Sport Soccer

Sunday 18 March 2018

Scotland spiralling out of control thanks to viciousness of minority

Neil Lennon has been targeted in a culture where tribalism is the only thing on offer, writes Dion Fanning

Last Wednesday night, Kris Commons scored his 11th league goal for Celtic. Commons joined Celtic in January and this journeyman professional is averaging a goal a game since he arrived.

Anthony Stokes has scored 15 league goals this year while Kyle Lafferty has scored 13 goals for Rangers. Kenny Miller, who left for Turkey in January, is still top scorer in the league although he could be overtaken by the young forward Gary Hooper, who if he develops as he promises, will leave Scotland soon.

On the field, Scottish football has become a playground for the mediocre. There may be some connection between the decline and the feeling, accentuated by events last week, that Scottish football is a game increasingly only attractive to the extremists.

The vicious campaign of terror and abuse against Neil Lennon has been the most severe manifestation of the sectarian hatred that Celtic's manager has had to endure since he arrived in Scotland.

Last week's arrests were made in connection to parcel bombs sent to Lennon and two other people with Celtic connections. Yet it was the sight of Lennon being attacked on the sideline at Hearts last week that reinforced the idea that the Scottish game, unattractive to many for so long, is now out of control.

Celtic's chief executive Peter Lawwell last week called for all in Scottish society to act to stamp out the campaign against Lennon. "Someone has to grasp this problem," he said, "because the last two or three months have been horrific -- horrific for Neil and horrific for everyone associated with the club. Unless someone really and genuinely grasps this problem and actually identifies the source of the problem, then God only knows what will happen."

On the other side, supporters share this view. "Nobody should be subjected to that kind of nonsense, in no way do I condone what's happened to Neil Lennon," John Macmillan, general secretary of the Rangers Supporters' Association, said.

Celtic are right to say they are the only club whose staff and players are the victims of sectarian abuse. But there is ugliness on both sides. Some of the Celtic fans spent their time on Wednesday night chanting pro-IRA songs, chants which became louder after the attack on Lennon. They may feel superior because they are not singing songs of religious hatred but they are singing songs of hate.

"These songs are completely unacceptable too," Macmillan says. "I would like to see the end of all this talk of 'Huns' and 'Fenians' taken out of it."

Celtic would have it that their songs are just the average cut and thrust of a football crowd, that they are political as other clubs' supporters are political. In which case, you just have to decide what you think of the politics put forward by Celtic fans and small factions like the Green Brigade which have become more noticeable this season, in part because of their campaign against Celtic wearing the poppy on their shirts.

For a long time, the Old Firm seemed to provide a harmless playground for the bigoted religious nuts and supporters of terrorism to find a voice.

This season the threats against Lennon and the statistical evidence that cases of domestic abuse rise by as much as 138 per cent when the Old Firm play stripped away the illusion that this was a harmless if weird idea of fun and left only the ugliness.

Impartial observers of Scottish football will talk about a lightness that is present in Celtic Park that isn't noticeable at Ibrox.

They point out that there is very little, if any, bigoted chanting from the home support at Parkhead. When the occasional chant for the Provos rings out from a small minority it is barely tolerated. Away from home, both sides have more hardline support.

Both sides too can barely tolerate debate or a version of events that they disagree with. Celtic have a sense of victimhood which must be protected. So when the outstanding journalist Graham Spiers referred on Twitter to a "fight" between Lennon and his assailant at Tynecastle, he was bombarded by Celtic fans who took issue with the word "fight".

Lennon had fought back when attacked, understandably given everything he has endured, but in the search for grievance and high on "the ecstasy of sanctimony", even the language of this incident was subject to this hyper-analysis.

This draining and exhausting process, this search for grievance has ripped the bones from the back of the Scottish game which now cannot exist without the Old Firm and, at the moment, that existence is a fraught and ugly thing.

They are equally sensitive if there is any suggestion that Lennon's behaviour this season has been less than attractive. Nothing he has done justifies the attempts to kill and maim him and his family, that should be obvious.

Yet, it remains the case that the animosity many feel towards him is not always because of sectarianism. He has been boorish, provocative and inflammatory at times this season. He has been banned by the SFA for his behaviour on the touchline. Yet he has the right to learn from these mistakes, not to be terrorised for them.

Celtic are eager at all times to separate themselves from the sectarianism practised by some Rangers supporters. They have developed what some call a 'moral one-upmanship' in which they point out, with some justification, the differences. They highlight the UEFA Cup final in Seville eight years ago as an example of how Celtic fans do it and contrast it with the rioting Rangers' supporters in Manchester following the 2008 final.

Some will go as far as to produce comparative arrest figures which demonstrate that Rangers fans cause more trouble. It is an exhausting job staying on the moral high ground. But moral one-upmanship never killed anyone. In fact, it may have made Celtic even more determined to remove their own hate-filled chants.

Yet in this shrill world there are casualties. Celtic fans took issue with Hugh Dallas making some jokes at the expense of the Catholic Church and saw it as sectarian. There are many reasons for satirising the Catholic Church, one of the most brutal, corrupt and malevolent institutions that has ever existed. Sectarianism is not necessarily one of them.

Dallas, however, outraged the defenders of the catholic faith when he forwarded on a joke by email the day the Pope visited Scotland and was subsequently sacked by the SFA from his position as Head of Referee Development.

Lennon's first full season as Celtic's manager has forced those who tolerate sectarianism to challenge it. Those who practise it might yet be routed but if Lennon is driven from Scotland, the game will be handed to the extremists.

What the Scottish game is today has been masked by the increasing shrillness of the supporters on all sides and a viciousness from a minority.

The referees have gone on strike in an attempt to stop the abuse directed at them, Rangers have been found guilty by UEFA of sectarian chanting, fined and placed on probation and Lennon has been hounded. Is it a coincidence that Scottish football, while never temperate, has become more volatile as the Scottish game reaches terminal decline and the Scottish footballer which once made a club like Celtic great has disappeared?

There is nothing left for supporters to do but hate and in their pursuit of Lennon to hate with a dangerous and violent passion.

If this was removed, they would be left with the game as it is with the truth about players like Georgios Samaras, Kyle Lafferty and Lee McCulloch staring them in the face.

Football always needs tribalism, especially today when the alternative is corporate entertainment. Scottish football has nothing else. The increased ferocity of the attacks on Lennon demonstrate that soon it might have nothing at all. "It would be a terrible blight if he was driven from the game, it would be a sad reflection on society and I hope it doesn't happen," Macmillan says.

If Lennon stays, and if the voices of relative sanity prevail, then he may soon be judged on the one thing that should matter but has been lost in the vortex of loathing: is he any good?

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