Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Beware the waterfalls when chasing dreams

Well, the fateful day approaches when Celtic discover whether or not salvation lies south of the border. Phil Gartside seems an unlikely name to be associated with the most radical reform of British football since the adoption of professionalism but then again so, once, was Jean-Marc Bosman.

Occasionally, it is the less celebrated figures who make the greatest impact and if Gartside's plan for the now legendary EPL2 gets the nod, football as we know it will never be the same again.

To listen to some, not least those employed by Celtic, such a move can only be good for our club. Of primary interest is, of course, money – barrow loads of it. Since the inception of the Premiership, English clubs have been lavishing – nay, wasting – enough money to maintain a small country.

It has resulted in outrageous inequality within the game as the financial muscle of England's major clubs ensures that only a handful of foreign teams can hope to compete. For Celtic, whose budget is exceeded by some Championship outfits, this has provided the perennial reason (some would say excuse) for our inability to come close to European success.

But would this plan really be good for Celtic?

The 1980s saw the idea of Celtic playing in English football mooted and greeted with a groundswell of support from the fans. In the days when David Syme was refereeing football matches and the pundits were routinely dismissing institutionalised bias as paranoia on our part, Davie Hay infamously stated that he would gladly take Celtic out of Scottish competition. Many supporters agreed, believing that escaping the narrow-minded confines of a Scottish football establishment run by old men in nylon bowling club blazers would see Celtic prosper, freed from the blight of prejudice.

To many, it appears that little has changed. The Scottish Football Association has been guilty of naked bias favouring Rangers, notably involving clandestine meetings the results of which were announced exclusively to a tabloid newspaper before it was discussed with member clubs. We have seen our players cited for additional punishment following media pressure while those of our opponents escape such attention from the same referee and we have faced the absurd situation of responding to disciplinary action without the apparent need for a transparently just process.

But would life in EPL2 really be any better? Celtic are popular in England, looked on with much fondness by many thousands of fans. Should we be directly competing with those supporters' primary clubs, how long would that last, you might ask.

Secondly, with the authorities, Celtic would certainly be seen as interlopers. We might not expect cultural bias against our heritage or the religious associations of some of our fans but we would certainly be seen as a Scottish club in England's game.

Substituting one cultural prejudice for the potential for a second may seem like a gamble worth taking to some but this may overlook a more practical problem. Ask anyone who has come late to the party in commercial or political terms and they will tell you of the difficulty in penetrating social barriers – i.e. the network of personal and professional relationships that has been formed over years to the mutual benefit of the existing participants.

Make no mistake – English football is a network of friendships, alliances, and enmities and while some would see Celtic as valuable allies, others would seek to disadvantage us as potentially dangerous competitors.

Of course, Scottish referees would not initially be invited to work in England, due to their appalling quality, but can anyone feel confident that exclusively English match officials would handle contests between Celtic and the biggest English clubs without fear or favour?

Would Scottish administrative officials be invited to join the new league management? Would we want them? Has anyone considered the relationships with the mainstream media that have already been built up by the great English clubs and how we would then be represented? It could be argued that we are embracing the prospect of a new manifestation of the same ills.

For that perspective, the possibility of an Atlantic League could be more appealing. That would be a wholly new body with an opportunity to influence its shape and direction from the outset. Celtic are genuinely respected outwith the shores of the British Isles amongst clubs that see themselves as roughly our equivalents. However, there are huge logistical difficulties to be overcome if such a league is to be created, not least the division of Champions League and Europa Cup places, should those competitions remain open to us.

Both proposals have other implications. Celtic bring thousands of fans to away matches every week. That is difficult enough within the boundaries of a small country like Scotland. How many fans could regularly travel to London and beyond at weekends, never mind Monday nights, simply to watch their club? In trying economic times, both EPL2 and the Atlantic League would see a rapid diminution of Celtic's away support – something that has a huge part to play in carrying our identity with us.

The glamour of the competition may also be being somewhat overplayed. Without doubt, some of the finest footballers in the world would visit Celtic Park. Then again, for how long would the excitement carry us forward before we hear BB King singing “the thrill is gone”?

I am sure we would never tire of playing the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool but, of the rest, how many clubs really set the pulse racing? In recent times, Manchester City visited Celtic Park to no discernible excitement whatsoever and for every Arsenal or Chelsea, there is a Hull, a Wigan, a Burnley, a Wolves or a Stoke.

For now, they may compare favourably to our Scottish competitors but I suspect the novelty would soon wear off.

The subject of other Scottish teams should also be considered relevant. Any plan that further cements our notional connection to Rangers, a club that has extolled bigotry as a virtue for generations, would find an objector in me. Being invited in with our Glasgow neighbours would have just that effect and it is no secret that this would provide a lifeline to a club that has fully deserved its current troubles.

But any British League without a possible route of entry for Aberdeen, Hibernian, Hearts and Dundee United would also be flawed. If there is to be reform, let it allow representation from Scotland's major cities and clubs. Otherwise, why crave to be champions of England?

Personally, I see much to despise in Scottish football. However, as the only current power in the Scottish game that is not in danger of ruin, there is also the unique potential for Celtic to lobby hard for a fairer, more enlightened administration. For the head of the SFA, Scottish Premier League and the Scottish Professional Footballers' Association to all have been ex-Rangers players at the same time is a situation that Celtic never should have nor ever should tolerate again.

The administrators and other clubs in Scotland have never done anything to assist Celtic so let us wreck their house if we must. We should do so cautiously and with open eyes, remembering that the glister of gold can be blinding.

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Sunday, November 08, 2009

Shh! Hear the irony?

I have long argued on this blog and elsewhere that Celtic fans must make the mainstream media irrelevant by ignoring it.

For too many years, unscrupulous scoffing hacks made their own kind of sport taunting and goading Celtic fans, denigrating the club and its representatives and often succeeding in sparking unrest.

That should come as no surprise – the Scottish media has long been an old-boys network where the lack of a common tie was replaced by questions on the name of prospective employees' schools. That may be changing but extreme nepotism has dictated that white male protestant journalism in Scotland will take many more years to absorb enlightenment.

The breaking of male hegemony has yet to be fully realised while the Catholics, Jews and Muslims stand further back in the queue (the atheists are notionally disbarred due to their inability to become Freemasons). You can expect to see the demise of news titles before any find themselves with a Black or Asian editor.

And, believe it or not, this is relevant today as the White underclass described by Graham Spiers has provided blood stock for the Scottish media for years. There is an old joke that you know you are a redneck if you have more than one brother called Darryl, which is quite apposite when you think of it.

And so, to the point. Before a minute's silence is besmirched, today has already been chronicled as a day in which Celtic fans defiled the honoured dead. Before we even have a chance to paraphrase John Robertson and declare our wars fought on the football field, Celtic supporters are being lined up for their routine haranguing, something which is always pursued with even greater enthusiasm when fans of the R-word disgrace themselves.

Not merely anticipated, the reaction has already begun with attempts to equate this longed-for behaviour with Rangers rioting in Europe's unsuspecting cities.

For my part, I would repudiate anyone who disrupts a memorial as stolidly as I would any authority that tried to dictate that there is only one view of war and prescribe precisely how it must be commemorated. The deeper issues are profound and subtle and therefore lost on the archetypal Scottish newspaper sports hick.

And yet, the one common courtesy observed in thousands of wars over millennia has been the right to reclaim, bury and remember the dead. In conflicts sparked by issues of survival, greed or sheer hatred, only the most savage have failed to observe the protocol of having enemies only amongst the living. (Viz: Michael Stone, Rangers fan helped by British security forces.)

But while the explosion of colour that has become the independent Celtic multimedia environment is bringing us ever closer to that day when the Scottish papers speak only to themselves, fans should remember that protests are better articulated through considered letters than oafish grunts.

But the great irony – one which is unlikely to be observed in the Scottish press – is that this week, it was Celtic who literally faced the Nazi Hun. In Germany, Celtic played a team with a strong German Neo-Nazi element, the SV Hamburger Hitler Fan Club.

Who swelled their ranks? The right-wing “loyalist” supporters of Rangers, who have branded themselves as the “quintessentially British club”, supporters of “our boys” in the armed forces, brandishing their Union Jacks and banners of “no surrender”. While they listen in hope for a single Celtic jeer, their friends will be lamenting the fall of the Third Reich.

Whose side are they on?

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