Across the Great Divide

A year ago I wrote an article on here calling for an end to the shameful witch-hunt against Rangers. Predictably, it was welcomed by the blue side while the political wing of the Celtic support - on a hate campaign against the Ibrox club - fulminated. I'm afraid not much progress has been made in my plea for fans of the footballing giants of Scotland to make peace with each other. Of course, by that I didn't mean the rivalry should cease - only the festering bile.

Sadly, the divide may even be growing. Those who obsessed over Rangers disappearing forever are still on the case, infesting the web and polluting the airwaves with deluded poison. Or, as they insist, in the pursuit of sporting integrity. Is there any species in the universe more obsessed or boring now?

I fear this group will go to their graves still ranting about an imagined Protestant conspiracy that ruined their lives and blaming a mainstream media for being complicit in the evil plan. There is an irony overload here of course. The chattering-class witch-hunters have had a comfortable life thanks to a taxpayer-funded Catholic education that afforded them entry to the professions and corridors of power in our beautiful little country. As I had. How could that happen, I wonder, when they have been such victims of discrimination?

Now, while it's easy to ridicule the obsessed, it can't be forgotten they were an influential minority. In an adrenaline-fuelled period blighted by preposterous claims and accusations, they pressured other clubs, the SFA and league bodies to treat Rangers badly in their hour of need. Let's hope those in power within the game now see the bigots for what they are, ignore them and move on.

However, I am becoming increasingly concerned about the role of Celtic in this debacle. I no longer recognise the club I grew up supporting. Whenever the dust settles on this farrago, I suspect history will look unfavourably on the Parkhead club's role while their Govan rivals unravelled.

There is a responsibility on everyone involved in the Old Firm to behave in a manner that tries to close the bitter divide rather than increase it. John Reid, on becoming Celtic's chairman in November 2007, seemed to grasp this. He said: "When you come to this club, you leave the background, religious division, and political division behind. This is not a forum for political debate." (Clearly, the Green Brigade took an opposing view.)

Three years later, however, amid a stooshie with the SFA over referees, his mood had darkened. He said: "We won't be treated as less than anyone else - those days are gone." It was an inflammatory remark - oozing with innuendo about Celtic having suffered from decades of being treated as second-class citizens. As such, it was welcomed by some of their fans as vindication that Rangers and the SFA had indeed been in cahoots in some dark Masonic conspiracy.

Just a year later, Rangers began to self-destruct under Craig Whyte and the haters - aided by a handful of media poseurs, contrarians and profile-grabbers - went into overdrive. The establishment institution was riddled with cheats and liars. As was the SFA. And the media. This was a scandal of Watergate proportions. There must be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for sinners to repent. And other fantastical drivel. No-one was safe from the character assassination and hysterical rants.

But what were Celtic's custodians thinking of? Here was a wonderful chance to close the divide and rid themselves of the unhinged simply by offering a helping hand to Rangers. As Bayern Munich did when their great rivals Borussia Dortmund faced bankruptcy in 2004. Instead of kicking someone when they're down, the German giants handed over an interest-free two million euros loan that helped to keep Dortmund afloat.

Now let's be clear here - due to Whyte's suicidal masterplan, some of Celtic's cash would not have been enough to stop administration. And the bogus billionaire certainly did not want to be rescued from his sickening scheme to shaft creditors. But there were other ways to help.

What if Celtic had offered to play a benefit game for their Glasgow neighbours? At a stroke the vast majority of decent fans on both sides would have been brought closer together while the extremists were further marginalised. In fact, the hardliners would have pledged never to darken their teams' doors again. As a matter of 'principle'. Result all round for everyone then.

What if Celtic had fought within the corridors of power to help their rivals? What if Celtic had even just held out a helping hand - a simple act of kindness. Again, the divide would have closed. And we would all be in a much healthier place now.

Instead, they did nothing and embarked on a policy of - it's none of our business. Under pressure from the haters and assorted fellow travellers, it seemed the club even salivated privately at their rival's misfortune. Although nothing was ever said officially to confirm that, the silence and lack of sympathy was damning.

I was fortunate indeed to have met Tommy Burns many times and can confirm there was no-one with a greater love for Celtic. But he had no time for hate and would have been beaming with pride in his heaven when Walter Smith and Ally McCoist carried his coffin.

I also suspect he will have looked down with dismay at a wonderful opportunity missed by his beloved club to have shown even just a touch of kindness. He wasn't a Rangers fan by any means but had enormous respect for the club and its fans. In the poverty-stricken East End where he and Walter Smith grew up, looking after your neighbours was far more important than which foot they kicked with. In those communities, no-one feasted while others starved.

Instead, we now see both clubs drifting further apart and Celtic boss Peter Lawwell recently playing to the gallery with a Rory Bremner 'joke' on the terminally dull 'old co-new co' dissection. In light of various incidents in the past month from the extreme elements in his club's fan base it would be no surprise if he was now regretting ever pandering to the zealots. In truth, both clubs would do well to finally realise that appeasing their bigots no longer has any commercial leverage. The vast majority of fans don't want them at games - and they may even be chasing decent supporters away.

Rangers, post-Whyte, continue to combust. Vast sums have disappeared from the coffers and gone in the pockets of the professional parasites from the City who suck us all dry. The club's expensive PR machine imploded after an internal war, with Jim Traynor departing and Jack Irvine remaining - or returning (you decide). Both parties handsomely remunerated, naturally. Rarely can so much have been spent on so little.

The latest Ibrox chairman David Somers has promised to look at all the contracts, including PR. Let me save him a small fortune. Curved balls and spin is PR advice from another era. People are too media savvy now - and cynical - to accept it. They spot it a mile off so it doesn't work.

There is a better approach - and it's free. The greatest power you have to discredit your critics is transparency. Be honest and fans will respect you for that - and back you. But don't just ask for their trust - earn it by not regarding them as outsiders. They are all part of the Rangers family - treat them as such. So don't even bother renegotiating the contract, just bin it. The truth costs nothing.

Meanwhile, the battle between the board and wannabe-board ended at the AGM with the current incumbents surviving. But City investors should take heed of the number of disaffected fans and be aware they are customers. Without them there is no business. And no future.

Now the victors will have to stop cash slipping out the back door of the club at an alarming rate and show they can run Rangers in an honest, professional and dignified manner. If they don't, fans will walk away in frightening numbers.

So a year on and nothing much has changed, it seems. The haters are still out there and Rangers FC is still vulnerable. Nevertheless, as we reflect on Christmas, and in the spirit of good will to all, let me make another plea to both clubs and their fans. In the wake of the Clutha tragedy, one good thing to have come out of that grim night was the generosity of spirit shown by Glaswegians to their neighbours in distress. So let's have an Old Firm fundraiser for the victims' families and the rescue services. Bring past and present stars together and show the world we have no time for bigots.

Go on Mr Lawwell and Mr Somers. Reach out your hands to each other, make it happen, and alienate the dinosaurs on both sides. Do it for the families. Do it for Glasgow.

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