Lack of sentiment focuses the player’s mind on winning
23 September ~ Scott Allan’s £270,000 move from Championship Hibs to Premiership Celtic this summer would normally be inconsequential. But Rangers bid three times for him and Allan was a known Rangers fan. That the resultant fan “outrage” was confined to Twitter proves Allan’s transfer may be the last tired twist on “crossing the Old Firm divide”. This pseudo-ethnic rivalry actually benefits from being relocated in the real world. That makes it a rarity.
The mercenary heart of the game is exposed whenever players abandon an adoring support for more cash elsewhere, never more cruelly than when a derby divide is crossed. But such cruelty maintains the box office potential of the derby in question, and might be exactly why those players are so adorably gifted in the first place.
Michael Owen and Paul Ince are rare exceptions to the rule which says a playing career cannot include both Liverpool and Manchester United. Ince, signing for Liverpool after a stint at Internazionale, was paying back United manager Alex Ferguson for letting him go to Italy with no love lost. But Owen supported Everton, who his father played for, until he joined Liverpool’s youth set-up. Perhaps this early decision, to put career above affection, cultivated the lack of sentiment which let him stain his Anfield legacy with his later stint at Old Trafford.
The Scottish media love anyone disrespecting the self-styled “most hateful derby in Britain”, with the apotheosis coming in July 1989. Since at least the 1930s, Rangers had never knowingly signed a Roman Catholic. Graeme Souness arrived as manager in 1986, determined to end a policy as self-defeating as it was sectarian. The signature of Maurice Johnston, recently paraded to the media as returning to Celtic from Nantes, was perfect tabloid fodder in that it upset fans of both clubs. Since then Steven Pressley and Kenny Miller have played for both in the Champions League and “childhood Celtic fans” such as Neil McCann and Danny Wilson have won titles with Rangers.
But transfers of first-team players directly from one side of Glasgow to the other remain a no-no. When Sol Campbell went straight to Arsenal from Tottenham in 2001 Spurs fans literally turned their back on the defender on his first return to White Hart Lane in Arsenal colours. “Judas” chants and balloons were later replaced by a song so offensive it required police action.
But Campbell remains the only player to score for a north London club in the Champions League final. If “playing for the jersey” sometimes entails being sent off because you care too much, perhaps putting away childish affiliations increases the clarity with which a player can play the game. Franz Beckenbauer – a boyhood 1860 Munich fan – helped Bayern Munich supplant them as the premier club in the city. He was assisted by the goals of Gerd Müller, who grew up supporting Nuremberg but helped Bayern replace them as the most successful club in Franconia, then Bavaria and eventually German football history.
Most fans tolerate a player’s need to earn or win more. But moving to a hated rival rewards our affection with contempt. In the 1990s Danish international Michael Laudrup didn’t get a pig’s head thrown at him, as per Luís Figo the following decade. But Laudrup made the same move from Barcelona to Real Madrid, playing in 5-0 wins for each in El Clásico. Making the opposite journey – and regularly scoring against Real – only increased the affection Barça fans felt for current manager Luis Enrique.
The game is peppered with players remembered warmly by every support they played for. Those who break the derby divide are despised by at least one. Alex Anderson