It has been a long time coming, but finally somebody has put the issue of anti-Irish racism amongst football fans front and centre. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was James McClean. He has always been a courageous guy who refuses to bow down over poppies and who wears his pride at being Irish on his sleeve.
He is a leader on this stuff and here he’s taken a lead.
Anti-Irish racism is something this blog writes about a lot.
It is a peculiar problem for the UK; the Irish are embraced all across the world except here.
McClean is talking about his experiences in grounds in England, but let’s not kid ourselves, that’s a newish and ugly trend which has as much to do with the rise of the far-right and their creep into the mainstream of English political discourse as anything else.
All forms of racism are on the rise in their football grounds as in the voting booths.
But McClean’s decision to drag this matter kicking and screaming into the light means that it’s not quite so easy to dismiss as it once was. Scotland has a far bigger problem with this than exists down south; not for nothing do many up here, on our side of the fence, sarcastically refer to it as “the last acceptable form of racism.”
It is not just tolerated, it is encouraged.
We’ve seen it in the media. We’ve heard it in the stadiums. One club market itself as fundamentally opposed to the Irish in Scotland, with orange strips and everything, and its embrace of militarism and the poppy are constant reminders of this.
McClean’s comments may not reverberate as much north of the border as they will down south, but they should because the media up here has a tendency to ignore the issue rather confront it, and it is one of the great scandals of Scottish football that they feel they can. What’s worse, they joke about it in a way they wouldn’t joke about other forms of racism.
We’ve all heard “hilarious stories” from ex-players at Ibrox, for example, about not wearing green or not having green in their houses or read journalists writing admiring pieces about how fully certain players or managers embraced the “Ibrox culture.”
A recent podcast starring Kyle Lafferty celebrated his bigotry as if it as something positive. I remember reading a piece by Hugh Keevins which was almost a tribute to the sectarian instincts of John Brown, paying him respect because he refused to eat a bowl of green jelly. Our media finds this stuff funny.
In fact, it’s racism and they are tolerating it and allowing it to fester in a way that they would find repellent if it manifested itself in players speaking in phony accents or dressing up in blackface. I find stories about the “grand old days of yore” at Ibrox to be jaw-dropping in their offensiveness at times; the pundits snigger as if it’s all hilarious.
No wonder the attitudes of many in the stands are so bitter and twisted.
The sad truth is that, as many Celtic fans report, there’s barely a ground in Scotland, with a few notable exceptions, where you cannot frequently hear the scream “fenian bastard” from the home support, or some variation of it.
When several Scottish born players made the decision to play for Ireland some years back, they were subjected to some of the vilest abuse ever heard in Scottish grounds. There was no big rush to lend these guys support; indeed, the hostility spread out from the press boxes into the stands; this was not some spontaneous reaction from fans. It started with the mainstream media, who gave it legitimacy, and it grew outwards from there.
McClean’s comments are especially important, coming as they do during the Black Lives Matter campaign, which all of football has embraced. It was this campaign which caused McClean to open up on his own struggles, and to ask where the support is.
“The point I was trying to make was it leaves a sour taste in my mouth because I am seeing all this support (and) I’m thinking, ‘I’ve been abused for the last nine years and where has my support been? Where has been my level of attention?” he asked, and he could be speaking for any Irish or Catholic player in Scotland who has been subjected to abuse down through the years. “I’m not looking for attention but, in my mind, discrimination is discrimination.”
It’s what he followed that up with that should have the Scottish press taking a hard look at itself, and the game in Scotland being made to face up to this at last.
“It almost seems that one (form of racism) holds a higher precedence over another and that’s what irritates me. I’m not looking for sympathy or attention, I’m just asking for equality.”
As McClean knows though, the only way to get equality is to give this matter attention.
That’s why I think it’s exactly what he was looking for, and it’s why I am glad he got it.
Because this can’t be allowed to go unchallenged forever.
It’s been like that for too long already.
On Wednesday, this site will publish an unpdated version of our A-Z of Scottish Football Scandal. In the meantime, take the below quiz and see how much you know about some of the most shocking events in the game’s recent history.