“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.