In an edited extract from the new WSC collection, Always Next Year 4, Alex Anderson agonises over how to respond to the racism of his fellow Rangers fans
I really don’t have a lot of time for Dianbobo Balde. As far as I’m concerned, he is to the art of defending what Reggie and Ronnie Kray were to Neighbourhood Watch schemes. It’s just a matter of time until he does some serious damage. Oh, and he plays for Celtic. And I support Rangers, so there’s that whole contractual thing.
So no one was more alarmed than I when, on the last day of September 2001, I risked all my Sectarian City credentials by sticking up for Bobo Balde. What was worse, I was at Ibrox at the time. What was unforgivable, it was during the first Old Firm game of the season, and Rangers were losing. The monkey noises, which increased in volume every time Balde touched the ball, represented the first of a series of new depths plumbed last season. I found myself shaking my head more and more vigorously as many of my fellow fans engaged in an act of overt racism which will never become cliched no matter how unoriginal.
The most pathetic aspect of the episode was the fact that Mark Walters had been on the pitch at half-time, performing the up-tempo, showbiz Rangers version of the half-time tombola draw. Not only is Walters an Ibrox legend, not only was he the first black player to wear the Rangers jersey, not only was he the first black player to grace the Scottish Premier League – he was also the last straw to be clutched by those of us who try to defend Rangers’ image. It’s crude and patronising in the extreme, I know, but our defensive adoration of a pilloried black player was a tabloid-friendly display of “right-thinking”. Such crumbs of mitigation against all that’s wrong with the Rangers support have to be ruthlessly seized upon by Bluenoses who care what others think of them.
Had a black player joined Celtic first, no doubt the positions would have been reversed. But Walters came to Ibrox, and when he played his first game, on January 2, 1988, it was the Celtic fans who had hired gorilla outfits from fancy dress shops and who chucked bananas at him. We secretly delighted as the Celtic support “shamed Scotland” with their small-mindedness.
By the mid-Nineties, however, an all-white Rangers team took on Ajax in the Champions League and Patrick Kluivert – black, brilliant and with a damningly Irish Catholic first name – was given some appalling treatment. It was clear there had not, in fact, been an outbreak of common decency among the Ibrox hardcore. It had simply been a temporary abstention in deference to a black Rangers player who knew how to destroy a Celtic defence single-handedly. And by 2001 even that had evaporated.
During the second half of the opening Old Firm game, the sickening taunts and the cries of “black bastard” had become so bad that I turned to the man behind me and muttered something like: “You can’t do that.” In the middle of a Rangers v Celtic game everything is considered justified except sticking up for the opposition in any way. My mumble was taken as an outrageous show of disloyalty, and the only thing I could do to prevent an all-out barney with several blokes (who, like me, were in their season ticket seats and would therefore be sat behind me for the next eight months) was to replace one evil with another: “He’s not a black bastard,” I said, to my ever-lasting shame. “He’s a Fenian bastard.”
That at least diluted the chances of me ending up in traction before the end of the match. However, the price I paid for my physical health has shown up as a debit on my moral account. Many of my Catholic friends and relations have often used anti-Protestant jibes in reference to Rangers players, just as I have let slip the odd anti-Catholic version in the heat of an Old Firm battle. I don’t hold it against them and they don’t hold it against me – we all know it emanates from a unique kind of (anti) social conditioning. But to specify so exactly which type of bigotry I see as acceptable gave me much more existential angst for the rest of the season than Celtic’s disappearance over the championship horizon.
The newspapers and television programmes, by contrast, were concerned with only one “sickening” incident of abuse from that match. Relentlesly replayed TV pictures and front page photographs showed one Celtic fan standing up with arms outstretched, mimicking an aeroplane, as Claudio Reyna took a corner – clearly referring to the Twin Towers attacks on New York. The deluge of media outrage duly followed. Rangers fans suddenly remembered they had in fact seen many hundreds of Celtic fans performing the same sick mime in Reyna’s direction and reminded the world how, the previous week, the Celtic support had sung songs imploring UEFA to force Rangers to play their UEFA Cup tie against Anzhi Makhachkala in war-torn Dagestan.
On the other hand, plenty of Celtic fans wanted it known how ashamed they were. Plenty of Rangers fans were willing to say we had the same random idiots within our number. But no one wants to hear common sense in this kind of situation – it’s boring and it doesn’t make newsworthy copy. Instead, we soon saw the Balde-baiting held up as a counter-claim of moral depravity and on went the expressions of horror and disgust from each side. The nasty things that happen in Old Firm games must be exposed to the max, just in case both sides forget how much they’re supposed to hate each other. That’s the rule.
Come March 2002 and the second Ibrox Old Firm game, the microphones caught an even louder level of monkey chants whenever Balde touched the ball. As he approached the Govan Stand to take a throw, the cameras caught hundreds of red, white and blue-clad morons jumping to their feet and scratching under their arms. It did make the news, but not to anything like the extent that the Reyna incident had. September 11 provided the opportunity for Old Firm hatred to be mixed in with dramatic world events. But now, in March, racism? Against one guy? Nah – did that 14 years ago, thanks.
When Peter Lovenkrands scored an injury-time winner in the Scottish Cup final two months later, football for once seemed to take precedence over the antics of the Old Firm’s fans. However, before the game kicked off, I was witness to an end-to-end contest that was every bit as exciting as the five-goal thriller which followed.
Approximately every third Rangers fan waved a Union Jack and turned half of Hampden into something akin to the Last Night of the Proms. It was a victory for Unionism. But no, the Celtic fans were brandishing their fair share of Irish tricolours – one back for Republicanism. Then – bang! – the Celts move into the lead by producing the Basque flag. But, wait a minute, the Rangers fans equalise with the blue and white flag of Israel – an occupying force in a disputed zone that feels itself misrepresented and unfairly vilified by the outside world, a bit like the British Army in Northern Ireland.
Nothing is too tenuous to be incorporated into this seemingly endless exchange of sterile symbolism. How can we remedy a situation in which Rangers supporters feel the need to make the England World Cup top the best-selling football strip in Scotland? How can we arrive at a point where I can safely taunt a Celtic fan about ruining their 100 per cent home record, without him retorting: “Yeah, but what about the ‘gypsy’ taunts every time Moravcik was on the ball?” When will it ever be just about football between Rangers and Celtic? Well, never, frankly.
The rest of the SPL is sick of us. If we were to fall into the desperate arms of the Nationwide League, which admittedly now seems highly unlikely, it would be the most brutal broadening of horizons for the two clubs and their fans, and it would certainly take the edge off the Old Firm games. We had six “all or nothing” hate-fests last season. Such familiarity has bred a contempt which encourages the supporters to continually seek new, more vicious ways of insulting the opposition players and new, more hypocritical ways of demonising the opposition fans.
Improbable though it may seem at the moment, for the vitriol of the Old Firm rivalry to dissipate we need to escape Scotland’s claustrophobic hate factory and move into the air-conditioned, open-plan office of the English league. Until then, we will be waiting in vain for the day when the silent majority drowns out the empty vessels and when the agent of common sense stands up in the middle of an Old Firm game and says simply: “This isn’t right.”
From WSC 187 September 2002. What was happening this month