Sport

This Land is Your Land

“All through the story the immigrants came
The Gael and the Pict, the Angle and Dane
From Pakistan, England and from the Ukraine
We’re all Scotland’s story and we’re all worth the same” (The Proclaimers)

Even though I like to consider myself fairly knowledgeable about a game that has obsessed me for as long as I can remember, I must admit that, until he turned up in Scotland, I had never heard of the new Celtic football manager, Ange Postecoglou.

When following sport, some knowledge of the back stories of the individuals involved affords context and layers of greater understanding when it comes to what we are witnessing on the field of play, and the very best sportswriting and sporting documentaries tend to concern themselves with the off-field lives of the main characters and the context of the times they operated in, rather than the victories and defeats they experienced in their chosen fields.

The wonderful BBC programme “Finding Jack Charlton”, for example, views the eponymous footballer through his colliery village upbringing, his politics and his estrangement with his more celebrated brother, Bobby, whilst highlighting the deep cultural significance of a high profile Englishman managing Ireland at the Height of The Troubles. There’s a moment where his awareness of the situation and knowledge of the Irish immigrant experience is gratifyingly obvious. He’s being criticised by a journalist for picking players to play for Ireland who were born and raised in England. “So why do you suppose their grandparents left?”, he asks. There is no response, but the answer is hanging in the air.

I thought about that yesterday when watching a deeply personal and emotional interview with Postecoglou yesterday ahead of the Old Firm game, in which he talked about his own experience of displacement, migration and a search for a better life.

At just five years of age, he was taken by his parents along with his siblings onto a boat, and a month later they’d sailed halfway around the world and landed in Australia. They knew nobody, didn’t speak the language and employment wasn’t guaranteed. They were also Greek. “I was very aware I was different”, says Postecoglou.

The key passage in the clip is where the Celtic boss articulates the immigrant experience in a way that only someone who’d lived it could.

“People misinterpret the immigrant’s story”, he says. “They assume that people leave for a better life. But that’s not always what the immigration story is about. Despite everything that was happening at the time, my family had family, relationships, a language. They left all of that behind to provide me with an opportunity. They sacrificed happiness and well-being for their kids. It’s an incredible gift for anyone to make”.

As I waited for the game to start, Ange’s reflections got me thinking.

There’s a line in a popular terrace song sung at Parkhead: “and if you know your history”. Yet it’s been said that Scotland doesn’t have a history; it simply has a longer memory for current events. The past is all around us, and it seems fitting that the current custodian of the manager’s job at a club formed to provide support for a fleeing people in a strange land is himself part of that age old narrative. And as he walks into the stadium in Glasgow’s East End, he passes the statue of that great grandson of Lithuanian immigrants, Billy McNeill.

Scotland, said William McIlvanney, is a proudly mongrel nation. Yet imagine if the Scotland of “Caesar’s” ancestors was like the Scotland that the poisonously xenophobic UK government would have us be. No Billy McNeill. No pioneering European Cup win to make a whole country proud and hopeful and walk a wee bit taller.

But it seems not everyone is proud of our mongrel heritage.

The stadium was full and Ibrox was bouncing as the game kicked off. “Isn’t it great to have the fans back?”, gushed the commentator.

Well, maybes aye and maybes no.

A few minutes in and the whole stadium burst into song.

“From Ireland they came
Brought us nothing but trouble and shame
Well the famine is over
Why don’t they go home?”

The usual cliches, half-truths and evasions then predictably and depressingly began to arrive.

“What a great atmosphere” said the commentator, clearly deciding that it wasn’t his place to talk about what was actually being sung. If you’d substituted the word “Africa” or “Pakistan” for “Ireland” there would, quite correctly, have been outrage. But this is Glasgow.

It’s often said that this is a tiny minority. But There was fifty-two thousand in the ground giving the song laldy. I wondered what Postecoglou – a guy who clearly empathises with the immigrant experience – made of it all. And in a week when we’ve watched the harrowing footage of innocent people trying, and often failing, to escape an Afghanistan now under the total control of the Taliban, the scenes from Glasgow felt not only deeply depressing but utterly tone deaf.

To be fair, this season alone the club has called out the dreadful abuse of Glen Kamara and the ludicrously lenient nine game ban handed to his racist tormentor. There wasn’t any obvious kickback to the taking of the knee before the game yesterday. And the club swiftly issued indefinite bans of the supporters singing racist songs about Celtic player Kyogo Furahashu.

But I believe we need consistency. Whether twenty idiots singing on a bus or Fifty-two thousand singing in a stadium, zero tolerance should apply. Like the words Henrik Larsson liked to wear on his tee-shirt: No Excuses.

Neil Lennon got quite a lot wrong in his final season at Parkhead, but when he described sectarianism as just a fancy word for racism he was spot on. And he should know, having put up with it in Glasgow for a couple of decades. And while standing up for black players and Japanese players is commendable, it loses its impact if it doesn’t call out racism of Irish people every bit as strongly. There is no hierarchy of bigotry. You either oppose all of it unequivocally, or you enable it all. That’s it. No middle ground. You’re either against racism or you are not. Either you condemn all of it, or you allow it all.

A couple of other thoughts.

As yet another city centre clean up continues and an already stretched A & E picks up the human wreckage, there’s a few received wisdoms that we must address.

The first one is that real fans aren’t calling this stuff out. Not true. Real fans – hopefully me included – have been doing it for years , but just not the ones whose voices would carry most weight but whose continuing silence is complicity.

The second is that this has nothing to do with sport. Clubs calling it “society’s problem” dodge responsibility.

And thirdly there’s the glib notion that that these aren’t real fans. But the eejits on the bus filming themselves pulling their eyes apart were travelling, at considerable expense, to Dingwall. On a Sunday. These guys are fans all right, and it is about football. They’re about as representative of a fanbase as it’s possible to get. Their actions aren’t those of outriders but of mainstream behaviour. Until it is acknowledged that it is perfectly possible to be a passionate supporter and a racist lout at the same time the chances of getting to grips with the issue are zero. You can’t solve a problem until you recognise it for what it truly is.

And finally, while I’m sure they are as appalled by it as the rest of us, it would be reassuring if for once a spokesperson from outwith the governing parties of Scotland unequivocally condemned the shameful singing of racist songs at football games by a particular fan base and stopped hiding behind the cowardly and deceitful notion that “all clubs have their idiots”. As a Stranraer fan whose life has been enriched by the overwhelming safe, inclusive and positive experience of watching his team, I find being falsely equivocated with racists by politicians too feart to talk about the elephant in the room deeply objectionable.

Seven years ago, Scotland fought and lost its battle for self-determination. Unlike the Brexit vote two years, the franchise was made to be as deliberately wide as possible. EU nationals, foreign workers, young people. Your country, your future, your decision. If you live here, you’re Scottish.

A narrower franchise might have got us over the line. But so what? Whither a Brave New World when some of us are left behind? This needs to be a journey for all of us. It should be a matter of profound pride that when when Westminster suggested a UK wide franchise for a distinctly Scottish question they were laughed out of the room.

Yesterday reminds us that we’ve much to do to build the place we want to our weans to live in.

The challenge for us is to ensure that, unlike big Ange’s faither, we don’t have to get on a boat to find it.

5 replies »

  1. I don’t follow football, and avoid a lot of the news these days – survival tactic. So, I didn’t know about this until I read your piece, Alec.

    Those words they were using – I honestly baulk at calling it singing – that’s not what singing is about, or for. It’ll take something to clear my head of them.

    One of my Great-Grannies died in the famine – Mum and Dad didn’t leave Ireland because of the famine – though many did. They were another generation, and they left because they needed to find work…..

    “When the shadow of poverty darkened our door,
    We left Mother and Ireland because we were poor.”

    Simple as that. Then two of their daughters were nurses in the NHS. Their son was a teacher – in fact, taught football.
    Does that add up to …..”nothing but trouble and shame”?

    Who are the people spreading that poison? Where are their forefathers from? Probably a mixture as described by The Proclaimers.

    No point in me wittering on about it. I do wonder – do people still take their children to football matches at the weekend? It was a good, family thing to do – are folk prepared to risk taking their children to where there is such poison for their minds?

    Aren’t things bad enough?

    I was wondering if it’s time to ban the big football matches! But, indeed, it’s not about football, or religion, or patriotism. What is it about? Is it insecurity and inherent viciousness? But where does that come from? Why does that happen?

  2. Alec … all of your writings and observations are greatly appreciated by this reader … but this one, today, is absolutely spot-on. This morning, before I read your wonderful piece, I expressed the same views to my husband, commenting upon newspaper articles relating to our own Scottish Government’s plans to further the fight against racism … whilst no mention of the huge and long-standing problem we have with sectarianism in our country.

    Until we take decisive steps to outlaw the mainly anti-Irish, anti-Catholic vile abuse that has degraded Scotland for far too many years, it makes our ant-racism stance seem hollow.

    Thank you for articulating the situation, saying what has to be said, far better than I ever could,

  3. I’m remembering something which shines a better light on how people can be with each other….

    In the film ‘The Quiet Man’ (with John Wayne), the Protestant vicar of a small village in Ireland is well liked as a person, not just a parson. A visit from the Bishop is imminent, and the vicar is afraid that he might be removed from the parish as he doesn’t have a big enough congregation. The villagers agree to pretend to be Protestants – just while the Bishop is there, so’s a well-liked man and his family can stay where everyone wants them to be.
    When the car with the Bishop in it arrives, the local Catholic priest, Father Lonegan, encourages the villagers….

    “Now when the Reverend Mr. Playfair, good man that he is, comes down, I want ya’s all to cheer like Protestants.”

    To me, that’s the way to go about it – have your own beliefs, but value a person as a person, and, if needed, pretend a bit to help them out. Sure, where’s the harm?

  4. Seven years ago, Scotland didn’t fight and lose its battle for self-determination, rather the SNP and its supporters lost its attempt to break up the UK.

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