Sunday 8 March ~
This weekend Glasgow Rangers play Hamilton Academical at home in the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup, a game they are expected to win. Next weekend they play Glasgow Celtic in the Scottish League Cup final, and once that’s over they will continue their challenge for the Scottish Premier League title. They are currently second, three points behind Celtic, with no other team in sight, as usual. When a club is contending for all three major domestic honours in March, you’d say they were having a pretty good season, right? Except that on Wednesday evening Rangers were booed off the field by their own supporters, seething at a 1-0 home defeat to bottom-placed Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
“The players deserved the crowd to get at them,” said Rangers manager Walter Smith, because no manager wants to criticise the fans and then have them on his back too. “Sometimes it is hard to play here, the crowd can be difficult to please at times,” he added understatedly. “But when you are going for a championship and play the way we did tonight, then the fans are right to voice their displeasure.” That displeasure came in the face of what was only Rangers’ second home defeat of the season (the other was to Celtic), and it not only allowed Caley to move off the bottom, it meant that Rangers dropped to second place, Celtic having narrowly beaten Kilmarnock. The fans’ mood was not helped by the timing of the away team’s goal, a penalty kick in the fourth minute of stoppage time. Stop grinning there at the back.
Unpredictable results are increasingly rare in a league where no one’s going to bother pretending any more that there’s the slightest hope of challenging the Glaswegian monoliths for the title, unrelinquished by either Rangers or Celtic now for almost a quarter of a century. In the case of the Rangers’ fans, winning has clearly become a fix they cannot do without. While supporters of Falkirk and Kilmarnock might see a record of 18 wins, six draws and four defeats as something to be proud of, a Gers follower can only compare it unfavourably with Celtic’s and start spitting feathers. It sounds odd, but they really should be pitied.
When expectations are set so high (except, presumably, in the Champions League), defeat by scrappy little clubs from the Highlands becomes impossible to take. Perhaps the club could employ loss therapists for embittered fans, with stands set up outside the exits to help the grieving faithful to cope with negative scorelines. “If you see a gloating man in a green and white hooped shirt,” soothing doctors could exhort, “be strong and turn the other cheek. Resist that urge to sink six pints of Heavy. Go home to meditate instead.”
An angry home crowd just means more fun for the rest of us as we enjoy a temporary respite in the crushingly dull routine of Scottish football, and the sight of bad losers turning crimson and shouting at a team we all hate anyway. On a wider scale, it symbolises the absolutely rotten state of the country’s domestic game, when spoilt fans cannot accept their side losing a single game and turn abusive like five-year-old kids denied a third ice cream. It could be argued that when a side as big as Rangers attracts 48,000 fans on a midweek night against the league’s bottom club, then anything besides a win is unacceptable. On the other hand, if you can’t accept that your team might lose, why follow the game at all? You might as well stay home and play Subbuteo on your own, with one pristine team in blue jerseys hammering the other, controlled by your left hand and down to seven men due to injuries and red cards, and only there for the sake of protocol.
Then again, bar the odd freak result like Caley’s, Scottish football’s pretty much at that point already. And in the absence of any initiative to reform (or better, revolutionise) the Scottish game, the Old Firm will continue to win the Scottish championship for another meaningless 25 years, deluding themselves that it’s worth something. Sore losers and greedy winners get the league they deserve. Ian Plenderleith