So another Scottish Premier League campaign has come to an end. It is a time for jubilant celebration for the victors, quiet introspection for the runners-up and a sigh of relief from the police and emergency services the length and breadth of Scotland.
This year, though, only one of those things has happened. On Sunday afternoon, Celtic Park was anything but quiet, as 60,000 green-clad fans roared their support for their embattled manager, Neil Lennon.
There is a noisy defiance coming from Celtic right now, the club refusing to be bowed by the hate campaign directed against it this season, culminating in live bombs being sent through the post to Lennon, and an assault on the Irishman by a Heart of Midlothian fan in front of a live TV audience of millions last Wednesday.
Across the Clyde at Ibrox, departing Rangers manager Walter Smith, the Wise Old Man of Scottish football (if the Scottish sporting press are to be believed), sounds like anything but a soccer coach celebrating a third successive title triumph.
In a broadside against Celtic, Smith told The Scotsman:
After the season we have had here, I am more than ready to get out of here, out of Scotland. It has been a fraught year for everybody, I don't think there has been any doubt about that. The season got off to a bad start, in that respect, when Celtic put up a challenge to referees and to everybody else. That got the season off to a bad start and it went downhill after that.
So there you have it. Instead of celebrating his team's championship success, Walter Smith felt the need to have a final parting shot at Celtic, blaming them for what Edinburgh broadsheet The Scotsman has labeled Scottish soccer's annus horribilis.
It is worthwhile to take a short diversion at this point, to consider the headline of an article in yesterday's (16th May) Scotsman: "The day that Scottish football redeemed itself. But only just."
So just how had Scottish football "redeemed" itself in the eyes of The Scotsman?
Why, there had only been "a handful of arrests" at matches over the weekend. That's right—in a season where the Celtic manager has been sent bullets and live bombs in the post, and assaulted inside a stadium, the game in Scotland redeemed itself by virtue of the fact there weren't many arrests on the weekend. Oh, and there had been an "exciting" conclusion to the season.
How exciting the conclusion to the season was can be gauged by the crackling tension inside Celtic Park and Rugby Park, Kilmarnock, as the destination of the Championship hung in the balance for a full 47 seconds on Sunday afternoon. That's how long it took Rangers to take the lead, which became a three-goal advantage before seven minutes had passed away from home against a frankly woeful Kilmarnock. The excitement must have been unbearable for the neutrals.
But I digress. Just what was it that prompted Walter Smith's rather classless dig at Celtic? Surely, as Celtic defender Mark Wilson says, he should be too busy celebrating to be thinking about Celtic.
Well, I think not. Walter Smith has inadvertently betrayed his true emotions surrounding Rangers' title win, and it is not one of jubilation.
This season has indeed been an annus horribilis for Scottish soccer. Indeed, this was the season that exposed Scottish soccer for the rotten, corrupt, sectarian cesspit it has always been. And Walter Smith knows it.
Rangers won the league by a single point. When you consider the intolerable pressure heaped upon Celtic this season, from all quarters, it is a hollow victory.
Of course there have been the usual bizarre refereeing decisions, which always seem to benefit Rangers and/or hinder Celtic, such as the clearly offside Hamilton goal in Celtic's 1-1 draw in January. Had that goal been disallowed, as it should have been, Celtic would have won the title by a point. The referee in charge, Mr. Willie Collum, was also in charge of the first Celtic-Rangers match of the season, where he awarded Rangers an extremely dubious penalty, which (unless he has eyes in the back of his head) he couldn't even see.
There is also anger directed at the SFA over their handling of disciplinary matters involving Celtic and Rangers this season. They handed Neil Lennon an unprecedented six-match ban for his first offense (being sent to the stand in a match away to Heart of Midlothian in November), later reduced to four on appeal.
Following an angry exchange with Rangers assistant manager Ally McCoist at the end of Celtic's Scottish Cup victory on March 2nd, prompted by an inflammatory remark made by McCoist, Neil Lennon was handed another four-match ban, which the SFA attempted to make him serve consecutively with the first, rather than concurrently in accordance with their own rules.
McCoist, meanwhile, appealed and had the charge against him dropped. At the same hearing, Rangers players El Hadji Diouf and Madjid Bougherra, who had both manhandled referee Callum Murray, attempting to physically prevent him showing red cards to Rangers players, were given derisory fines. Previously, players guilty of laying hands on referees have been handed bans running to several matches.
Most sinister of all, though, was the sending of live ammunition and live parcel bombs through the post to Neil Lennon. Bombs were also sent to two prominent Celtic supporters, and live bullets sent to N. Irish Celtic players Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn. The bullets were sent to the players in January, and subsequently, appearances by both players became a rarity.
Following the match against Rangers at Ibrox in April, Neil Lennon found that while the bombs were said to be the work of an individual or a tiny group of maniacs, their actions met with the approval of a large number of Rangers supporters, as many fans in the full house taunted him with chants of "What's it like to live in fear?"
The assault on Neil Lennon at Tynecastle last week followed about 45 seconds of Heart of Midlothian fans chanting, "You're getting shot in the morning." As Lennon's assailant was led away by Lothian and Borders police officers, a large number of Hearts fans applauded him up the tunnel.
What Celtic has faced this season has been an intolerable campaign of hate, intimidation and attempted murder. Against that backdrop, how can any reasonable person think that it even matters who wins the title?
Walter Smith is fully aware of the depths of depravity to which Scottish football, and the fans of his club in particular, have sunk this season. He knows that they have no real cause for celebration.
Celtic were never allowed to compete this season due to the efforts of the refereeing fraternity, the governing body and Rangers fans.
Add to that the ridiculously easy ride Rangers were allowed in the closing weeks of the season. Let's have a look at Rangers' record against their top six opponents, before and after the league split:
Against Kilmarnock this season, Rangers recorded two 2-1 victories at home and scraped a 3-2 win at Rugby Park. Yet after struggling to three one-goal victories, they somehow were able to thump them 5-1 away from home in the final match.
Away to Hearts, Rangers won 2-1 with a last-minute winner and lost the other 0-1, while at Ibrox they laboured to a 1-0 win in February. Yet this month, they cantered to a 4-0 win with several key Hearts players dropped from the team, though, immediately re-instated for their next match against Celtic.
Against Motherwell it was a different story. In their first home match, they defeated their manager-less opponents 4-1. They repeated this scoreline in the return match against a Motherwell now managed by ex-Rangers midfielder Stuart McCall, who told the press before the match that he still refers to Walter Smith as "Gaffer" (a British slang word for "Boss"). In February, McCall led his Motherwell side to a 6-0 defeat at Ibrox and the final fixture saw Rangers record another comfortable 5-0 victory. Total scoring in four league matches: Rangers 19, Motherwell 2.
Their fixtures against Dundee Utd demonstrate the iniquity of the SPL league split, with Rangers being handed a third home match out of a series of four. They won 4-0, 2-0 and lost 2-3 at home; they won 4-0 away—a match in which that man Willie Collum awarded Rangers three penalty kicks and sent off a Dundee Utd player with each award, one of which was for a foul outside the box.
Their record against Celtic was not so glorious, winning the first match 3-1, then losing 0-2 and 0-3 before tying the final fixture 0-0.
In the months leading up to the SPL split, Rangers scraped several single goal victories before embarking on an improbable run of thumping wins against what are supposedly the best teams in the league. Very strange. Especially when you consider the affinity three of those teams (Kilmarnock, Hearts and Motherwell) feel with Rangers.
It was like a gamer playing Master League Mode in PES, switching the game to its easiest level for the last few games to ensure the win.
Walter Smith knows that not only was there no level playing field in Scottish football this season, he knows that the bombs, bullets and intimidation took Scottish football into the gutter and rendered his final league triumph irrelevant.
His final win is a hollow one. He knows it and has lashed out at the victim. Blaming Celtic for ruining his enjoyment of his Ibrox farewell.
It is only to be hoped that with Rangers taken over by new owners, and if the hype is to be believed the threat of liquidation removed, the game in Scotland can become a fair competition again next season, with no need to protect Rangers from the vagaries of non-Champions League qualification.
Well, as fair a competition as competition in Scotland can be...
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