The BBC recently devoted a programme to highlight and discuss the racism which Rangers’ player, Mark Walters, endured within Scottish football in the late 1980’s. As a Celtic fan it served to bring back sore memories to recall what Mark Walters endured inside Celtic Park back on the afternoon of 2 January 1988, on what was, ironically, his Rangers’ debut. A section of the Jungle enclosure, full of Celtic fans, taunted Mark with racist noises and a number of bananas were aimed in his direction on his beat on Rangers’ left wing. Brother Walfrid would have wept!
In all my years following Celtic (I’m 55 in June) I have never been more mortified or ashamed by the actions of fellow Celtic fans than I was that day. For years we (Celtic fans) were taught by our fathers and grandfathers that creed or colour did not matter and that Celtic were a club open to all. You know the famous quotes from the likes of Willie Maley and Jock Stein. This should obviously have been a courtesy extended to our behaviours towards opposition players. Even Rangers ones.
Celtic fans had never behaved like this before. In the late 1960’s Salif Keita, the noted St Etienne striker, and the great Eusebio of Benfica, had both graced Celtic Park and been accorded the respect and sporting reception they deserved from the Celtic crowd as black footballers. Later on, in the 1980’s, black English internationalists, Laurie Cunningham and Viv Anderson, had appeared in European competition at Parkhead with Real Madrid and Nottingham Forest, respectively, and again were given the reception they deserved for the fine footballers that they were.
So what happened in 1988 that a small number of Celtic fans found it acceptable to racially abuse Mark Walters? At that time there had been a lot of coverage from English football where this kind of behaviour was shown towards black players in English games, particularly those involving Chelsea. People who have racist undertones are generally not the brightest and that small section of the Celtic support decide to imitate what they’d seen down south although this does not for one moment excuse that sort of behaviour. It’s similar these days to when Celtic ‘Ultras’ ape what they see in Europe, such as the banners unfurled by masked individuals outside Celtic Park or Lennoxtown, blasting out warnings to either the board or the team. Insidious behaviour, but it’s what they’ve seen from European Ultras through the years and they are merely copying what they’ve seen done elsewhere.
There was one good thing to come from the Mark Walters affair. Since then there has been no occasion, to my knowledge, when Celtic fans have taunted any player due to his colour of skin. There has been a strong element of self-policing amongst the Celtic support in forthcoming years. On a personal level, I recall a game at Starks Park in 1995 when a few Celtic fans were subjecting the Raith winger Tony Rougier (a fine player who Tommy Burns was desperate to sign for Celtic) to disgusting racist comments. Another group of Celtic fans objected strongly and there was a stand off until police intervened. The racism then stopped and wasn’t repeated. In these days of all seated stadia, fans just need to discretely point out racist fans to stewards or police and know it will be dealt with immediately. Happily, we have moved on a lot since then. I cannot now imagine any black player having to contend with what Mark Walters, sadly, had to endure at Celtic Park in 1988.
What might have made a better programme for the BBC was the case of Paul Wilson, a notable Celtic player from the period of 1970 to 1978. Paul was mixed race with a Scottish father and an Indian mother. My formative years were in the 1970’s and I can’t recall seeing any black people in Glasgow. There were certainly people of Asian origin within the city but black people of Afro- Caribbean backgrounds mainly settled in London, Birmingham or Manchester and never really ventured towards Glasgow. As far as football goes, Clyde Best of West Ham was the only black player I can recall before the upsurge of black players within the English game in the late 1970’s such as the afore mentioned pairing of Laurie Cunningham and Viv Anderson. There were no black players in Scotland but Paul Wilson stood out due to his mixed race background. It’s funny but, as a boy, I never regarded Paul as being a different colour from his Celtic team mates. And yet he was subjected to abhorrent racist abuse on a scale far worse than Mark Walters ever endured.
Paul Wilson had racist comments and chants aimed at him at a few grounds, but by far the worse that was aimed at him came from Rangers fans. In the days when the big Glasgow derby games had an almost 50-50 split of supporters, Rangers supporters, upwards of 25,000 strong, would chant in unison ‘Wilson’s a darkie!’ In some form of misguided humour they also copied a popular TV advert for a brand of salted peanuts by chanting ‘Paul Wilson – he’s jungle fresh’, which many people from the 1970’s will recall.
There was certainly no media condemnation for this form of racist behaviour within the Scottish game and Paul Wilson was left to endure it. He did have vociferous backing from the Celtic support and Paul took great delight in scoring and performing well in games against Rangers. It seemed the louder the offensive chants were aimed at him, then the more Paul was inspired to do well. From the 1973 Harry Hood League Cup semi-final to the 1977 Andy Lynch, Scottish Cup final, Paul enjoyed many fine games against Rangers and he was a hugely popular player with the Celtic support. However, it appears that the considerable abuse which Paul suffered has now been conveniently forgotten and confined to the annals of time.
It’s noticeable that in the BBC programme, they never questioned Mark Walters about singing anti Catholic songs in the Rangers dressing room or the tasteless act of wearing sectarian loyalist band uniforms. If the BBC are looking for an idea for another programme they could consider making one about a well known footballing personality based in the Glasgow footballing melting pot, who has been attacked in public in the street, attacked inside a stadium, had death threats posted to him, had an explosive sent to him through by post, and had graffiti spread across Glasgow saying that he should be hung. Racism is a terrible thing, whether it involves Mark Walters or Paul Wilson, and must never be tolerated and always called out. However, the horrible realisation for Scotland is that sectarianism is a far bigger problem within this country than racism ever was, only no one will actually admit to it and face up to the facts.