30 years on from signing Mo Johnston nothing has changed at Ibrox
I held off writing about the 30th anniversary of Mo Johnston signing for Rangers yesterday as the succulent infatuation and fairytales from the mainstream media reminiscing was more than enough. But Johnston’s signing all those years ago got me thinking, has anything changed at Ibrox since?
And I have to admit that while there was some great work done by the likes of David Murray to rid the club of its sectarian past, nothing really has changed.
When Johnston signed for Rangers in July 1989 I was only 12. I didn’t care about religion - still don’t - and I played football with my mates like any other kid does. Johnston’s signing for Rangers didn’t really have any affect on me at the time. Uniike some Celtic fans it wasn’t a JFK moment for me. I was probably too busy playing football on the local red ash pitch pretending to be Dariusz Dziekanowski with the running commentary that we all used to do when on the ball.
Maybe it was down to the fact that I wasn’t a regular at Celtic Park at that age, given that my Dad worked abroad on the tankers. Maybe it was because I wasn’t brought up in a family where religion was paramount - given my Dad’s side of the family were Catholics and my Mum’s side being Protestant. Or maybe at the age of 12, all the furore and rage over his signing didn’t really register at all in my wee world.
But looking back now, I fully understand what a shock transfer it was for both clubs.
For Celtic, Johnston had given the late great Billy McNeill his word that he would sign for Celtic and that a deposit was paid to Nantes - before doing the dirty and signing for Rangers under Graeme Souness.
And for Rangers, it effectively ended the club’s unwritten sectarian signing policy against Catholics. Now to be fair to Rangers they did have Catholic players in their ranks since their inception - but none as high profile as Johnston was and little was made of their religion. With some Catholics, including tthe likes of Don Kichenbrand purposely hiding their religious beliefs to sign for the Ibrox side, while Laurie Blyth left the club after it was discovered he was a Catholic.
A momentous time in Scottish Football and Scotland’s history
Johnston’s signing shocked Scottish football to its core, it was heralded and still is heralded by some as ‘one of the most momentous times in the country’s history’.
Furious Celtic fans created a ‘We hate Mo Johnston Celtic Supporters Club’, he was labelled a Judas - even to this day - years after being called Super Mo by the same fans.
He went from being lauded as a Celtic hero to one that is still universally despised by the Celtic support 30 years on. It wasn’t just the fact that he had signed for Rangers, it was his act of betrayal to the club that he professed to support as well as his treatment of Lisbon Lion and then-Celtic manager BIlly McNeill.
Across the city, Rangers’ signing of Johnston was met by rage and anger from the Rangers support. Police had to be called as fights broke out outside the front door at the stadium. Fans publicly burned their Rangers scarves and season books in protest, some in tears and one fan laying a wreath with the message ‘116 years of tradition ended’.
Jump forward to 2012 and the front steps at Ibrox would see similar scenes as 140 years of history came to an end with the club’s liquidation.
Journalists were told that the club shouldn’t sign Catholics, that the club was Protestant. They were told that the fans would turn their back on the club and refuse to support it while a Catholic played there. We even had the General Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland issuing warnings after Johnston’s signing.
While the general secretary of the Rangers Supporters Association, David Miller, stated "It is a sad day for Rangers. Why sign him above all others? There will be a lot of people handing in their season tickets. I don't want to see a Roman Catholic at Ibrox. It really sticks in my throat."
And the club’s own kitman Jimmy Bell refused to lay out Johnston's kit before each match as a protest against a Catholic playing for Rangers - until he started scoring against Celtic. Bell’s hatred for Celtic and Catholics continues to this day - with his worst incident being the refusal to pay tribute to Tommy Burns who had died the same week as Rangers reached the 2008 UEFA Cup Final.
Souness deserves credit for signing Johnston and going against their ‘116 years of tradition’, but he too got caught up in the sectarianism within Ibrox when an incident caught on camera and not aired until several years ago - showed him encouraging players [including Johnston] to sing the sectarian Billy Boys song after - with add-ons about the Pope.
In reality, Johnston’s signing did nothing to quell the fanbases’ anti-Catholic hatred and Rangers themselves didn’t sign another catholic for another NINE YEARS when Neil McCann arrived at Ibrox in 1998.
Former Rangers and England defender Terry Butcher, in his autobiography, admitted that Johnston was treated as an outcast by his Scottish teammates at Ibrox.
Butcher said: “It was [signing Johnston], as far as I was concerned, a fabulous signing for the club because Mo was such a good player, while Souness had achieved his ambition of beginning to break down the sectarian barriers at Ibrox. Our only doubt was we knew Mo was fiercely proud of being a Celtic fan and we wondered how he would settle. We need not have worried – he was terrific.
“Next day, the club wanted the Scottish and English players to hold a press conference to tell the media what a good signing he was. There was no problem as far as Ray Wilkins, Chris Woods, Mark Walters, I and some others were concerned. But the Scottish players – Davie Cooper, Ian Ferguson, Ally McCoist, John Brown and the rest – declined because they had received so many calls from friends telling them not to become involved.”
Murray himself did more to rid the club of sectarianism than the signing of Johnston ever did. He banned Mark Dingwall’s Follow Follow fanzine from Ibrox due to its bigoted content. He regularly criticised fans who brought shame on the club - highlighting their bile on fans’ websites and on the terracing.
And he made sure the club actively took part in anti-sectarian initiatives created by the Scottish Government, independent charities and the club’s own group.
Murray also lifted a ban on players making the sign of the cross in 1998.
But despite this, players were still warned not to do so in front of Rangers fans. To this day, players are still warned not to cross themselves. Former Rangers striker Shota Arveladze was booed during a friendly between the two sides after he blessed himself on the pitch.
Fernando Ricksen, in 2002, admitted to receiving phone calls and was told, "If you're Catholic and you play for Rangers, then you are a Protestant. If you play for the Protestant people, you don't play for the Catholic people."
And former Rangers forward Nacho Novo was assaulted by a Rangers fan for reportedly wearing a crucifix on a night out in Greenock. Although, Novo himself swims in the gutter soaking up all the kulture from Rangers fans and loyalists in Northern Ireland nowadays as he tries to stay relevant and make as much cash off them as possible.
As a club, Rangers appointed a Catholic as captain in 1999 with Lorenzo Amoruso. And in 2006, they appointed their first Catholic manager, Paul Le Guen.
Sectarianism remained at Ibrox
But despite all of the club’s attempts to rid themselves of its sectarian infestation, the fan base kept it alive and well. From the singing of the Billy Boys - which saw the club fined by UEFA and fans banned from attending away games - to abusing players and managers [including their own] for being Catholic or seen to be.
We even had Celtic keeper Artur Boruc cautioned by Police after he blessed himself during a Glasgow derby game. An act that he did before every game and just before the second half of every game, when the keeper would turn to his goals and bless himself. A gesture, an act that he did at every club he played for, at every ground he played at and every country he was in. But only in the West of Scotland would blessing yourself at a football match would warrant a caution and rabid dog-like anger from opposition fans.
New club same old bigotry
As Rangers 1872 lurched into administration and then liquidation in 2012, the bile from the Rangers fans intensified towards their detractors, their critics and anyone who was not a True Blue.
With no titles to celebrate, it resulted in the resurgence of bigotry and bile from the terracing. Scottish football had laughed at their demise and now they didn’t care about anything other than making sure everyone knew who they hated.
Once again it was the Catholics and Celtic who were targeted regularly, we have seen a rise in Rangers fans using child abuse victims suffering for their own sick and twisted agendas to attack Celtic over - while ignoring their own club’s history conveniently - and we have seen managers and players attacked both verbally and physically by the horde, who seem to be angry at everyone bar themselves.
And successive chief executives of Rangers 2012 refused to criticise the Rangers support for fear of alienating the only source of regular income. It wasn’t until last season when Dave King hit out at Rangers fans for the abuse they aimed at then-Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke that anyone of a senior position at the club had openly criticised the fan base for their songs and chants. Albeit King refused to utter the words sectarianism and bigotry - sticking to the generic phrase of offensive singing.
Likewise, the media in this country continue to tip toe around the issue - only coming out in their droves when something happens with Celtic fans so they can denounce both sets of supporters lumping it into the ‘Old Firm shame’ bracket. Rather than tackling the issues head on when they happen straight away, they celebrate such anniversaries as if it had ended sectarianism and bigotry in this country - when it made little impact on the battles that Scotland as a society faces.
Only this week, we saw a young woman being attacked and spat on by Orange Order bandsmen marching in Glasgow in their annual anti-Catholic marches. An event that sees a plethora of Rangers supports not only march and participate in, but also walk alongside in celebration.
Even the Political games played out by the usual suspects in the press come and go when the focus is on such a particular subject. Again it is only important to them when the spotlight is on the issue.
We can all look back on Johnston signing for Rangers in 1989 as some sort of litmus test for Rangers’ battle against sectarianism as a fairytale ending to the Ibrox side’s near century long anti-Catholic signing policy - but one thing is evidently clear. We may be dealing with a new Rangers at Ibrox, but the same bigots remain within their fan base.
The same bigots who celebrate their club’s proud Protestant traditions and hate anything and anyone linked to Catholicism that doesn’t do the business for Rangers 2012.
The same bigots, who the club warns their players not to bless themselves in front of. The same bigots who sing sectarian songs attacking the Pope, Catholics and descendants of those who fled the great famine in Ireland.
Rangers’ signing of Mo Johnston was just a footnote in Scottish football history. It had little impact on my life as a 12 year old and it did little to quell the sectarianism at Rangers 1872 and the 30th anniversary of his arrival at Rangers is being heralded at a time when sectarianism, bigotry, islamophobia and other offensive bile sung from the terracing is on the rise.
So nothing really has changed at Ibrox. Those who burned their scarves and season books at Ibrox in 1989 have passed their sectarian beliefs and hatred onto the next generation of Rangers supporters. Pour the fuel of Rangers 1872 being liquidated into the mix and the sectarianism and sheer hatred has intensified exponentially with every passing season they don’t usurp Celtic at the top of the Premiership table.