Sports

Challenging the religious bigots

BRUCE WALLACE April 29 1996
Sports

Challenging the religious bigots

BRUCE WALLACE April 29 1996

Challenging the religious bigots

Sports

BRUCE WALLACE

It has not been an altogether happy Saturday afternoon for the home team at the Celtic Park soccer ground in Glasgow’s east end. On the field, nothing is going Celtic’s way. They trail visiting Hibernian by a goal as time runs down, and the referee’s repeated rulings against the home team are driving the 37,000 fans to a braying, seething distraction. Afternoon shadows are long by the time Celtic breaks through the Hibernian defence for two quick goals that give the ornery fans something to sing about. At last.

And from one section of the stands comes a verse, a small group swaying shoulder to shoulder as they holler their hearts out for Celtic:

Oh son I dream of distant days When history was made When being just a lad like you

I joined the IRA.

Only an outsider would cock an ear in surprise at the tune—Boys of the Old Brigade, an Irish rebel song marking the 1916 nationalist uprising against Britain. Celtic may be

• Celtic is not just a sports team. It is part of our cultural life. ^

a Scottish team playing in a Scottish league. But its roots and symbols are Irish Catholic to the core, like the Irish Republic tricolor that flies over Celtic Park. In Scotland, faith and football go hand in hand, and since 1888 Celtic has been the pride of Glasgow’s east-end Irish Catholics. Across town are the hated Rangers, who carry the torch for Glasgow’s Protestants. “We live in a sectarian country, and the intolerance breeds in football grounds,” says Matt McGlone, author of a fan’s-eye team history called Emotionally Celtic. That intolerance comes out most virulently during games featuring the Old Firm—Rangers versus Celtic, a rivalry that has flourished on the shoulders of on-field excellence and off-field intolerance for more than a century.

“It’s pure bigoted hatred,” explains Tommy Carbury, owner of Bairds Bar and an iron-hard man in a city of hard men. Bairds

is located in The Barras, a predominantly Catholic neighborhood, and it is a shrine to everything Irish, Catholic and Celtic (including several nicotine-waxed posters of John Kennedy). “Old Firm matches are the worst,” says Carbury, a beer can disappearing into his big grip. “Even the guy who wears a suit during the week feels the energy wash over him, and soon he’s spitting

and his eyeballs are bulging out and he’s screaming, You sheep-blankin’ bastards.’ ” Enter Montrealer Fergus McCann, 54, an accountant by training and entrepreneur by inclination, who had built a small fortune by booking North Americans on golf holidays to his native Scotland. Two years ago, he spent $22 million to rescue Celtic from bankruptcy. At the time, the team’s fans were protesting its woeful onfield performances by staying away from Celtic Park. McCann, who emigrated to Canada at 20, knew all about the fiery relationship between Celtic and its supporters. He grew up in Kilsyth, an old mining town 40 km north of Glasgow, where, as a teenager, he ran the local Celtic youth club. Determined to restore a storied franchise to greatness, he orchestrated a boardroom putsch against the old Glasgow families who controlled the team. He mod-

ernized decaying Celtic Park and provided the salaries to sign better players. Celtic’s recovery has made McCann a bit of a folk hero, so he decided to do something with his popularity. He decided to try to take bigotry out of Scottish football.

“I found it bizarre to see that behavior when I returned from Canada—it’s much worse than the French-English thing in Quebec,” said the owner, wearing a green team blazer in his Celtic Park office. ‘You can’t change the minds of people who are mindless, but nor can you turn a blind eye when people are screaming this stuff. It creates a bad atmosphere at the park. It’s bad for families, bad for corporate hospitality, and that is bad for business.”

McCann has ordered security staff to eject anyone leading sectarian chants. Closed-circuit cameras identify troublemakers, and if they happen to be among

the 29,500 season-ticket holders, their seats will be revoked. McCann has also drafted a social charter, which commits Celtic players to anti-bigotry charity work. “Celtic is not just a sports team,” says McCann. “It is part of our cultural life.”

So far, McCann’s campaign has met with qualified approval from some, and great skepticism from most. He endured furious criticism when he chose the occasion of an Old Firm match in early January to make a grand gesture across the sectarian divide. The game marked the 25th anniversary of the infamous Ibrox disaster, in which 66 Ranger supporters were crushed to death when part of their Ibrox stadium collapsed during an Old Firm match. Without warning the fans at Celtic Park, McCann strode onto the field before this year’s game, microphone in hand, and demanded silence in memory of the longdead Ranger fans. He had to angrily shush the crowd several times, but he finally wrested a tribute from all but a few.

The backlash came from Ranger and Celtic supporters alike. “It was totally inappropriate, an intrusion on private grief,” said David Findlay, a loquacious criminal lawyer who sits on the Ranger board of directors. And Celtic fans fretted that they were being singled out for bigotry. “The supporters were upset,” said McGlone, who writes a column in the Celtic fan magazine. “I get lots and lots of letters from people concerned that Celtic’s Catholic identity is in danger. When you’re singing those songs, you’re not be-

ing threatening. You’re singing about your identity.” “Nonsense,” says Brian Dempsey, a Glasgow construction company owner who helped McCann take over Celtic before the pair had a falling-out. ‘You can’t sing Irish rebel songs and say they’re not sectarian. But Fergus needs a more subtle approach. There is a culture of the game we don’t want to lose, and these people still believe that once they’ve paid their money to get in, they’re entitled to call someone a Fenian bastard. You can’t erode centuries of intolerance just by issuing edicts.” In fact, there is tremendous skepticism that McCann’s crusade can change such entrenched attitudes. “Don’t take my name but take my word,” said one Celtic fan. “It’s like trying to outlaw prostitution. All Fergus will do is antagonize the dafties.” Dafties? Consider that in February Rangers fans protested to police that an opposing Catholic player had made a “provocative” gesture on the field. At halftime police passed the complaint on to the referee, who then penalized the player for his offence—he had crossed himself as he left the field.

But the Catholic McCann needs no schooling on the depths of Scottish bigotry. The history of his home town was typical in the west of Scotland. Kilsyth was largely Protestant. Next-door Croy was Catholic, populated in the late 19th century by poor Irish Catholics fleeing starvation across the Irish Sea. Religion provided a sense of identity to the struggling Irish working classes. As the quintessential Glasgow novel No Mean City pointed out in 1935: “Some of the slum dwellers were ‘Prodistants’ and others Catholics, but not one in 10 thought of his religion as anything but a banner to fight under.”

“Celtic and Rangers have been feeding off that intolerance for more than a century,” says Dempsey. “The Rangers still need those head cases to fill their seats.” Across town, the Rangers’ Findlay draws on another Davidoff cigar and insists that sectarianism is just not a problem. ‘We will not run roughshod over our traditions,” he says. Yet just as modern Glasgow slowly unbuckles itself from its image as an industrial city of razor-slashing gangsters, McCann is gambling that Old Firm soccer no longer needs the dafties to survive. We’re just trying to show a little leadership,” he says. “Other people should take their responsibilities, too.” Some have. After the IRA resumed its bombing campaign in February, Celtic was playing at home when a group of fans started to celebrate a Celtic goal with a rebel song. The rest of the crowd shouted them down. □