Thursday 14 November 2019

Spiteful rivalry beyond a joke

John O'Brien

Last week, for the first time in years, we decided to check in on the increasingly irrelevant -- in a wider football sense anyway -- feud between Celtic and Rangers in the small city they both call home.

The first unfortunate revelation was discovering where El Hadji Diouf had got to and realising it simply wasn't far enough. Diouf to Glasgow is like Charlie Sheen joining the cast of Desperate Housewives. They are a match but in the worst way conceivable.

So as it all began to "kick off", as they say, what did we do? Well, the same thing we always do in such circumstances: we switched into flippant mode. We thought of an acquaintance who would be braving the Celtic Park cauldron and made teasing enquiries as to his well-being. "Och," he replied with the textual equivalent of a casual shrug. "This is one of the quieter ones."

Wednesday was beyond joking, though. Most of us are guilty of such flippancy at one stage or another, but the problems arise when the ambivalence is shared by those at the coalface. The clubs can speak all they like about the measures they have taken to eradicate bigotry -- do they expect a medal? -- yet when players and officials behave like unrestrained thugs, how can you expect fans to be any better? The image has to be cleansed from the top.

The Scottish FA will be urged to impose serious sanctions on both clubs arising from Wednesday's mayhem, yet it is such an ingrained part of 'Old Firm' culture that it must be doubtful whether things will ever improve. And the game itself was ugly enough without television coverage having to add to the mix. They used words like "disgraceful" and "unsavoury" to describe the violent scenes but, deep down, you felt Sky Sports were loving it.

The nastiness crept in when Steven Whittaker was correctly sent off by referee Calum Murray, an impressively nerveless figure in the most trying of circumstances. For some reason that was never fully explained, Diouf decided to approach the Celtic dug-out and remonstrate with manager Neil Lennon.

"A bit of verbals," said the commentator, reaching for the handiest of sporting euphemisms.

Things were boiling up nicely. "This game has come to life," he enthused before erupting in a fit of alliterative self-indulgence. "Frantic and fiery. Feisty. It's the Old Firm." We were informed that the last 16 Glasgow derbies had seen 12 red cards. This was to be worn as a badge of honour, it seemed. As the half ended and Diouf sparked more chaos in the tunnel, the old reliable was reached for once more. "This is the Old Firm."

Packie Bonner was no help. As the camera panned to the former Celtic and Ireland legend, Bonner flashed a plaintive smile and wondered if he could just talk about the football. Incredibly, his wish was indulged and it was left to Neil McCann to condemn Diouf's conduct and restore some sanity to the proceedings. Can we talk about the football? The football wasn't worth talking about.

Afterwards, Rangers manager Walter Smith, looking older than his 63 years, was shockingly indulged with a rant against Murray instead of being called to answer for behaviour that saw his side pick up seven yellow and three red cards and his successor, Ally McCoist, locking heads with Lennon after the game. Yes, it ended with the two men who will set the Old Firm agenda for years to come squaring up to each other on the sideline. Lovely.

To think that this was the fifth of seven instalments the Old Firm will contest this season. How can anyone bear that much hatred?

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