Michael Walker: Intense Old Firm rivalry softened by respect
Lennon’s words might find an audience, and presence at Ricksen funeral might start rethink
A tribute to former Rangers player Fernando Ricksen at Celtic Park, Glasgow, on September 22nd. Photograph: Ian Rutherford/PA Wire
These are the loud days. This was the week in which “a growing inferno of rhetoric” became a phrase and did not seem overblown. We have reached a stage where measured words stand out.
Cynicism has gone mainstream to the extent mature reflection looks and sounds unusual. Someone who takes a step back and asks a question about the direction of travel, rather than marching on regardless, unwilling to listen to others, is to be pointed at – like the old joke about Burnley and aeroplanes.
In a week like this, Neil Lennon is one of those people.
Lennon has spent the last 20 years being pointed at, being abused for who he plays for, for the place of his birth, for the colour of his hair.
He has given some back, he’s not shy about milking a celebration. This is why on a weekly basis in Scotland he is labelled provocative, divisive, inflammatory and other less flattering terms.
At an Old Firm game at Ibrox a few seasons ago a vitriolic Rangers fan behind the press box referred to Lennon as “vermin” throughout the 90 minutes.
Lennon had become symbolic of what separates.
Not this week, though. On Tuesday, as he prepared Celtic to meet Partick Thistle in the League Cup, and to attend the funeral of Fernando Ricksen on Wednesday, Lennon stepped back. He asked others to do the same, or at least consider it.
Five days earlier Lennon and Celtic’s chief executive Peter Lawwell arrived at a mourning Ibrox with a wreath to mark Ricksen’s passing. Lennon wished to pay tribute to a fierce competitor he knew on the pitch. He and Lawwell were there as Celtic’s representatives. Their attendance was met with applause.
“Fernando was a player of my era, and I think it resonates more with me more than it would with some of the older generation,” Lennon said. “Even though I knew he was unwell for a long time, it still came as a big shock when he passed on.”
Lennon said the reception he received from Rangers supporters was “fantastic”. It made him think. A man who knows more than anyone the abrasive nature of Glasgow football life also knows any semblance of mutual respect is usually trampled upon in the city’s rush to whataboutery.
“It’s what we should be talking about, and it gets overlooked sometimes,” Lennon said of respect. There is intense rivalry but there is also respect there, especially at a time of a desperately tragic situation.”
He referred to a previous visit to Ibrox, on the anniversary of the stadium disaster, and to Rangers legend John Greig’s appearance at Celtic Park to honour Billy McNeill’s passing. Lennon again mentioned “deep-lying respect”, and said: “The fans sometimes don’t want to show it, but they really do have it.”
It is a saddening statement that people feel inhibited by their surroundings, their culture, that even if they wanted to be nice it’s not possible.
Equally sadly, it is questionable. The reality may be that what is deep-lying is hatred, and that these brief shows of respect are just that, brief shows of superficial respect. Then back inside.
After all in between Lennon’s gesture at Ibrox and his words on Tuesday, there was an Orange march up Edmiston Drive on Saturday. Sunday’s Glasgow Herald’s front page contrasted it with the previous day’s climate change protest, and asked: “Which Scotland do we want to live in?”
It is a conversation. Lennon has added to it, and this feels important – at least Lennon has said something.
It brought back a discussion with Daniel Brown, a lecturer at Queen’s University, Belfast, who wrote Every Other Saturday, a book about Linfield’s recent history.
“Conversations normalise things,” Brown said. “Social change happens because people talk.”
It seems simple, but it is profound. Brown said that Linfield’s ground-breaking signing of the “Dundalk Hawk” Dessie Gorman in late 1992 had its roots in a conversation Eric Bowyer had with a Linfield fanzine a year earlier. Bowyer was Linfield’s manager and lamented aloud he could not sign Cliftonville’s Peter Murray, a Catholic, not because of any written club rule, but because of the unwritten rules of Belfast’s streets.
“Getting shot would not be an impossibility,” Bowyer said.
It was the vocabulary of a violent society. Such words can simultaneously represent a society truthfully, but they can also perpetuate the society’s ills. Language matters, which is why changing it matters.
Other factors were involved in Gorman’s arrival at Windsor Park – he was a goalscorer and Linfield needed one badly – but Bowyer’s words helped push open a window, reframe a debate. Soon Pat Fenlon was also playing for Linfield.
Something had changed in the tenor of the dialogue around the club. It helped facilitate change.
Perhaps in Glasgow Lennon’s words about mutual respect will find an audience, his presence at Ricksen’s funeral might start a rethink even among a few.
But we will not get ahead of ourselves. There was that photograph of Ally McCoist at Tommy Burns’ funeral 11 years ago. McCoist’s face was a portrait of anguish. Some thought the sincere cross-club response to Burns’ death could be a turning point, a moment of transforming reflection.
Yet the same year Lennon attended another funeral, of 19-year-old Reamonn Gormley, murdered on the way home from watching a Celtic match in a bar.
Later Lennon and McCoist would go up against each other on the touchline, prompting the head of Scottish police to question the Old Firm’s lawful viability and speaking of how aggressive behaviour on the pitch “will be replicated later on Scotland’s streets, but then it will be done with bottles and knives”.
We can be optimistic but we cannot be naïve. Linfield v Cliftonville is not yet a reconciliation derby, and at the start of the month, as he left Ibrox to board the Celtic bus after the latest encounter, captain Scott Brown was halted in his tracks by a Rangers follower asking viciously: “How’s your sister?”
Brown’s sister Fiona died of cancer aged 21.
Even in Glasgow there was shock.
A few weeks on, Lennon has not erased the remark, but he has provided some others. Focus on what unites, he said, not what divides. Tone down the rhetoric, pour water on the inferno. Allow ourselves space to be generous.
He also said last week that he himself is a calmer man and manager this time around at Parkhead, that he is adapting to a new generation of player – “you try to adapt anyway”.
The apparently provocative man provokes again. This time it’s: whatever you say, say something good.