The beautiful game is now in the last minutes of extra time


by Kenneth Roy

At the top of BBC Breakfast News, it was suggested to a reporter standing somewhere in the early morning mists of Glasgow that there had been ‘some tensions’ between Rangers and Celtic supporters and that the posting of letter bombs to the Celtic manager, Neil Lennon, his lawyer Paul McBride QC and a Celtic-supporting former MSP, Trish Godman, might be connected in some way to sectarianism.


Ah.  Interesting idea.

Could we then explore the possibility that the forthcoming nuptials might be connected in some way to royalty?  The intriguing notion that the News of the World has some association with telephone-tapping?  The strange rumour that members of the Church of Scotland are known as presbyterians?

‘Some tensions’ … well, I suppose we should be perversely grateful that, with two weeks remaining of the Holyrood election campaign, an event in Scotland has finally made it to the dizzy peak of a national TV news schedule, even if it happens to be for all the wrong reasons.  But the walking-over-hot-coals approach to Scottish affairs, the painfully obvious desire not to cause offence and the consequent timidity of the reporting, cannot help but confirm an impression in our minds that, increasingly, Scotland is regarded as a foreign country of which our friends in the south know little.

For the benefit of BBC Breakfast News, I can confirm that, of tensions, there have been a few.

It was Bill Shankly of the well-known Ayrshire eleven, the Glenbuck Cherrypickers, who once famously said that football was not a matter of life and death: it was more important than that.  The game’s most celebrated quote has finally been disproved.  Football is indeed a matter of life and death.  It is not more important than that.  It is far less important.  It is not important at all.

Yet, such is the sectarian fanaticism it inspires and inflames, three prominent people with links to Celtic Football Club – although in the case of Trish Godman merely as an ordinary fan – were sent workable devices designed, say the police, ‘to maim, injure or kill’.  The ones sent to Neil Lennon and Paul McBride were intercepted by vigilant postal staff, but the letter for Trish Godman was delivered to her home.  There is even a sinister suggestion that it may have been dropped off personally by the perpetrator.

What was her crime?  On Breakfast News this morning, we saw film of her walking through the Scottish Parliament building wearing a Celtic jersey under her jacket.  It seems she did this as a bet with a member of her family.  A light gesture in aid of charity, on her last day as an MSP, almost cost Trish Godman her life.  Paul McBride has apparently been told that, had he opened the package, he would have been blinded at least.  Neil Lennon, who was sent two letters, has said nothing publicly but he and his family must now be living in fear.  No doubt all three of the intended recipients of the bombs will be receiving urgent practical advice about their safety.


In Scotland it is dominated by two warring tribes of no great skill, who slug it out for a meaningless crown with the other teams nowhere in sight.  What’s beautiful about that?

Alex Salmond, on the same BBC Breakfast News, called football ‘the beautiful game’ and said that we should not allow it to be ‘besmirched’ by the threat to the lives of three innocent people.  In such impromptu situations, the first minister is seldom guilty of reaching for the ill-judged phrase, but he managed to strumble on one this morning.  Mr Salmond should seriously ask himself what is beautiful about this game.

In Scotland it is dominated by two warring tribes of no great skill, who slug it out for a meaningless crown with the other teams nowhere in sight.  What’s beautiful about that?  There is no competition, there is precious little ability, and there is a mountain of debt with the Inland Revenue clamouring at the door.  What’s beautiful about that?

Scottish football – perhaps football in general; I wouldn’t know – thrives on macho posturing which starts in the sports pages of the newspapers.  In these journalistic ghettos, the aggression of the streets is scooped up and recycled.  So on the back page of today’s Daily Record we have ‘The Battle for Ibrox’ juxtaposed with the story of a manager ‘raging at cock-ups’ and, inside, CALL THE COPS – not, as you might expect, an account of the police’s interest in lethal packages but the headline over a routine match report.  There is a seedy emphasis on money and ‘deals’ in many of the stories, while the photographs depict scenes of angry confrontation on the field.

The message could not be clearer: this is war.  It is, however, a war being fought by the tabloids (and some of the broadsheets too) in a curious lost Scotland in which bad boys are ‘caned’ – although only rugby-playing public schoolboys were ever caned north of the border – and managers are inevitably ‘gaffers’, a word evoking the dear dead days of the Greenock shipyards.  It is hard to say which is worse – the violent imagery of the headlines and pictures or the queasy sentimentality in which they are wrapped up.  The same sentimentality which insists that football is ‘the beautiful game’.

The newspapers are not to blame for the letter bombs.  Nor are the players and officials who behave so badly.  But all of them contribute to the ghastly atmosphere.  Already, the melodramatic intervention of the chief constable of Strathclyde, after trouble on and off the field at a recent Old Firm game, seems to have been counter-productive.  Mr Salmond says the beautiful game should not be ‘besmirched’ by what has happened.  Does he not realise that it was besmirched long ago; and that football is already in the last minutes of extra time?


Published with thanks to the Scottish Review