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Celtic had no need to get out of second gear to stroll past The Rangers at Hampden. The first ever clash between Glasgow’s giants and its newest club was a non event as a contest – if it had been a boxing match it would have been stopped before half time.

For the record, the final score was 2 – 0.  Leigh Griffiths became the first Celt to score against The Rangers with a fine 10th minute header and a typically accurate Kris Commons strike from outside the box on the half hour was all that needed to secure the victory. Celtic looked as if they were quite content with just the two goals, although Van Dyke and Johanssen both missed very good chances to add to the score.  Celtic played some neat possession football – or as much as they could on a pitch that looked like a ploughed field by the end.

I know the SFA has many things to worry about as it attempts to run Scottish football, but for the field of play at a so called National Stadium hosting a major semi final to look like something a Sunday league pub team would expect to play on is very poor indeed. Perhaps they could find someone currently on gardening leave to give them a hand?

And a word for referee Craig Thompson. Well, how about disgrace? Perhaps incompetent? Or maybe hapless? In all seriousness, anyone who performs as badly as this ref did deserves to find himself demoted to officiating in the North of Scotland under 10s Reserve League.

His decision to blow for a free kick to Celtic with Griffiths running through on goal rather than allowing the most obvious of advantages defied any rational explanation. The referee should really have red carded himself at that moment for denying a clear goal scoring opportunity.

And it wasn’t the only time Thompson managed to stop play for no good reason. Add in John Guidetti being brought down and somehow conceding a few kick, probably for letting Lee McCulloch to stamp on top of him. The same McCulloch being allowed to escape punishment for a forearm smash into the back of Griffiths’ head. Foster getting off scot free for hauling Izaguirre to the ground just a minute after picking up a booking. And Griffiths being booked for a fairly muted goal scoring celebration.

But still, these things even themselves up, don’t they?

Celtic performed well, although with little real challenge. Many of the players will have had more strenuous training sessions. Captain Scott Brown led the way with an inspired performance full of energy and desire. Along with the calm and composed Nir Bitton he dominated the midfield from first whistle to last. At the back, Virgil Van Dyke and Jason Denayer strolled through the game.

Anyone watching The Rangers for the first time would have wondered quite how they have managed to reach as high as second place in the Championship. Their collection of journeymen, has beens and never will bes were totally outclassed all day long. The lower league club didn’t looked like scoring at any point, and Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon’s perfectly clean jersey at the final whistle was proof of their failure to force him to make even a single save. Indeed the one shot at goal that the Ibrox club was rather charitably credited with was actually a mishit cross that sailed well over the bar.

So the large crowd did not get the spectacle they had perhaps hoped for. Not that the green and white half were bothered greatly as they celebrated a first victory over their new rivals. And the blue half of the stadium seemed to have found an old song book belonging to a liquidated club. Still, being just three years behind the times is probably pretty good for them, with many still appearing to be perpetually fixated on 1690.

Will much be made of the wide range of sectarian songs emanating from one end of the ground? Will mass arrests for offensive behaviour be reported in the media? I’m not holding my breath.

Ronny Deila’s pursuit of trophies in his first season in charge at Celtic Park will now take him and his men back to Hampden next month. I’m sure many will be hoping that Dundee United provide far more of a challenge and contribute to a much better game of football in the final.

 

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Je Suis Charlie

Je suis Charlie.

This statement would have meant nothing to anyone not called Charlie until recently. Indeed, few in this country would ever have heard of Charlie Hebdo. Yet now the French satirical magazine stands at the centre of a growing debate on where the limits to the right of freedom of speech should stand.

And the Charlie Hebdo affair may yet come to a court somewhere. The Saudi Arabia-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) is reportedly planning to sue the magazine following its publication of a front cover depicting the Prophet Mohamed.

There are, of course, already limits to freedom of speech. Not just the theoretical one about refraining from shouting fire in a crowded theatre either. Libel and slander laws limit what can be said or written about another person. The Official Secrets Act bans the passing of classified or sensitive materials. Obscenity laws outlaw the use of certain words or phrases. And hate speech, such as racism or sexism, is illegal too.

But what about speech that may be legal yet others may find offensive? That’s the heart of the current issue: should a cartoon be banned if some find it offensive? Or does the right to freedom of speech take precedence?

Freedom of religious belief and practice, or of the absence of religious belief, are fundamentals in free societies. Anyone can choose to believe whatever they want, whether others agree with it or not. Worship a single god or multiple deities. Believe that Adam and Eve populated the world or that we were all brought to earth on a fleet of alien spaceships. Argue that the world is flat or a large disc resting on the backs of four giant elephants supported by a giant turtle. That’s your right.

(OK, that last one comes from Terry Pratchett’s books rather than a religion, but you get my drift …)

But no idea or belief system should stand above criticism. Freedom of expression is also a basic right. And so all opinions, ideologies and theologies, whether views are social, political or religious, can and should be challenged. The alternative is totalitarianism, where the rulers decide what is truth and no one dares to disagree.

Many, but not all, Muslims believe that showing a depiction of Mohammed is forbidden. That’s their right. And all followers of the particular parts of Islam with that belief will probably refrain. But surely the rest of us are not to be forced to follow the rules of one religion? Surely non Muslims have the right to make up our own minds?

This is the area where freedoms conflict and theoretical niceties can become complex in the shades of grey that exist in the real world. Where one freedom may be argued to conflict with another’s right.

Yet I would argue that taking away the right to offend would in fact curb and not widen religious freedom. Imagine if no religion was able to publish anything that another group of people might find offensive. Every area where there is a theological disagreement with any other religion would be off limits for a start. And would that leave anything at all that was uncontroversial enough to be published?

“Jesus isn’t the son of god, but he is a prophet,” says the Muslin, offending the Christian. ”Transubstantiation is symbolic not real,” says the Protestant offending the Roman Catholic. “There are no gods at all,” says the atheist, offending all of the theists.

Should these statements be banned because they might cause offence to some? Well, if you start banning cartoons like the Charlie Hebdo one then that’s where you end up. Any statement that might offend followers of any religion would be censored.

Freedom of speech is a right we take for granted here in the UK. We should think ourselves lucky because it doesn’t exist in every society. Look what happened to the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – flogged for daring to challenge the religious leaders in his country.

And so we should think very carefully before we set any more limits on what can be said or published.

 

2014 And All That

The year 2014 will surely be remembered for the publication of my first novel, Calling Cards. Well, by me anyway. But for everyone else there have been an awful lot of other significant events over the past twelve months.

And it has often been the horror stories that have dominated the news this year, from floods and other weather related disasters to missing planes and ongoing wars in various parts of the globe. 2014 has also seen the Ebola outbreak, slaughter in Palestine and school shootings leaving hundreds of children dead, as well as ongoing wars in many countries. The year ended in tragedy much closer to home with six people killed in the centre of Glasgow as a bin lorry caused carnage.

Sports have provided many of the happier moments – well unless you are Brazilian of course. World Cup winners Germany’s stunning 7-1 destruction of the hosts in the semi final will live long in the memory. Glasgow hosted a fine Commonwealth Games while golf’s Rider Cup was also held in Scotland. I’m sure the Americans will have enjoyed the trip, if not the final score.

Money means success in many sports, and football leads the way. The top Spanish sides continued to flash the cash, while Manchester United joined in by breaking the British transfer record, paying £59.7m for Angel di María. The Red Devils also added loan Columbian Radamel Falcao on a reported £265,000 per week. That’s around 500 times the average weekly wage. Obscene is the only word to describe it.

Mind you, farce of the year probably came in motor racing, when billionaire Bernie Ecclestone found that the best way out of a bribery charge was to offer the court a large one off payment – and all the charges disappeared. All perfectly legal of course. But FIFA might just put in a claim too: the decision to play the 2022 World Cup in Qatar remains under investigation, with all sorts of allegations being made.

Scottish football had its moments too in 2014. In the top division, Celtic ran away to another league title, the last of Neil Lennon’s reign. After four years he moved south to Bolton, where he will have only football to worry about, rather than all of the trials and tribulations that sections of Scottish society threw at him. The cups went to Aberdeen and St Johnstone, giving many long suffering fans a taste of glory. Hearts’ administration and relegation was inevitable it seemed, but Hibernian’s slide to the second tier was more unexpected.

And the Ibrox soap opera continued to entertain, with tax cheat Dave King initially hailed as the latest saviour of Scotland’s newest club. Or was it to be the Easdales? Or maybe Mike Ashley? To the apparent surprise of many this genuine billionaire seemed intent on taking as much money out of the three year old club as possible. What a shock! Still, there are new saviours aplenty waiting in the wings, as the Three Bears join the pantomime. Oh yes they do. And the former quiz show captain’s time finally ran out, as the world renowned Petrofac Cup proved beyond his oh so limited abilities. So not so super Ally McCoist left to spend more time in his garden – although the man who loves the new club so much continues to take his large salary for doing nothing.

The biggest UK political story of the year was the conclusion of the lengthy Scottish independence referendum campaign. The contest became closer than many people expected, but in the end Better Together did just enough and the final 55.3% to 44.7% victory for the No side was decisive. The turnout of 84.6% was the highest in many years, surely a good sign whatever side of the argument you were on.

In the end many previously undecided Scots simply saw independence as too big a risk. The unanswered questions on currency and economic issues were too big, the Yes side’s unsubstantiated assertions of prosperity to come and dismissal of any questioning as scaremongering were unconvincing. And the recent collapse of world oil prices showed that Better Together’s critique had substance – an economy that relies heavily on one product is always susceptible to market fluctuation.

Alec Salmond responded to the defeat by resigning as First Minister, to be replaced by his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon. While Salmond planned his return to UK politics via the Gordon parliamentary seat, Sturgeon reshuffled her cabinet, with several long serving ministers reaching the end of the road. Labour also lost its Scottish leader, with Johann Lamont being replaced by Jim Murphy, who will now look to move from Westminster to Holyrood.

In the year before a UK General Election the major parties struggled to convince the electorate that any of them are worthy of support. David Cameron and the Tories continued to cut and cut, supported by the Lib Dems. Clegg and co tried to move away from their coalition partners, but it is hard to be part of a government for four years plus and then claim no responsibility for its actions. Labour continue to look for a convincing line of attack, while media attention concentrates on Ed Milliband/s supposed weaknesses. But are we really that interested in how a politician eats a bacon sandwich?

Nigel Farage and UKIP made gains in the European elections and also secured a couple of by election victories in the south after two Tory MPs defected. But the price of their success is greater media attention on both the incoherence of their policies and of the assortment of political oddballs behind the bafflingly popular Farage. Perhaps the shine has gone off UKIP a little, but the party remain a headache for those seeking to form a majority government.

In the US, the Republicans made mid term gains while attention is already shifting to the 2016 Presidential election. Hillary Clinton is favourite for the Democratic nomination, seeking to become the first female President, while the Republican field is a lot more open. And the year ended with civil rights back at the top of the political agenda, as the deaths of several black men at the hands of while police caused major controversies.

As ever, the year saw some big names take their leave. Veteran politician Tony Benn was a great loss. Musicians Pete Seeger, Joe Cocker and Jack Bruce all exited stage left, while two great footballing names, Eusebio and Alfredo Di Stefano, also perished. Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes died two days after being struck on the head by a bouncer at the Sydney Cricket Ground aged just 25.

Other celebrity deaths in 2014 included comedians Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and writers Maya Anjelou, PD James and Jeremy Lloyd. So much talent …

The fall out from revelations about Jimmy Saville’s despicable history of abuse continued to grow. As more and more details came out many other former personalities found past misdeeds catching up with them. Rolf Harris and Dave Lee Travis were among those to find themselves jailed, and there may be more to come. And evidence of an abuse ring involving senior politicians continued to bubble under the surface, with suspicious of a cover up still growing.

So that was 2014. The year of a referendum and a World Cup. Of selfies and ice buckets. I’m sure there were many other public or personal highlights for many people too. But for now let’s say goodbye to 2014 and bring on the new year. I wonder what 2015 will bring us?

Why is the Scottish sporting media ignoring a great story? Because it suits its agenda better to peddle the myth of the club that can’t die, that’s why.

On Saturday the draw for the semi finals of the Scottish League Cup was made. Now the last four of the third most important domestic football competition is not usually seen as a major occasion. But this year it appeared to matter more to the media than usual. The draw, live on BBC television, firstly paired football’s New Firm, Aberdeen and Dundee United. And that left two Glasgow teams: Scottish champions Celtic and the league’s newest club.

Now surely that gave the media a story to run with: the first ever match between Celtic and The Rangers. The chance for the new kids on the block to test themselves against the country’s top club. The beginning of a fresh Glasgow rivalry.

But instead they continue to promote the Big Lie. They are still insisting that the new club formed in 2012 and now playing at Ibrox is actually the same club that was liquidated after a financial meltdown in 2012.

We all know the history. How the old Rangers fell into massive debt after years of overspending and was placed into administration. How a creditors agreement was refused plunging the financially crippled club into liquidation. How the Charles Green owned Sevco Scotland Ltd (or was it Sevco 5088 Ltd?) bought the assets of the dying Rangers to form his new football club. And how some of the players were TUPE transferred to this new club while many others exercised their right to walk away.

We all remember how the old club called a vote of the former Scottish Premier League members in an attempt to pass its SPL place to Green’s new club – a move that was roundly defeated. How an attempt to bring the new club into the top tier of the Scottish Football League was also foiled. And how the 2012 club was finally admitted to the bottom tier of Scottish football – without any of the country’s long established non league teams even being given a sniff at the vacancy.

The Rangers (formed 2012) are not Rangers (formed 1872). It is as simple as that.

And when former Ibrox director Donald Findlay becomes the one figure from the old club to acknowledge this fact, then you know things are getting very silly indeed. Findlay as the voice of sanity? Really?

In its near three year history, The Rangers have managed to win the two lowest level league championships and get themselves up to the second tier. It has cost them many millions to do so, though. Led by the oldest apprentice boy in town, the man who holds the world record for most overpaid lower league manager ever, they have also had a string of cup failures, culminating in a defeat by Raith Rovers in the final of last season’s Ramsden’s Cup. (For those who don’t follow the lower echelons of Scottish football, this is the tournament for non Premier League teams, invented to give the diddy clubs a chance to win something. It’s now known as the Petrofac Training Cup apparently.)

So reaching the semi finals of the League Cup is actually a pretty big deal for the new club. And to be drawn against the biggest club in the country should be a real opportunity for The Rangers to test exactly how far they have developed.

But instead the media is full of stories about past games between Celtic and the former Ibrox club, as they attempt to consolidate the Big Lie. The tactics are simple ones to anyone with a knowledge of propaganda: repeat the lie over and over, hoping that it will eventually become accepted. Rangers were somehow demoted to the bottom league – so those votes I referred to above must never have happened. The old club somehow came out of liquidation – a concept unknown to anyone in the legal or financial worlds. No, every piece of evidence, logically analysed, is in fact wrong, they tell us.

Yet we know that creditors of the old club never received their money. We know that the new club won’t pay them. And why should they? It was an entirely different club that ran up the debts.

So we must all challenge the Big Lie wherever it is used. We must remind the media that the original 1872 Scottish blues, like the famous Norwegian Blue, have ceased to be, have shuffled off this mortal coil and are in fact an ex football club.

Or else Scottish football enters a realm of silliness that even the Monty Python crew couldn’t have come up with.

 

It has been widely reported today that Mike Ashley has, to quote STV, “won the battle for control of Rangers”. This is to be officially announced on Monday, we are told.

But is Mr Ashley’s forthcoming position of influence with Scottish football’s newest league club in accordance with SFA rules?

We all know that Mike Ashley owns Newcastle United FC, an English Premier League club. So how can he also control a different football club at the same time?

A quick check of the Scottish Football Association’s 2014—15 Handbook clarifies the position. Clause 13 is very helpful here; its title is “Dual Interest In Clubs”.

In short, it says that no one can have a dual interest in two different football clubs without the prior written consent of the Board of the SFA. How is this interest defined? Pretty widely actually. Clause 13,1 (b) (iii) defines an interest as including having:

“any power whatsoever to influence the management or administration of a club”.

And, just in case you were wondering whether this provision on dual interest applies only to someone who might become involved in two Scottish clubs, Clause 13.5 (a) gives the answer.

““club” means any club in membership of the Scottish FA and any club in membership of an association in membership of UEFA and/or FIFA”.

So can Mr Ashley actually take control of the latest club to play at Ibrox, as he is reportedly about to do? Well, according to the rules of Scottish Football he would be required to sell his shares in Newcastle United – unless the dual interest has already been approved by the SFA.

So does Mr Ashely have the prior written consent of the SFA Board?

I have today e-mailed Scottish football’s governing body to ask the question. Wonder if I will get an answer?

 

On Saturday a fairly unremarkable game of football took place in Scotland’s second tier. Livingston were at home to new club The Rangers for the first time and, for the record, the away side won by the only goal of the game.

But the real story came off the park. The Livingston match programme editor made several references to the liquidation of the former Rangers. It also described the club that his team were to play as a new club. Both of these are simple statements of fact.

In Scottish football however there seems to be an unwritten rule: if the truth hurts then hide the truth.

The Livingston chairman Gordon McDougall later made this statement: “I can only offer my sincere apologies to any fans who have been offended by what was written as there was no intention to offend anyone.”

But, significantly, there is no admission in Mr McDougall’s statement of any error of fact. Rather he appears to be apologising for reminding the fans of the club that now plays at Ibrox of the truth surrounding the formation of their club.

So what did the match programme actually say?

It recorded the fact that the former Rangers (in liquidation) was placed into administration back in February 2012. It stated that Duff and Phelps were unable to find a buyer. It said that the former club was liquidated in June 2012. It told of Charles Greens purchase of the assets of the former club and formation of the new club. And finally it stated that the new club was admitted to the bottom tier of the Scottish leagues.

All of these facts can be verified by official court documents. All have been reported widely in the media. The full story has been in the public domain for a number of years. So what’s the problem?

The programme also included small pen pictures of the visitors’ players, as most programmes I’ve ever seen tend to do. There made reference to the careers of several players at the now defunct club, which also appears to have angered some. But again the process of players transferring from the old club to the new, or deciding to exercise their right to leave as several did, is simple fact and was widely reported in the press and on television.

You would have thought that the fans of a new, cash strapped, lower league club would have more to worry about than being reminded of events from just a couple of years ago. Indeed with repeated court cases and ongoing boardroom strife, the new club is hardly any more stable than the one that was liquidated.

Now, in legal parlance I’m told the defence to any action taken would be “veritas”, Latin for truth. Simply put, you cannot have a legal action against you for stating facts, however unpleasant they might be to others.

But the Livingston programme editor – an unpaid volunteer who did the job out of love for his club – has now resigned, and the club is looking for a replacement. So, should you fancy a job writing a programme for the West Lothian club then give them a call.

But be clear that the job apparently involves saying only nice things about any opposing clubs. Any unpalatable truths must be hidden in case any offence might be taken.

I wonder what they might say when Hearts visit? No mention of relegation, as that would be nasty.  “A club given the opportunity to regroup in the Championship” perhaps? And what about Hibs? Let’s airbrush that play off defeat right away. “A less than satisfactory end to last season but new challenges ahead”? You get the idea.

Or is this sort of sensitivity only required in relation to football clubs that play at Ibrox?

 

Referendum Reflections

It’s almost two weeks now since Scotland said a loud No to independence. It seemed wiser to reflect on the campaign and its outcome after a little time had passed instead of in the heated aftermath, so here are some thoughts.

Firstly, let’s put the final result to bed. At 55.3% to 44.7% or 2,001,926 to 1,617,989 it was a clear victory for the No campaign. Alex Salmond accepted that on the night, although some of his supporters are still making conspiracy theory noises about a fix. It would do them far more credit if they simply came out of denial, accepted the defeat and moved on.

And it is also a bit much for those who have told us for long enough that 50% + 1 was a clear mandate for independence to see a 55% vote against as anything other than decisive. For those who talked repeatedly of the sovereignty of the Scottish people to question their verdict now. For those who supposedly prize self determination to do anything other than abide by the settled will of the electorate.

I can accept that many are, of course, upset at the result. It’s never easy to take a loss after working hard for a cause over months or years. But some of the language used from the Yes side about those who simply chose to use their vote in a manner they disagree with has been quite shocking. I refuse to repeat the range of epithets here, although I’m sure anyone who inhabits the world of social media will know exactly what I mean.

The two years of the referendum campaign has been a divisive period in Scottish political life. But then a referendum by its very nature is a polarising affair, with only two diametrically opposed outcomes possible. And with a Yes and a No campaign there were always going to be clashes in style as well as in content.

Did the Yes side run the better campaign, as seems to be the conventional wisdom? There is probably some truth in that. It was a different style of campaigning, largely community based in an era of mass media communications. But there was often a sense of campaigners believing in their own hype, caught up in their own rhetoric, and of gatherings that were more about preaching to the converted than winning over the undecided. One nationalist blogger described this as “what we did remarkably well during the #indyref campaign – Yes folk sitting in meetings with other Yes folk agreeing with each other.”

But it is far too simplistic to label one campaign as positive and one as negative. The Yes side put forward a proposition with plenty of emotional appeal but also with massive flaws. And it certainly lost some key arguments during the campaign. The No campaign attacked these inherent weaknesses as it had to do, although I would argue that its balance between questioning the opposition and setting out its own case was wrongly weighted.

From the start of the campaign it was clear that Better Together was not campaigning for the status quo, but rather for a continuation of the devolution process. More powers for the Scottish Parliament were always on the agenda. But the key pledge eventually made by the party leaders should have come earlier in the campaign.

I don’t believe that it was a panic measure. Rather it was something I always expected to happen at some stage. And there is a delicate balance in a campaign between making a big announcement too early and reducing its influence on the result or leaving it too late and being open to a charge of last minute nerves. I think the Better Together campaign and the individual parties involved handled the announcement badly by delaying it far too long – and they will be very relieved that the error was not ultimately a fatal one.

The promises made in the pledge must now be delivered, and I do expect more powers to be devolved on tax raising and spending. It is entirely right that the parties are held to account on this issue – although to hear Alex Salmond talking about a lack of progress on the Sunday morning a mere 48 hours after the result felt just a little much. Lord Smith’s commission will produce a “command paper”, the first part of the process, by the end of October and that will set out the terms of the next stage in the debate.

So the end result of this referendum should be a stronger Scottish Parliament within the UK, as indeed the majority of Scots wanted. The irony remains that the party that will still be governing the devolved Scotland is the one that doesn’t want devolution. And that should make the politics of the next Scottish election in 2016 look very different – although clearly the wider political landscape will first be set by next year’s UK general election.

In the shorter term, we will have a new First Minister following Alex Salmond’s imminent departure. It appears certain that his hand picked successor Nicola Sturgeon will take over, and it remains to be seen whether there will be any amendments to policy or governance style as a result. It seems unlikely, although there may be some further changes to the top team as she looks to the future.

What has undoubtedly changed is the framework of the whole debate about devolution within the UK. The agenda is not now just about how Scotland is governed. Rather there is a wider debate about exactly how a union can operate in a situation where one of its component parts is so much larger than the others. And it has always made sense to me to look at the bigger picture. To seek to create a better and more democratic union rather than walking away from it and starting again.

The referendum process has been a long and bruising one. It has achieved a higher level of political interest and debate than we have seen in many years, as evidenced by the record turnouts in many areas. And that can only be good for our democracy.

Let’s hope that the same energy is now focussed on the positive task of further enhancing our devolution.