Banners and Berwick

This week the Rangers support once again found itself in the ring with a familiar opponent, itself. Those of my generation (and older) know that it wasn't always like this. Or, at least it wasn't always as palatable. A perfect storm including but not exclusive to; the sanitization of football, the increased sensitivity of society, the rise of the Internet and subsequently Social Media, a partisan, hostile media and the most turbulent twelve years of the clubs history led to a once frightening support becoming increasingly fractured and disorganized. However, in the last 12 months this started to flux. The consistent, malicious attacks on a mortally wounded Rangers seen a commonality form where previously there was practiced avoidance to find one. However, old habits tend to die hard...

On Wednesday, the morning after Rangers reserve side clinched the league championship; we witnessed what can be most accurately described as a 'Twitterstorm'. This storm centered on a banner unfurled at Ibrox the previous evening when The Swifts played Queens Park. The banner in question directed a message towards Mike Ashley and presumably the proposed naming rights of Ibrox Stadium. The language used was unfortunate and crude. The message wasn't skillfully put across. But, a handful of Rangers supporters (not the Union Bears or The Blue Order as people suggested) wanted their voice and opinion heard.

Although personally I disagree with both the method and the message, I can't help but support those fans right to an opinion and to voice it. The banner was the subject of much derision from the online Rangers support. Immediately battle lines were drawn, fissures appeared, opinions were drawn like sabres and sheaths were discarded as quickly as you could type 140 characters. It was all too familiar. Not much thought or discussion was spent around the fact that Mike Ashley was invited in to the fold by Charles Green. Equally so, little consideration was given to the fact that, agree or not, people have a right to a voice.

This is a subject close to my heart. The drowning out of dissenting opinion is as much to blame for the disastrous second half of Sir David Murray's reign as anything else. That obviously led to the last 12 months and all that came with it. As such,  it is absolutely vital that voices are heard. It is equally vital that contentious opinions are voiced in a sensible manner. This will not only sway opinion it will earn respect and support. The truly unfortunate thing about this was that a fantastic achievement, one that should have had the Rangers support thinking about and discussing the future, played second fiddle… To a banner.

If Tuesday was a storm, Saturday was a tsunami. Rangers travelled to Berwick on SFL 3 business. And, as has been well covered since, an audible portion of the Rangers support engaged in what has been described as sectarian, bigoted and inappropriate singing.

How to define these songs is a challenge in itself. I think even the most learned academics would struggle to bring concise definition to Scotland’s supposed sectarian problem. Equally so, there are the obvious contradictions as to where these songs fit on the offensive scale. Are they on a par with the anti-English sentiment of the Tartan Army? What about the anti-Protestant/British sentiment glorified by both the Celtic support? And, why is it that it is appropriate for one Glasgow team to celebrate links to one part of Ireland while it is in bad taste for another to do so?  The point and counter point way of looking at this issue is available and there to be used, or exploited, as one sees fit. But, where is it going to get Rangers? There is simply not an end to it. While the veracity of each point is not in question the end goal remains undefined. And, while we argue semantics with each other, the clubs enemies line up to stick the knife in. This Saturday past we helped sharpen the knife for them.

Make no mistake about it, Saturday was a spectacular own goal for the Rangers support. In full view of a nationwide television audience and within range of the (for once) fully calibrated ESPN microphones we treated every single person who wishes to see the club harmed to exactly what they wanted. A stick to beat the hell out of the club with. There has been much talk over the last couple of months of a move to England. I wonder if the average English viewer feels more endeared or estranged from the Rangers support as a result of songs about Fenians and Popes? I wonder how the same audience would have felt if we had treated them to the Ibrox songbook without? Better or worse? Then again, nobody likes us and we don't care, right? It's our tradition, right?

Tradition. There has been a lot of talk about 'tradition' in the fallout of the Berwick fiasco. What is this tradition that people are so quick to defend? Is it a tradition of anti-Catholic sentiment that must be publicly displayed at football matches? This club goes back five generations in my family (that we know of). Does that mean we have a Rangers tradition? My father is a member of the Orange order. Yet, I don't remember being told at any point in my life that singing about a strange old man in Rome or a group of Irish radicals from the 1860's is a part of my clubs tradition. Surely, my father the Orangeman, would have mentioned this to me at some point? Personally, I always thought that the Rangers Tradition was based on sporting excellence, fair play, a winning mentality and an undeniable 'gallusness' borne out of Glasgow's native and immigrant working class. That’s the tradition that I am quick to defend. The tradition where a grandfather peels opens an ancient scrapbook as if he was rolling out the Magna Carta, the whole time whispering about Davie Meiklejohn. Of course, there are tangible links to Unionism and Protestantism. But, I don’t think these things define the club. They absolutely define me as an individual. But, they don’t define my football club. They certainly helped shape Rangers Football Club but the institution is larger than a single political or religious belief. Is it not? Have I been duped? Are Rangers that linked to songs about Fenians and Popes that without them our tradition ceases to exist?

In his famous speech, Bill Struth did not mention religion. If anything he spoke of how Rangers should always be ambassadors for what is right in the game. He spoke of inclusion and a healthy respect for rivalry. He also spoke about tolerance and sanity. Those that sang the songs at Berwick on Saturday displayed neither. Those that took to the Internet in the fall out to either defend or attack the singing displayed even less. Accusations of handwringing and grassing appeared on one side and knuckle dragging, embarrassment and Neanderthal on the other. Members of the clubs media team were abused and ludicrous stories surfaced on how Ally McCoist was ‘forced’ in to contrition on the issue as a result of the clubs official statement. And, all the while the clubs detractors detracted, the clubs haters hated and the clubs enemies smiled. I’m sure that the Director from Celtic’s media department, who witnessed it first hand, hasn’t mentioned it at all since. Nope, no way…

I am willing to bet that those who have defended the singing at Berwick on Saturday have, at one point in their life, uttered the immortal phrase “no one man is bigger than The Club”. Why is it then that the same people now see themselves as exactly that? You see, there are two unavoidable facts here. Firstly, Rangers have repeatedly asked the support not to sing certain songs. Second, said songs have gotten us in to bother with UEFA previously. By extension, singing those songs put the club in harms way. So, if you did sing those songs you were being either selfish or stupid. Stupid we can all live with. I am stupid on a daily basis. On the other hand selfishness is something we can do without.

So what is the answer then? It is quite simple really; just don’t sing songs that can be deemed sectarian (note, I did not say songs that are sectarian). The club took commendable, swift action on Saturday and Charles Green must come out with a statement himself, now. James Traynor should immediately start working with fan groups to produce a ‘song book’. The club must immediately give something back to the support by demanding clarity on the heavy handed role that FOCUS is playing at football matches. A law is about to be passed that is based on number of arrests not convictions, this effects Rangers supporters. In addition, the club must seek clarity on and take a leading role in defining and eradicating sectarian and racist behavior in Scotland. Finally, we have to learn to treat each other with respect. We are all members of the same broad Kirk. That means we won’t always agree with each other. But, it also means that the common goal of what is best for Rangers should always prevail. What was best for Rangers this past Saturday at Berwick?

I sincerely hope that Saturday was a blip on what has been an incredible display of pageantry from the Rangers support this year. It is a privilege, not a right, to be part of this support. We have a title party looming and on the darker side of things we have some vicious fights approaching around the corner. We need to embrace the togetherness of the Hampden march and Kilmarnock at home last season. Because, if the last 12 months have taught us anything it is this; Rangers enemies are petrified of a united Rangers support galvanized and full of purpose. Nothing will have them cowering and showing their hand quicker than the thought of our support united and focused. Now that would be something to sing about.