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It’s time to kick the Old Firm haters into Row Z

The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers represents everything that’s great about football.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Free Speech

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At long last, after a three-year absence, the Old Firm is back. The rivalry between Celtic and Rangers is arguably the most passionate and hostile in British football. For the police, it’s an alcohol-fuelled carnival of bigotry, hooliganism and domestic abuse. For some Celtic fans, who mischievously took out a full-page spread in the Sunday Herald, the game is a sham. They claim that the Old Firm died when Rangers went into liquidation in 2012. But for those who love their football uncensored and unsanitised, it’s what a derby game should be all about: a fiercely fought, passionate, bad-blooded mother of all battles. Last Sunday’s Scottish League Cup semi-final may have been low on quality, but it was high on nastiness, needle and noise. Just as Old Firm games should be.

The Old Firm rivalry is the stuff of legend, but not always in a good way. The enmity between the two giants of Scottish football has spawned its own myths. To those who don’t understand the theatrical irony of football banter, Celtic against Rangers is an orgy of bigotry. It’s even been honoured with its very own piece of bonkers legislation. The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act 2012 is one of the most astonishingly draconian pieces of legislation imaginable in a society which pays lip service to the principle of free speech. It’s a law that wouldn’t have appeared out of place in a military dictatorship. It means that football fans can be prosecuted for singing abusive songs about the Pope, the IRA or the Irish potato famine. That’s right, in a free society, you can be nicked for trading playground insults. I despair, I really do.

Yes, it’s true that both sets of supporters taunt each other mercilessly and sing inflammatory war songs. But this is cartoon sectarianism. Although the Celtic versus Rangers animosity borrows from the language and iconography of the Irish conflict, this is primarily a football rivalry – albeit an exceptionally fierce one – which takes a pseudo-political form. The reality is that there is no sectarian divide in Scottish society. It’s a convenient fiction. As Scottish academic Steve Bruce has demonstrated, there is no evidence of employment discrimination or significant sectarian violence north of the border. Protestants and Catholics in Scotland do not lead parallel lives. ‘Tims’ and ‘Huns’ live and work together. Mixed marriages are common – 50 per cent of married Catholics had a non-Catholic spouse according to the 2001 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. The legislation might be dressed up as a noble measure to tackle sectarianism, but all it does is make criminals of football fans for expressing their rivalry in the language of the Irish war. Celtic and Rangers fans are only doing what football fans the world over do: exchange insults and taunts with their arch-rivals.

Another enduring myth about Old Firm games is that they lead to a spike in incidents of domestic violence. This year, Strathclyde Police took the unprecedented step of visiting ‘known abusers’ ahead of Sunday’s Old Firm fixture to warn them that they were under surveillance. ‘It’s saying to the abuser: we know what happened last time, we’re watching you, don’t do it again’, said former DCS John Carnochan, who set up Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit. Carnochan might be one of those thoroughly irritating modern coppers who speaks fluent sociologese but the criminalisation of citizens for offences which they have yet to commit is a strategy which Erich Mielke, head of the East German Stasi, would have been proud of.

The police claim that incidents of domestic violence increase on Old Firm days by 138 per cent. As John Carnochan puts it, ‘You can say it’s just picking on Rangers and Celtic fans but there are 50,000 men there and the odds are that a lot of them will be abusers’. So, not only are football fans bigots, they’re also latent wife-beaters. However, this is another myth that is based on the flimsiest of evidence. The headline figure of 138 per cent comes from a 2013 St Andrews University study which found that, on average, reported incidents of domestic violence increase in the 24 hours before after an Old Firm game kicks off from 66 to 121. The relative increase sounds dramatic but the actual – or ‘absolute’ – incidence is miniscule to begin with.

This is classic statistical smoke and mirrors. As a proportion of spectators inside Hampden Park, the additional 55 reported incidents represent a mere 0.1 per cent. But, of course, most Celtic and Rangers fans were not at the match. They were watching at home or in the pub. The more we interrogate this supposed ‘spike’, the flakier the evidence actually appears. But the singular focus on Old Firm games has nothing to do with academic rigour. The steady stream of police press releases linking domestic abuse to Old Firm games serves to reinforce the narrative that working-class football fans are knuckle-dragging wife-beaters. It’s a poisonous fiction that needs to be booted into Row Z.

The resumption of Old Firm hostilities has provided the police and the media with an excuse to recycle the tired, old stereotypes about supporters of the two clubs. It’s an exercise in snobbery and prejudice which wouldn’t be tolerated if it had been targeted at any other section of society. It also reveals a profound misunderstanding about football and its rituals. All those war songs, those jibes and taunts – they’re just pantomime for adults. It’s what we do at football. It’s not for the faint hearted or the easily offended. It’s the polar opposite of the sterile, family-friendly, ‘you can’t say that’ culture of modern football. And that’s why we need to tell the snobs, the cops and their media chums to get lost. We need to cherish the fervent, unfiltered passion and animosity of the Old Firm.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @DuleepOffside

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Topics Free Speech

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