Rangers fans have been used as an excuse to aim a kick at the national gameEmbed from Getty Images
“Football is really a game for a pathetic bunch of losers”.
I don’t know about you, but when I want a nuanced take on a controversial issue involving football fans, I turn to the sort of person who begins their newspaper column with that kind of outburst.
Earlier this week I had the dubious pleasure of sharing a platform with such a person, when I was invited onto the Call Kaye show on BBC Radio Scotland.
I’ve made a few appearances on the station’s Good Morning Scotland programme, and every time I’ve been part of a coherent, civilised discussion.
This time? Not so much.
The scenes of Rangers fans celebrating at Ibrox and George Square, many without masks and most failing to observe social distancing, have dominated the Scottish news agenda in recent days.
I was called on Monday morning to ask if I wanted to come on the show, and so I made a few notes. My point was essentially going to be: ‘As a football fan I completely understand the impulse to celebrate, but as someone who’s spent 12 months shielding it’s frustrating to see lockdown breaches like this’.
At no point did I expect to have to be defending the whole of Scottish football, but then I wasn’t expecting to be speaking immediately after someone suggested firing water cannons filled with disinfectant at fans.
That was the suggestion of Joan Burnie, known for the ‘Just Joan’ Daily Record agony aunt column that ended in 2014.
Prior to her involvement in the conversation, host Kaye Adams spoke to Celtic fan Jim and Rangers fan Geoffrey, both of whom made informed and honest contributions to the discussion.Embed from Getty Images
Enter Burnie, whose first words were: “I have never understood the hold which certain football teams have on the hearts of their supporters.”
At which point Adams should have said ‘Thanks Joan’ and moved on.
If you cannot grasp the emotional grip that football has on fans, you’ve no business joining a debate on national radio about football fans showing emotion.
Unless, that is, you were an epidemiologist there to talk about the threat posed by large numbers congregating without masks or distancing, or a policing expert providing insight into large scale crowd control.
As far as I’m aware, Burnie is neither of those things, and yet she was allowed a total of three minutes to rant – unchecked – about football fans.
“I mean they will abandon their wives, they will neglect their children, but they stick with their team through thick and thin”
“Personally, if only we could have, I would have got out a water cannon, and I would have filled it with disinfectant and I would have bunged that into George Square and I would have sprayed the lot of them. They are thick”
“I am sick to death of football being treated as if it was some little tin god”
“It is football. It is men kicking a bit of rubber up and down a pitch. It doesn’t matter”
“For goodness’ sake, it’s a football team. It doesn’t matter”
“I mean football has been given a free pass more or less to do what it more or less likes”
“Football should not have been given this free pass to do exactly as it likes”
Yes, water cannons with disinfectant. No, she wasn’t interrupted.
If football was allowed to to do ‘exactly as it likes’, stadiums would be full every Saturday. Players would be allowed to attend house parties or fly abroad without censure or condemnation.
The Scottish Cup would be well under way. The lower leagues would be nearing the end of their seasons.
Rangers fan Geoffrey was eventually brought back into the conversation and spoke of “10 years of hell”, at which point Burnie interrupted and said: “It’s not hell, it’s football, for goodness’ sake!”
Burnie continued to interrupt, as did the host, before Burnie was again allowed to talk without interruption.
I was then brought into the conversation (as “the journalist also known as The Old Firm Facts”), hoping to make the point that ‘This shouldn’t have happened, but context is important and water cannon chat doesn’t help anyone’.
Instead, I was repeatedly interrupted by Adams, whose tone, sighing and abrasive line of questioning seemed to imply that I’d been brought on to say ‘I like football and these are football fans, therefore what they did was completely fine’.
In the end, I managed to get a couple of lines in before Burnie was brought back for another 70 uninterrupted seconds, which was long enough for her to state that fans were celebrating because they’d “won a poxy cup”.
Watch the clip from 07.30 onwards, and listen to the sneering contempt in Burnie’s voice. That’s a tone that every Scottish football fan will be familiar with.
You knew it was coming too. As soon as pictures emerged of supporters in George Square, you could feel the rubbing of hands and licking of lips as another opportunity was afforded to give our game a kicking.Embed from Getty Images
Scottish football is constantly besieged by ill-informed, prejudiced takes from the chattering classes, who are too blinded by their dislike of the most popular pastime in the country to bother doing the most basic research before indulging in some good, old-fashioned classism.
Hating football isn’t a personality trait. Not liking something that most other people like doesn’t mean they’re all wrong and you’re right (unless it’s Mumford & Sons, but that’s for another article).
I don’t know anything about spending 17 hours a day curtain-twitching and tutting at my neighbours, but I don’t go on national radio to ridicule Joan Burnie for doing it. Each to their own.
No football fan is equating the importance of the Scottish Premiership title with a pandemic. Dismissing it as a “poxy cup” won by “men kicking a bit of rubber up and down a pitch”, however, is sheer ignorance.
‘Those that don’t understand don’t matter’ is a common refrain among fans, and someone who would confidently state “they will abandon their wives, they will neglect their children, but they stick with their team through thick and thin” is either incapable of understanding or simply has no inclination to.
Either way, they shouldn’t be within a Kemar Roofe v Standard Liege of any debate concerning football.
The 90 minutes of “men kicking a bit of rubber” amounts to a fraction of the football experience.
It’s Rangers receiving an Autism Friendly Award for setting up a sensory room at their stadium in order for children and young adults with sensory difficulties to enjoy matchdays.
It’s Celtic becoming the first of 113 football clubs to provide free period products in their stadium.
It’s Hearts and Hibs taking part in a Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) project called The Changing Room, with the aim of engaging men and supporting them with their mental health.
It’s Dundee United engaging young fans on World Book Day, it’s Motherwell carrying the Suicide Prevention North Lanarkshire message on their sleeves, it’s Livingston’s manager providing an inspiring example of rehabilitation, and it’s countless other positive stories and initiatives.
It’s foodbank drives, it’s community outreach programs, it’s fighting against racism and homophobia, it’s opening stadiums to the homeless on Christmas Day.
It’s communities of artists, bloggers and podcasters finding each other and enriching each others’ lives thanks to a shared interest. It’s the matchday routines that bond families and cement friendships.
It’s that moment of national ecstasy when David Marshall denied Mitrovic, and it’s that moment of national ecstasy when Jordan Pickford didn’t deny Mandzukic.
Those that don’t understand don’t matter.
Rangers fans should not have been congregating without masks or distancing, but a few thousand supporters behaving a certain way is not a stick you can beat the whole game with.
This is an issue of personal responsibility, not of a collective failing on the part of Scottish football.
Most of the people celebrating were adults, who attended of their own volition. We’re over a year into the pandemic, and so they were all well aware of the risks and the rules.
Regardless of who you support and what your team has achieved, we are in a lockdown and rubbing shoulders in large numbers without masks is not just against the law but completely ill-advised.
As someone who’s spent the last year shielding, it’s frustrating to see anyone breaking the rules. By doing so you leave yourself open to criticism, but that criticism should be directed at individuals, not an entire sport.
Before blindly condemning Scottish football in its entirety you have to educate yourself on the context of those celebrations.
Those Rangers fans didn’t suddenly have a spontaneous urge to go outside because it was a Sunday night. It was a collective outpouring of joy built on a decade’s worth of frustration, anger and resentment.
That’s not an excuse, but it’s an explanation, and if you’re going to discuss football fans breaking the rules you have to show some willingness to engage with the context.
Burnie is typical of a strain of Scottish society that revels in portraying all Scottish football fans as contemptible idiots.
It’s no accident that the word she used to describe those Rangers supporters was “thick”, or that she brought abandoned wives and neglected children into the discussion.
Whether conscious or unconscious, it reeks of classism, and serves only to demonise a huge portion of society based on the actions of a minority.
Scottish football has many flaws, but it deserves so much more than being patronised and ridiculed by snobs who can’t be bothered to engage properly with the subject.
I look forward to my next Call Kaye appearance on March 22, when I’ll be joined by Julia Hartley-Brewer to discuss the previous day’s ‘Shame Game’ at Celtic Park.