Friday, May 16, 2008

Scots' broth a bit rich for England

They came, they saw, they conquered Manchester.

But the first Scottish invasion of England since Bonnie Prince Charlie's in 1745 ended in tears once again.

Rangers were deservedly beaten 2-0 in the UEFA Cup Final by the sleek Russians of Zenit St Petersburg, coached by former 'Gers manager Dick Advocaat.

Zenit took 72 minutes to unlock the stubborn Rangers defence, but it was no more than they deserved for their skilful play, which had demolished Bayern Munich 5-1 on aggregate in the semi-finals.

The Glaswegians should console themselves with reaching the final in the first place, after dispatching superior opposition such as Sporting Lisbon and Fiorentina on the way thanks to Walter Smith's shrewd tactics.

Once more, the UEFA Cup looked decidedly second best to the Champions League however. Since the second, third and even fourth-best teams in each country have won passsge to the CL, the UEFA Cup has lost a lot of its shine. Its interminable group stages are redolent of the misguided experiment taken by the Champions League in the early 1990s.

What made this final go down in history was instead the violence outside the stadium pre and post-match.

It is hard to recall the last time a British city-centre witnessed such distressing scenes of football-related trouble, such have been the leaps in improving the game's image since the dark days of the 1980s. Perhaps the riot in Trafalgar Square in London after England were knocked out of Euro '96 was the last.

There might have been over 100,000 well-behaved Rangers supporters in Manchester, but their club's whole reputation was sullied by the few hundred who decided to get violent after a big screen failed to work. To cite that as an excuse for lobbing missiles, smashing cars, looting shops and attacking policemen was ludicrous but several fans unbelievably tried to justify the prolonged violence.

The dynamite was certainly sitting there primed given the numbers of fans, warm weather and the fact that Glaswegians are tough by nature, are fond of the odd drink (central Manchester ran dry by 4pm) and Rangers then lost the game. So tragic then that an unforeseeable technical failure should have been the spark for such ugly mayhem.

Thank god the worst injuries were only bruises and a knife wound. At least now we in England will have some ammunition to return the repetitive Scottish accusations of blame when it comes to hooliganism.

For years now the Tartan Army has sought to distance itself from the misbehaving Sassenachs south of the border when it comes to international football games. Having witnessed it myself, I can vouch for the fact that watching Scotland play overseas is an immeasurably more pleasant experience than watching England.

While the English invariably end up causing some trouble, whether provoked by the police and local thugs or not, the Scots these days always make friends and have a good time with their hosts. In one foreign country, I even saw the local coppers asking to pose for photos with the kilted invaders.

Claims that the Scots have always been lillywhite are all a bit rich however, when one recalls the yearly violence of the Scotland v England clash in the 1970s and '80s, most famously encapsulated by Scottish fans tearing up the turf and breaking the crossbar at Wembley in 1977.

Only in the dark days of English 1980s hooliganism did the Tartan Army decide to distance itself in foreign eyes from their neighbours to the south.

That Rangers yobs ran amok in Manchester is thus a black mark on Scottish football culture in general, after so many years of good PR.

One can only wonder if the boneheads charging after a policeman before bringing him down and kicking him mercilessly, as so horrifically captured on CCTV in Manchester, could care less what others think of their neanderthal comportment.

Rangers fans have a repuation in the rest of the soccer world for being headcases - belligerently sporting the Union Jack and Ulster flags instead of Scotland's while chanting of being 'up to our knees in Fenian blood - surrender or you'll die!'

Doubtless, those in the know will recall city rivals Celtic invading Seville in vast numbers for the 2003 UEFA Cup Final but without such excruciating scenes in the streets.

I felt ashamed to see the UK's being sported so prominently on the backs of those hoodlums, knowing the pictures would go around Europe and many viewers would mistakenly think it was England's flag instead. You can bet half of them are Scottish nationalists too and don't understand it is silly to be flying the Union flag at the same time.

To the good Rangers fans who obeyed the law, thank you and I regret you lost the final. To the yobs who caused so much misery in Manchester, thank you for dragging all British football fans' reputations internationally into the mire once again.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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