My iPhone screensaver is a beautiful blue Manchester sky, with a sign in the foreground reading ‘Retro Bar’.
It was taken the afternoon of the UEFA Cup Final in 2008.
I love the photo because it reminds me of a fine day spent with good friends. After we beat Fiorentina I cancelled a Hanoi holiday with Mrs Williamson; paid the best part of a thousand pounds to a parasite broker for a match ticket; and flew to London for the week on an impromptu business trip. On the Wednesday morning I got up, and instead of putting on my business casual, I donned my Rangers shirt and tubed to Euston to catch the InterCity to Manchester.
There I met my gang – the group I used to travel with back in the late 80s/early 90s when I lived in Edinburgh; they still sort me out with tickets when I get to see a Rangers game these days. Burnie, Moo, Pavvy, The Captain… people I have known for over 20 years now. I can go a season or two without seeing them, then walk into their bar, and it’s just like the old days. I get to maybe one or two live Rangers games a year, sometimes less; these guys miss maybe one or two. But they know if I still lived in Scotland I’d be there as often as them.
So the Retro Bar is where we were hanging out. It was a perfect day. Beautiful weather, a peaceful spot just a few minutes from Piccadilly station, sitting outside an unpretentious old man’s pub on the edge of a housing scheme; it felt like something out of “Shameless”. We sat there the whole afternoon, gently drinking, watching the day go by, singing the occasional song, and bantering with fans passing by.
I went to the game, we lost, and I walked back into a completely different Manchester – a post-apocalyptic Piccadilly. Everywhere there were rubber men; sirens from ambulances and police cars filled the air; fast food cartons and empty beer cans littered the streets. I went to the bus station to see if I could get an overnighter to London but it would have been easier catching the last chopper out of Saigon. So I met up with some friends from New York, and we ended up in a snooker hall up from where the Hacienda used to be. I got the first train back to London, where I read about and heard about and watched the “riot” on Sky News.
So I was left with mixed feelings about that event. Apart from the result, I had a great day – from where I was sitting, it was a happy time. But the aftermath made me ashamed to be a Rangers fan; everyone in my office knew I was at the game and was asking me if I had seen the trouble. Not sure they believed me when I told them I didn’t even know about it until the morning after.
Last week’s Unirea game brought back the same uneasiness. Reports of seats being ripped out and thrown during half-time. Who are these fans who make everyone in Europe believe we are all a bunch of unreconstructed 70s hooligans? Are they my people?
I emailed The Captain, who I knew had been in Bucharest. I asked if the atmosphere had been bad, if there had been trouble the night before or during the day. The reply:
“I’d compare the match to playing against St. Johnstone with reference to the size and attitude of the crowd. Absolutely no bad feeling or animosity displayed by either set of fans, outside or inside the stadium but police and stewards were very heavy-handed when handling the Rangers fans… All peaceful through the first half, then as we settled down to discuss things at half-time, a large team of stewards came through gates in the perspex screen and started hitting people at the front in what appeared to be an indiscriminate nature. They were quickly followed by a couple of stewards spraying CS gas at anyone they could reach (we were about 20 rows back but after a couple of minutes, the CS Gas had spread that far and we were all coughing).”
Aside from being gassed by the riot police, his description of the overall trip was similar to my Manchester experience – they had a fine time and no problems at all in town (“Bucharest itself is a tip but not the sort of place you’d be worried about walking after dark”).
The reaction to the news was fairly predictable, with the one twist being Rangers’ Chief Executive Martin Bain coming out forcefully in defence of the Rangers fans and highlighting the inadequate arrangements for away fans. But within 48 hours UEFA had decided to investigate, the Scottish media were back on their high horses painting Bain as an apologist, and the discussion was about how much of a ban Rangers would get.
I fear the cro-magnon element of the Rangers support has painted the club into a corner. The sectarian singing has put us on the UEFA bad-boys radar; Manchester was an absolute disgrace; and now this. Even though it was most likely a reaction by 20 or 30 fans to an unprovoked assault by local police, there will be so few clear facts available that both sides will get some sort of penalty and because Rangers have a rap sheet as long as Duncan Ferguson’s when he left Tannadice, the punishment may be well in excess of this particular crime.
Most of you probably don’t support Rangers and probably couldn’t care less; but maybe you should. Why? Well, it’s not good for the image of Scottish football and will inevitably mean that foreign police forces will look less charitably upon some of the Tartan Army’s antics in future. Also, this could be you next time. You might not believe The Captain’s account of things, but I know he is telling it as he saw it, and I’ve been to enough games in Europe to know that this type of thing can happen; and not even in Eastern Europe – Pamplona saw similar behaviour from the notorious Spanish thug police (not just Rangers – with Spurs, too). It’s in no-one’s interests to have security across the continent behaving like it’s the 1980s, penning in supporters and treating them like animals. That should have ended with Hillsborough.
Or maybe a harsh punishment is what’s necessary. A season without European football, with the club’s finances in their current state? Or a couple of Euro home games behind closed doors? Maybe that’s what it will take to force the Rangers support to be truly self-policing and for the minority – and it is a minority now – to cut out the nonsense.
Photo credit : Billy Williamson