Book Review: Tangled Up in Blue
As an Englishman and a lover of Glasgow as a city, I’ve always regarded the hottest, nastiest rivalry in world football as one of the least edifying aspects of sport in the British Isles and it’s always been my assumption that support for Partick Thistle is an absolute obligation for anyone in Glasgow with an ounce of respect for tolerance, open-mindedness and generosity.
A glance at the amazon reviews for Stephen O’Donnell’s Tangled Up in Blue provides a case in point. Summarisers are almost equally divided in affording the volume either one star or five – and it’s pretty clear that the division can be summarised by one of this year’s stand out new songs, ‘Green & Blue’ by Irish band The Murder Capital.
Make no mistake, this is a curiosity as it constitutes a biography of a football club by a man at odds with the values for the institution being appraised and in that, it differs from the scores of hagiographic treatments that football literature has produced down the ages.
Not that O’Donnell is miles wide of the mark in his accounts and assessments, mind. Glasgow Rangers is painted here as a vile body indeed – steeped in sectarianism, cynicism, violence and freemasonry, provided with multiple leg ups and free passes by the Scottish establishment and, in its latter years, a cheating one to boot.
Much of the evidence is here in plain sight – in particular, the supplementary payments made to players, a tax dodge for which HMRC finally came calling – and Rangers are depicted as the most outrageous of over spenders, a club that for a time challenged England’s biggest in attracting top European talent – from Paul Gascoigne to Brian Laudrup – and yet one with a murky past, present and future.
Earlier, the very founders of the club are painted as n’er do wells, parallels are drawn between the noxious Nazism of 1930s Europe and anti-Irish racism of a Scottish hue, and directors are alleged to have escaped scot free from the consequences of appalling stadium catastrophes, most notably the second Ibrox disaster of January 1971.
But while the kneejerk reaction of most Rangers fans – that Celtic are guilty of equally heinous offences themselves – is one to be dismissed, for this reader at least, the account could have done with greater degree of balance.
O’Donnell writes really well – as evidenced by his excellent novel Scotball, reviewed in these pages a few years ago, and he has also undertaken a deep degree of research – the chapters that chart Rangers’ financial demise are excellent and it’s a worthwhile exercise to take a step back a few years after the event to pick apart the nuts and bolts of the complicated affair.
But what of outcomes? If the intention is to grab Rangers by the scruff of the neck when they are down and to run their faces into the mud of Glasgow Green, then what’s the point? O’Donnell is far too responsible a writer to want to do this and while he downplays the opinion that a strong Celtic need a strong Rangers and also dismisses the long standing allegation that both clubs fan the sectarian flames to sell tickets and maintain the loyalty of their respective supporter bases, a way forward could have been pointed to.
The author does give credit to those who sought to abandon Rangers’ dark past – Alex Ferguson and Graeme Souness most notably – but surely the eventual aim must be for sectarianism to be replaced by a healthier rivalry and a greater degree of community cooperation? The appointment of Steven Gerrard as manager, a hero at a club with a degree of Catholic support, presumably came too late for the printers, but does provide encouragement.
Keyboard warriors, new populists and emboldened extremists could present new antagonisms of course – and those reviews on Amazon do make me weep – but perhaps the financial meltdown will turn out to be the Year Zero that the Old Firm needs, even if O’Donnell feels that Rangers are yet to show sufficient contrition for their crimes.
But one takeaway I did take from the book could provide an interesting way forward. O’Donnell is right to highlight the role football bloggers and independent writers played in highlighting the Gers’ financial misdemeanours, all while the mainstream media stood by, paralysed by a fear they would lose access to interviews and free tickets. True, Celtic fans on a mission largely fuelled those efforts – but perhaps similar actors are around the corner, preparing themselves for a similar assault on Manchester City? The financial affairs of the latter could make Rangers’ nineties and noughties spending look like a trip to the tuck shop for a can of irn bru and a packet of toffos.