The headlines were about English infiltration after trouble at Pittodrie. But the Scottish game would do better to take a long, hard look at itself, says Dianne Millen
Never mind Afghanistan – hold the front page for the Battle of Pittodrie, billed as the biggest Scots skirmish since Culloden. The coins had barely been picked up from pitchside before SPL chief executive Roger Mitchell had fallen back on that old stand-by, blaming the violence on “mindless morons”, a description later repeated by the police, press and both clubs. Idiots there most certainly were at the game, but not all of them were throwing things.
The SFA, for example, had hardly demonstrated Mensa-level intelligence by placing referee Michael McCurry in charge of this match despite his notorious performance in a previous encounter. Last season, Glaswegian McCurry was the only person at Pittodrie not to see Rangers’ Fernando Ricksen do an Eric Cantona impression on Dons midfielder Darren Young, striking himself off Dons’ fans Christmas card lists for all time. At best, the decision to put him in charge of this fixture suggested that the SFA either did not understand or did not care about its history and tensions: at worst, it seem-ed downright inflammatory.
Another mind-free zone was the Pittodrie DJ, who chose to play Who Let The Dogs Out? (better known in north-east karaoke bars as Who Let the Huns Out?) over the PA as Rangers ran out on to the pitch for the second half. Fortunately it didn’t revive the fighting, but it didn’t do much for the club’s reputation. It would also have helped if the police had established a presence between the rival fans before the trouble broke out, rather than hurriedly dashing in afterwards.
But the strongest negative influence was the media. As has since been acknowledged, a 5.35pm kick-off may suit paymasters Sky, but does little for crowd control after a whole day’s drinking. And well before the pubs opened the Scottish press had, as usual, faithfully gone over every foul and sending-off at previous Rangers v Aberdeen games, just in case any fans had forgotten that they were supposed to hate each others’ guts. This repetitive and ugly salivating over decades-old flashpoints every time the two teams meet helps to ensure the aggro remains stoked up on both sides. It’s hard to reconcile the heartfelt articles which appeared after the incident, appealing for a truce between rival fans, with this gleeful fomenting of mutual hatred for commercial gain.
Despite receiving plentiful encouragement to riot, however, most fans have hitherto confined themselves to slinging insults rather than coins. Allegedly, the difference this time was the influence of English hardcore hooligans. If there is genuine evidence for this – as opposed to naive observers misinterpreting the presence of Union Jacks among the Rangers support – it is a worrying development.
However, if we hadn’t been advertising the party for so long, we wouldn’t have got the gatecrashers. Would these glamorous metropolitan hardmen be seen roughing it at, say, the Dundee derby, or Inverness Caley Thistle against Ross County? Both games also involve needle, but neither rivalry has been so lovingly nurtured by all concerned.
The Rangers v Aberdeen fixture takes place within a complicated context, socio-economic (oil made Aberdeen rich while Clydeside died) as well as footballing, with the emotions it raises increasingly being exploited for profit in a media-dominated culture. This is not to say that fans who can’t tell the difference between rivalry and violence shouldn’t face the consequences. Everyone has a choice about their own behaviour.
But conveniently dismissing the Pittodrie skirmish as nothing but the work of those handily ever-present “mindless morons” will do little to calm down a rivalry that now seems to have got out of control, nor will it enable Scottish football to examine and change the climate which has led to it becoming that way. Rather than trotting out the usual soundbites, the authorities, clubs and the media should be asking themselves why, if they truly want the Rangers v Aberdeen enmity to die down, are they doing everything they can to wind up the fans?
From WSC 181 March 2002. What was happening this month