I love Scotland. I love football. With all its imperfections and limitations I am fascinated by football in Scotland: its passions, history, traditions and why it matters so much.
I am a Dundee United fan and have been all my adult life. As I grow older and more reflective about life, I notice that supporting my football team matters more to me, and that I am not alone in this. Some of this is down to the disappointments associated with modern politics; some with the scale of change and complexity in contemporary society.
My story of Dundee United involves a connection to my father and grandfather, the experience of Irish immigration to Scotland – Dundee United originally being founded as Dundee Hibs in 1909 and changing their name to United in 1923 – and the importance of place and community in the game despite all its commercialisation. And United’s story became a unique, treasured one in Scottish football: rising to be one of the best teams in Europe in the 1980s, winning the Scottish league, reaching the European Cup semi-finals and the UEFA Cup Final (which we lost).
Football has always been about emotion, passion, hope and so much more, a means by which people can navigate the relationship between the local and global, offering an alternative account of humanity, no matter how flawed. The European Champions League offers the nearest we have to the coming together of a continental conversation, the World Cup a global gathering.
Football matters in our societies and provides an accurate gauge to how healthy and confident they are. The current state of Scottish football can only be described as being in the throws of some kind of emotional spasm. All of this would be comic, were it not so serious, revealing some of the sore wounds and faultlines of Scottish society. It shows a large part of Scotland wishing to spend its time, passion and hopes talking endlessly about football and getting things completely out of proportion.
An even larger part of society is unable to engage in a mature public debate that respects difference and differing opinions. In an age of fundamental challenges, from the size of the state to the role of business and future of democracy, for many the most appropriate reaction to our times is to spend their hours obsessing about the state of their football.
This all began with the incident between Dundee United v. Celtic on October 17 when referee Dougie McDonald first awarded a penalty to Celtic, then changed his mind, and admitted to lying to Celtic manager Neil Lennon about how he and his assistant came to change their decision.
There we have it: a classic storm in a teacup, which doesn’t explain why all this has become something that looks and feels like a cultural war. First, there is the Celtic combativeness as seen in Neil Lennon, a young, hotheaded, immature manager. He has admitted to being ‘explosive’, but dared to mention Alex Ferguson’s passion in his defence. That was a bit of a mistake for Lennon is clearly no Ferguson: a manager who, as well as competing, cares and looks after his players.
Second, along came John Reid (yes, that’s ‘Lord’ Reid the ex-Communist, New Labour minister who ran Defence and the Home Office). He escalated matters further with even more ill-chosen, intemperate language - something Reid has form in, at least in the political arena.
All of this is motivated by years of bad feeling by Celtic towards the SFA, with this in turn shaped by the club’s grievance and persecution complex. Elements of Celtic FC believe that it is still seen by some as an interloper, a non-Scottish institution, and an immigrant club to this day.
Shocking, incendiary-like remarks by the Catholic Church spokesperson Peter Kearney have added to this. Talking about an investigation into an alleged offensive email by Hugh Dallas, SFA head of referee development, Kearney spoke of this being ‘deeply offensive to the Catholic community of Scotland, and an incitement to anti-Catholic sectarianism’. Dallas was the person many saw as Celtic’s ultimate target.
Dallas was sacked by the SFA after an internal investigation. Dougie McDonald, the referee from the ill-fated Dundee United v. Celtic game, followed, citing the lack of support he felt he had received from the football authorities.
The Catholic Church has form here in hyperbole. There is an inverse relationship between the secularisation of society, decline in practising Catholics and numbers at mass, and the rise of an aggressive, confrontational language by the Catholic Church Media Office. Politicians of all persuasions tremble at the thought of being condemned by the Catholic Church; on Clause 28 its language was frankly shocking and on gay rights and any kind of enlightened sex education the church is living in the dark ages.
What is this all about and how do we move on? Scottish football takes a disproportionate part of our public attention and fills a vacuum in our public life that should be informed by more serious matters.
Our game is in decline, and this matters beyond football, because it is one of the ways we measure our success as a society. Scotland used to achieve a certain international visibility on the football field. The Scotland v England ‘Auld Enemy’ matches used to obsess us. Then we had the five World Cups in a row and the nine European finals our teams reached, the latter an amazing feat for a nation our size and a higher success rate than France.
All of that is in the past. Celtic and Rangers find it impossible now to compete in the European Champions League, yet they are still big enough to strangle the Scottish game. Most Celtic and Rangers fans I know have no real interest in the Scottish game, or any curiosity or love of the wider game and its history. They are obsessed with their own stuff and ‘the Old Firm’ rivalry.
Celtic grievance sits alongside Rangers paranoia and aggression. It is no accident they are called ‘the Old Firm’ for, as football scholar Bob Crampsey used to say, they are in it together. What he meant was that from the early 20th century these two clubs have acted as an organised conspiracy against the wider interests of the game. Together they encouraged and maintained their sectarian traditions to maximise and maintain each team’s core support to the detriment of society.
A solution to this is difficult to imagine. It won’t come from asking referees to disclose which teams they support. Such a move would remove any sense of trust and be an attack on their professionalism. Why should they be singled out in public life as the one group we don’t trust? What about football commentators? Or political commentators? Where would we stop and who would want – or dare to - referee a Scottish game?
We have to look at the perennial problem of the structural imbalance of the Scottish game, which grows worse year by year. It really is laughable for Celtic fans to think that there is a conspiracy targeting them. Everything about the history and structures of the game would tell you that the only conspiracy worth talking about is the way the game is run for the benefit of the Glasgow big two against the rest.
This then takes us to the much wider and more serious issue than football: the manner, style and language in which we conduct national debate and conversation. Something is going wrong here across our society, aided by changes in politics, media, culture, and in the hustle and bustle of life with a growing lack of tolerance, a propensity to shout and hector, and an absence of empathy or understanding for opposing views.
Scotland has been badly scarred in the past by anti-Catholic sectarianism and discrimination, and the wounds have not completely healed. And yet there is now in our society a new problem: that of a social conservatism and authoritarianism, which is fed by people once oppressed who have now become oppressors.
Do we really want to live in a society shaped by denunciation, the culture of the echo chamber, and people talking past one another reliving and reimagining various past historic wrongs? And if most of us don’t, as I think we don’t, do we have the courage to take on the demagogues and authoritarians, who come from each and every part of our national life?
I would like to think we do, and if so, the first steps in maturing will be to tell the hot heads to turn the volume down, whether they be of a religious or a football faith. And let’s remember that ultimately the people’s game is that – only a game.
This article is based on Gerry Hassan's Saturday column in The Scotsman.