Bill Shankly Or Neil Lennon: Scottish Football Is Not A Matter Of Life And Death

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - APRIL 24: Neil Lennon coach of Celtic gestures towards Rangers' supporters at the end of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League match between Rangers and Celtic at Ibrox Stadium on April 24, 2011 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

2010-2011 was a difficult debut season for Celtic manager Neil Lennon, who suffered death threats and attempts on his life. Football is not supposed to be this important, is it?

From the outside Neil Lennon’s first full season as a manager looked horrendous.

Since March, when Lennon (along with high profile Celtic supporters Paul McBride QC and former Labour MSP Trish Godman) was the intended recipient of a parcel-bomb, the Celtic Manager has required Jed Bartlett-esque, 24-hour security. Not even this was sufficient to protect him at Tynecastle in May when a Heart of Midlothian supporter made it across the pitch and into the Celtic dugout where he succeeded in assaulting Lennon.

According to Liverpool.tv, Bill Shankly once said ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ You knew that though, didn’t you? Everyone knows that. And so they should: It’s a great quote. Pithy. John Wilson, the 26 year-old Edinburgh man who attacked Neil Lennon while the Irishman performed his professional duties, presumably agrees with the legendary former Liverpool manager.

Lennon himself, who has continued to perform his very public role in the face of death threats and worse, fans are not searched on their way into Tynecastle, comes across as similarly blasé about the relative importance of matters of life, death and football. Perhaps football is 'much, much more important' than a matter of life and death. Perhaps, except Shankly didn’t actually say that.

What he said instead was: 'Someone said to me "To you football is a matter of life or death!" and I said "Listen, it's more important than that"'. Apart from sounding less pithy (and more like Andy Gray) than its proxy, the second quote is slightly - but crucially - different. While it retains the sense of immortality that drove Liverpool to a generation of European and domestic dominance, it lacks the insane disregard of humane perspective. The pronouns 'me', 'you' and 'I' personalize the actual quote.

In the real version, the same message is presented as an opinion. To me, he seems to say, football is more important than matters of life or death. To you? Fair enough. Wittgenstein (‘Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death’) would seem to lend support, and that’s usually enough for me.

When it doesn’t also require me to think of myself as a petty, misguided fool who grants more credence to matters of life and death than I do football I am prepared to accept Shankly’s statement. Shankly used his maniacal fixation on football to revitalize Liverpool to the extent that they became the greatest club in the world. Lennon may do the same, although Celtic fans would probably accept becoming the greatest club in Scotland, but the current situation is in danger of irreversibly tarnishing Scottish football’s global reputation*.

*Quality-wise, of course, this has been low for a while, such is the dreadful absence of competition in the league and the desperately negative tactics of the international side and the European representatives; personality-wise, however, Scottish football fans retain a positive reputation.

The Glasgow clubs’ clean sweep of domestic honours this season was the eighth since the Scottish Premier League’s inaugural season just twelve years ago (in each of the other four they won two out of three). Now, as much as ever before, the Old Firm is Scottish football. Equivocation was especially easy this season as the two sides met an el-Clasico-eclipsing seven times.

The West Coast of Scotland, the country’s most populated area and Bill Shankly’s birthplace, has struggled in the face of sectarianism for generations and Rangers vs. Celtic has historically been a principal outlet for the hostility this provokes. Alcohol, for example, is still banned from Scottish football grounds largely as a result of the on-field battle staged between the two sets of fans in the aftermath of the 1980 Scottish Cup Final. The public awareness group Nil by Mouth reported that over the 1990s there was a ninefold increase in violent attacks across Glasgow in the immediate aftermath of Old Firm matches. Franklin Foer, in How Soccer Explains the World, claims that eight deaths were directly linked to the Old Firm rivalry in the seven years between 1996 and 2003.

Clearly, the derby’s troubles predate Neil Lennon but this season’s versions have broken the mould. This season has seen thuggery and hooliganism replaced by something that can accurately be described as terrorism.

Such is the dominance of the two teams that transfer rumours relating to them will be given greater precedence by a Glasgow based media than managerial comings-and-goings at other clubs. As a result, the targeting of Neil Lennon, a high profile Catholic in charge of a high profile and traditionally Catholic football club, by a very small (two men were arrested and charged in May) collection of religious extremists is granted acute media focus. The Scottish Premier League, incredibly given its lowly competitive status, is nowadays presentable as a hotbed of terrorist activity.

Scottish football faces a fight on two fronts.

First, something has to be done about the lack of competition in the league. Were the focus on Glasgow’s big two to be reduced by the emergence of viable challengers then Neil Lennon would be a less prominent and therefore less attractive target, plus Old Firm stories would remain regionally, rather than (inter)nationally, relevant. Hearts put on a suggestion of a challenge thanks to a thirteen match unbeated run at the turn of the year and Motherwell made it to the Scottish Cup Final the same season as they lost their manager in acrimonious circumstances to Aberdeen. Inverness Caledonian Thistle, too, deserve a mention for a record breaking thirteen month unbeaten streak away from their northerly home, but the sad truth is that the league is set up in a way that ensures that money and players trickle up to Glasgow. That needs to change.

Secondly, and relatedly, something needs to be done about the game’s relationship with sectarianism. Matters of football may rank above matters of life and death for some, and, after all, it’s good to have a hobby, but where that attitude (which even its most famous proponent regarded as personal) is adopted it must remain private.

This season Scotland’s devolved government, whose purview undoubtedly includes matters of life and death, had to intervene in this situation. That should never be necessary. Whatever the private views of its individuals, a serious nation’s public view must be that matters of life and death are much, much more important than football. Bill Shankly would, undoubtedly, agree.

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