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Football's senseless bigotry hasn't gone away, you know

P icture the scene: It's Dublin in the early '90s and a group of teenage lads gather in the grounds of a closed down youth centre drinking cider and listening to rebel songs. As they sing along to every anti-English, pro-IRA lyric, one 13-year-old sets himself apart from the crowd. Not only has he opted not to drink, but he is sporting an item of clothing more offensive to his peers than any other: a replica Glasgow Rangers jersey. I was that lad.

As amusing as it is for me to look back at my pigheadedness, I was rebelling against the notion that my sense of Irishness needed to be affirmed and enhanced by a hatred of Rangers and the culture they supposedly represented. Unconditional support for Glasgow Celtic was all that was permitted. Nothing else was accepted. It made as little sense then as it does now, but I was regularly warned against sharing my view with others. It was something which, for my own safety I assume, I was advised to keep to myself.

But I couldn't. Football was all I wanted to play or watch or talk about. For that period, Rangers were my team. I revered the leadership of Richard Gough and the goalkeeping of Andy Goram. The winner of the European Golden Boot around that time, Ally McCoist, was the first player I idolised. They won trophies every year and almost reached the final of the European Cup.

In a sporting argument, no explanation would be needed to understand my allegiance. But even then, the practice of supporting a football team on ideological grounds seemed utterly ridiculous. There wasn't any noticeable distinction between supporting Celtic and supporting the paramilitaries among many I knew. At that time, a distrust and hatred of Protestants was inherent in any statement of support of Celtic among people I knew. That football would be politicised in this way seemed alien to me, so I opted against it. Only Neanderthals could think this way. It was how I thought back then, and my outlook hasn't varied too much to this day.

Today the Old Firm derby will take place for the seventh time this season amid security conditions rarely associated with sporting occasions. The bombs intercepted by the postal service intended for Neil Lennon, among others, have created a backdrop of tension and hostility on a scale you just don't get elsewhere. The bomb threats bring the absurdity of the situation to an all-time low, but the linking of politics or religion or culture with events on a pitch has always taken place.

In the context that many see them as the sporting representation of both sides of the struggle in the North over so many years, it almost seems hard to imagine we have not been here before.

But such a threat is not a new development. Following the arrival of Mo Johnston to Rangers in the late '80s, a bomb disposal squad was hired by the club to protect their players' cars while they attended a party in one of their homes. The former Rangers player who told me that had plenty of other anecdotes of a similar nature.

Many of my friends are passionate followers of Celtic and take great comfort in their belief that the sectarianism in the rivalry is a one-way problem. If that were true I would have had no worries as a teenager in Dublin and I would have had no hesitation in signing for Rangers during my career. I only ever got verbal stick from the lads in my area because of it, but I'm convinced it was my reputation as the one most likely to play professionally one day which saved me from a helluva lot more. I would never have worn a Rangers shirt anywhere else. Even I was never that stupid.

Midway through the season in which I picked up the injury which eventually finished my career, I was aware Rangers were one of the clubs interested in signing me. I had accepted that failure to gain promotion to the Premier League that year would inevitably lead to my departure anyway, but I let it be known immediately that Rangers would never be a viable option. I was a Dublin-born Catholic. It seemed my willingness to make a choice based purely on sporting grounds had clearly waned over time, because it was a move I didn't consider for a second. I was all for the idea of competing for trophies at big clubs on big wages, but I was less keen on exposing my family in Dublin to any unnecessary bother in the process.

Unusually for one with such passion for the game as a kid, I never grew a love for any club at any time. I admired individuals rather than the clubs they played for, so when the players I idolised moved on, my interest in Rangers fell away.

My ambition in life was always to play football as much as I could for as long as I could, and I never dreamt of playing for one club over another. I was mad about football and that was it. And all along the notion of pledging a lifelong allegiance to a club for reasons which had nothing to do with football seemed to me to be utter bollocks. It still does.


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