could almost sense it in the air: the absence of the merry-go-round and media circus, the build-ups and tensions, and expectation of altercations, even violence. Most of that is about Scottish (and a sprinkling of Northern Irish and Irish) men.

The Scotland with no or little empathy is a society which doesn’t acknowledge the rights of others. If you live and think in a bunkerist mindset, the world looks simple and like a battlefield. That kind of attitude is not particularly healthy for any individual, nor is it conducive to early 21st century life. We do need to confront this difficult stuff. We need the courage to face up to our own internal demons, the bitterness and rage that still has hold in sections of our society, and confront those who reference past battles they know little about to validate problem views today. This is about so much more than football, and how for some, no matter how packed or empty their lives are, football is elevated into this uncontrollable passion when ultimately it is only a sport. What does that say about Scotland in 2016 and what some of us lack, and clearly revel in lacking?

Empathy requires putting yourself in other’s shoes. One standard defence of the Hibs pitch invasion was that it was in the words of Hibs fan Simon Pia “an explosion of joy”, a ‘“carnival atmosphere” and “the ecstasy after the agony”. Now while Simon did go on to condemn the violence, this was after several minutes in the above vein, and he still talked about the troubles being “overhyped” and “overspun”. One Hibs fan reflected that in recent years, “the deep hatred of Rangers has gotten worse” and that the Offence Behaviour at Football Act has made all this even more poisonous, as part of Rangers’ support is seen to act with “immunity”.

Imagine if it had all been the other way around and Rangers, having won the cup in the last minutes coming from behind, celebrated in a cathartic way their first major trophy triumph since the ignominy of liquidation. Would large sections of Scotland listen to their explanations of celebration and collective joy, or would they see it as something darker, about intimidation, wanting to settle old scores, and an element of triumphalism? The answer is obvious, and it cannot be right that we have such blatantly different criterion for one club and another for everyone else.

At times in the last four years I have had negative comments and threats from some Rangers fans, when I wish their club no ill will at all, merely to challenge some of the worst things which have happened in that institution. But Rangers cannot be singled out and treated differently from everyone else, and the widespread conceit self-evident in many Celtic fans (some of whom even go blue with rage at the mention of the term Old Firm with its implied equivalence) is equally problematic.

It has to be possible to discuss such subjects maturely – beyond the mental barricades. In the aftermath of the match, I penned a piece for the Scottish Review reflecting some of the above, in the same tone and avoiding making cheap, partisan points. The response was fascinating. In today’s world there is a propensity to say that due to social media and the intolerance of some, it is impossible for nuance to be heard and thus hate and abuse often carries all before them – the EU referendum being the latest example cited.

However, my intervention got the exact opposite response, including on social media and twitter. Virtually all Rangers fans who commented upon it, and we are talking hundreds of responses, were respectful and thoughtful, and recognised that my piece tried to reach out and understand them and their club. I found that heartening and galvanising, and feel that it must offer some wider points for how football and more important matters are discussed in Scotland. It suggests that if empathy, nuance and subtlety can be put forward, and black and white thinking challenged, different voices can be heard and have an impact, even amid the noise and name-calling that passes for how many public controversies are defined.

On a practical level, any thoughts of the abolition of the badly put together Offensive Behaviour at Football Act can be shelved at least for a period, as can any Jim Murphy-like relaxation of alcoholic drinking at football grounds. There was an air of soft, misty booziness at the cup final, aided by sunny Glasgow weather. It seems as if sections of Scottish society still don’t want to grow up: a judgement amply multiplied by the post-fracas reactions.

Somehow we have to heal the wounds of the last few years, of the Rangers crash and burn, and the ripples it sent through the game and society. These were momentous events, and we are going to live with their after-effect for years to come, the normal order having been severely disrupted. For some –  the football authorities, TV broadcasters, and much of the media – this coming season will be a welcome return to normal service, and the regular circus of the Old Firm fixture and all that entails.

That seems to be the summit of aspirations for how some of the guardians and advocates of the game see the domestic scene: as a kind of closed shop of competition, offering the most predictable and stale menu year in, year out. There is a paradox that allows this unedifying spectacle to be maintained with no plans or designs to change it, with the continuing fact that this is still overall a football-crazy nation. The latter has bred complacency for generations, and bizarrely, an aversion to any kind of far-reaching change. But in reality, in an increasingly globalised world, maintaining Scotland’s farce of non-competition only condemns our football to a slow decline, in skills, prestige and rewards. Celtic Chief Executive Peter Lawwell spoke of this when he commented: “There is a colonisation of the game in Scotland by the English Premiership,” and that is the slow decline that is our future (The Herald, August 29, 2014).

While Scottish football faces all of these intense challenges, the emotional baggage and weight the game carries in Scotland, in many respects, burdens and holds it back. Much of our proud and wonderful legacy can be seen as golden memories which prevent us from seeing the uncomfortable truths in front of us: such as the evoking of the England 1967 and Holland 1978 triumphs, Jim Baxter keepie-ups and Archie Gemmell wonder goal.

Not only that, after all the epic chaos and transformations society has gone through in recent decades, we have to ask: do parts of our society invest too much in our game? Why do some working-class and middle-class men fill part of the meaning and emotional canvas of life with football, and sometimes to an extent which becomes a problem? This touches on the role of masculinity, changes in gender and work roles, the relationship of men to fathers, and inter-generational memories. In this age of immense change and instability, for some football provides this constant and emotive thread to the past and to supposedly simpler times.

Of course, there had to be an official report into it headed up by some bigwig. This being Scotland, it didn’t address any of the fundamentals and had some miserly recommendations in ‘best’ SFA tradition. Warning players who score from the dangers of over-exuberance and over-exciting fans, is straight from the world of buttoned-up, Ernie Walker land and cloud cuckoo.

What could a report have realistically said: that the last four years carry an open wound in Scottish football, that the authorities just want it to go away, that ‘Armageddon’ was avoided, but no explanation given, and little insight gained? That is never the point of such reports. Instead, the disruption and unpredictability of recent times saw another opportunity for fundamental change lost. It is back to business as usual, and the football authorities (and most of the media hope), the stale, failing duopoly that is the ‘Old Firm’ (and yes, Celtic fans it still exists. Ask yourself why you still care so much?).

Football in Scotland still carries too much baggage. It is good to dream, hope and even escape, but some of the energies invested in the game by some of the football fans could well be better spent on more important concerns. Who knows what kind of Scotland might emerge if we normalised our football passions? We might be a better, more at ease, nation.

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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