This is an excerpt from Martyn Ramsay’s excellent new book.
Buy it direct from Heart and Hand or anywhere you can buy books.
Giving Up the Ghost
‘This is a quantum change in Scottish football and possibly in Scottish society.’
Brian Wilson MP
‘Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.’
Gustav Mahler, composer
Sensationalist hysteria is just everyday language for tabloid newspapers and football fans but on 10 July 1989, everyone could be forgiven for indulging in hyperbole. Some of the scarf-burning, season ticket-destroying and wreath-laying for the demise of Rangers Football Club outside Ibrox that week was a media stunt but there is no question that the impact of the signing was deeply felt, initially at least, by a support who had been lapping up the new success while also being wary of Graeme Souness’s declaration from the outset that he would sign a Roman Catholic if the right player became available. Jock Wallace had said similar, one fan remarked to a television crew outside Kilbowie Stadium before the first game of Walter Smith’s temporary charge against Clydebank, but nothing had ever come of that. Most would have known that Souness was unlikely to pay such lip service to the matter in reality but none could have imagined who that first player would be. It was the man in question who really set fire to that Scottish summer.
Many fans vowed never to return, as the Rangers that they knew – deeply bound by tradition – was over. One was filmed for BBC Scotland’s Reporting Scotland in a Rangers pub that day with his replica top on, which he said was his ‘last act of defiance because I’ll certainly not be wearing it any more’. Another was in such a hurry to rush to Ibrox from his workplace to confirm that the rumours were true that he hadn’t removed his hard hat, his welder’s goggles still resting on them. He told STV that he would have to think about whether or not he would be back and when pushed, admitted that the reason was because of Maurice Johnston’s religion. Others told reporters such as The Scotsman’s Neil Drysdale that ‘hell would freeze over ’before they would return to Ibrox and ‘put money into that wee Fenian bastard’s back pocket’.
Most fans dealt pragmatically with the reality facing Rangers – especially with the increasing need to find the best Scottish talent available regardless of background – and concluded that if they were going to have to sign one, then it might as well be one of the best. The fact that Celtic were left shattered by the signing, once play got under way again, softened the reaction considerably. Sporting oneupmanship counted for more than religion in the end.
There was a time when it genuinely wouldn’t have. The story of the Old Firm origins and their sectarian connections is the subject for an entire book, some of which out there are sharp and engaging and others wildly overblown, as if 1930s Glasgow was like living under the Third Reich. It is not the purpose of this chapter to plot the full history of this infamous tale but there are several things that need to be highlighted, so as to best understand the impact on this era and beyond. The most important of which is that, for large parts of the 20th century, Rangers and Celtic were a genuine cultural expression of a genuine religious identity.
Identity is at the heart of it all. How people saw themselves, and how they wanted the world to see them, mattered a great deal. After the dust had settled on the Glorious Revolution, the Act of Union, the Jacobite rebellions and the Highland clearances, late-18th century Scottish identity was firmly wrapped in the Calvinist Kirk. ‘To be Scottish was to be Protestant, ’it was said. According to Sandy Jamieson, fewer than 100 Catholics were thought to have lived in Glasgow in 1790. By 1850, following waves of immigration from the west, a quarter of the city’s population was Irish Catholic.
Like any relatively sudden shift in demographic, it wasn’t smooth sailing. Theological differences were hotly debated and folk tales of burning ancestors were shared with a passionate zeal, but in a practical sense the consequences were acute. The Protestant fear and mistrust manifested itself mainly in employment discrimination, as unions sought to protect the Protestant working class in skilled trades and professions and the Catholic insecurity was characterised by a kind of ghettoisation with communities closed off by separate education – state funded since 1918 – and a decree on mixed marriage in 1907 that, if it had to happen at all, that any children produced must be raised within the church of Rome. Religion mattered.
One of the biggest sectarian riots of all was not at Ibrox, Parkhead, Hampden or even in Glasgow, but in Edinburgh in 1935 when 20,000 supporters of the Protestant Action Society stoned and jeered 10,000 catholic attendees at a Eucharist Congress. Ireland’s role in the First World War and the introduction of the Protestant-dominated Belfast firm Harland and Wolff to Clydeside only intensified the temperature by adding questions of political and national identity to the religious one.
So often sport acts a substitute for war for those not involved in the real thing or when words and articles of faith don’t do the trick, and it was no different in Glasgow. The explosion in mass popular appeal for football with the introduction of the half day of work on a Saturday and its combative and combustible style made it the perfect vehicle on to which communities could project their identity and have their heroes win their battles for them on a Saturday afternoon. There has been some academic debate about whether Celtic, formed in 1887 by a Marist priest called Brother Walfrid, were started for sectarian or pious reasons, with all seemingly missing the obvious point that the two are rarely mutually exclusive. It is both possible and probable that there were strong motivations to provide the Catholic poor of the East End a sporting focal point and belonging as well as being driven by a concern about them mixing with Protestant men in soup kitchens and being converted to the reformed faith. The fear of apostasy is never far from Christian charity. Of less debate is what happened next.
The initial startling success of the ‘Irishmen ’led a Protestant call around the country for their own contenders. By the 1920s, it was clear that Bill Struth’s successful Rangers – with their strong Protestant Clydeside roots, ingrained work ethic and Presbyterian rigour – would be the ideal candidate. All over Scotland, Rangers became the natural team of thousands and so started a trend – still in place to this day – where buses would leave all parts of the country to head for Ibrox. Religion and politics were now firmly made manifest in sport.
It was there that Rangers ’signing policy – or what should really be called a practice – began in earnest whereby they would not knowingly employ a Roman Catholic so as to ensure that this identity grew even stronger. Catholic players Laurie Blyth and Don Kichenbrand were signed in 1950 and 1955 respectively but their religion was not known at the time and their Ibrox careers were shortened soon after it became apparent. Even association with popery by marriage caused players problems such was the case with Alex Ferguson and Graham Fyfe. Sometimes a Catholic-sounding name was enough which explains why Rangers passed on Danny McGrain, much to Celtic’s benefit. Any attempts at overtly preserving a Catholic line-up at Parkhead were dismissed by the Celtic board in 1895 and the club have made capital on that ecumenical stance ever since. The pragmatic truth is that Celtic could ill afford to limit their selection pool to such a small section of Scottish society.
That same openness struggled to make it to the levels of senior management and the stewardship of the club, however, with Jock Stein – a Protestant from a staunch Rangers family but who had played for Celtic with distinction – leaving his reserve coach post in tears after being told that his religion would likely prevent him getting the top job. Eventually it didn’t – only after he had shown exceptional promise as manager of Dunfermline – but there was never to be a post-managerial reward as a director. The best that the greatest figure in the club’s history could be offered was the chance to run the Celtic Pools. By the time Maurice Johnston signed for Rangers, Celtic were yet to have a Protestant on their board.
As the 20th century developed at pace, Rangers ’stance looked increasingly indefensible both legally and morally. It was a discriminatory position for an employer to take but, perhaps uniquely in employment or equality law, the critics were not the ones queuing up demanding to be given a job. The pragmatic approach that Rangers took – on the rare occasion anyone spoke candidly in public on the matter – was that it was effectively an abstract argument. Of course it was possible to sign a Catholic, but who would want to do it and what would Rangers really gain from it? Signing and playing are two different things and playing well, with commitment, is an entirely different ball game altogether. Would a Scottish player from an Irish Catholic background really give everything for the cause? Would they bleed blue when the going got tough? For a club and a support who historically eulogise hard workers who had run about a great deal but always had a caveat ready for those with a degree of flair and who could find a team-mate with an accurate pass, it was a fair question.
Or at least, it used to be. In the eras of Struth, Symon and Wallace – where commitment and effort was venerated above all else – scepticism about what a player who had grown up supporting Celtic would give them came from a reasonable place. As the 1990s approached, however, the Johnston signing demonstrated that this was now a bygone era and with it, a huge myth was blown away. This particular taboo, like mixed marriage generations before, was an imaginary construct; something that couldn’t possibly happen until it does and then everyone eventually shrugs and gets on with their lives. Technically Graeme Souness made good on his promise within two months of arriving. John Spencer was actually the first Catholic he signed, Rangers ’first – knowingly – since the First World War. He had signed schoolboy forms in 1982, leading to some members of his family refusing to speak to him again, and he became a professional in the summer of 1986. John Greig had said in a television interview in the same year that this was probably the best way for Rangers to break the barrier, with some young Catholic players easing their way in. For some reason the signing of Spencer wasn’t deemed worthy by the outside world. It had to be a big one.
Maurice Johnston was perfect casting. The product of a mixed marriage – his father a Protestant Rangers fan but who followed his mother’s faith and went to a Catholic school – he revelled in playing for his boyhood heroes before he got professionally restless and then rejected their advances for the more difficult but rewarding option. What is more – and this is the most important part of this whole saga – is that he gave his all for Rangers in the two full seasons that he was at the club. This was what professional footballers now did and that is what generations of supporters struggled to comprehend. Fans see themselves in every player signed because we see them as living our dreams, not theirs. It was the Rangers support’s inability to conceive of giving their all for Celtic that distorted their perspective.
It is also important to note that the religious tag Johnston carried was nominal. He practised no religion at all in reality and in that respect, he personified modern Scotland. At one stroke the Johnston signing made football fans realise that religion no longer mattered when it came to scoring goals but also gave rise to a renewed academic interest in the subject, where extreme conclusions generated the greater research funding. Scottish academia had finally discovered the hot topic of sectarianism just as secularisation was taking hold and as a result, would fan new, phantom flames just as the real ones had been slowly dying out without the same kind of attention. Perhaps making up for lost time, a fresh Catholic persecution complex with little basis was given far more credence in universities and the media than a firmly justified one decades earlier ever did. One lesson was clear from the Johnston fallout: whether supported by evidence or not, sectarianism sells.
On the day of the signing, Labour MP and Celtic author Brian Wilson did the rounds of television news stations. After starting with criticism towards Johnston for the way the Celtic deal had collapsed – the relevance of which on this particular story was not entirely clear – he was positive about the implications of the move for Scottish society. Could MoJo wearing blue really heal Scotland’s deep religious division? Cooler heads may have argued that, by 1989, it didn’t need to. The religious divide was dissolving and it had been since the 1960s with greater secularisation, mixed marriage and equality in employment all taking effect. Only 17 per cent of Scots regularly attended church in 1984 and by 2016 that was down to 7.2 per cent, just under half of whom were over 65 years old.
Even the number of people who would bother to nominally refer to themselves as religious had dropped in every census taken over the last 40 years. By its very definition, religious hatred cannot be expressed with a shrug. Religious bigotry requires religious zealots. And yet, despite the increasing apathy towards the supernatural, an imaginary theological hatred and fervour would be held responsible for a great many of modern Scotland’s ills in the 1990s, from political nepotism to violence, on and off the football field. In 1995, following his imaginary playing of a flute in a pre-season friendly – the result of a dressing room practical joke – The Guardian genuinely feared that Paul Gascoigne might derail the Northern Ireland peace process and perhaps the apotheosis came in 2011 when a story about two football managers arguing on the touchline was found to be just cause for commencing a summit on sectarianism in the Scottish Parliament.
It was something of a nonsense. For there to be religious hatred – such a passionate term – religion has to play a significant role at the centre of life. It once did and, as such, Scotland was a deeply sectarian country for the latter half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Manifestations of that religious identity – politics, sport and culture – could therefore be fairly tarred with that particular brush. The population did see them as emblematic of a genuine tear in the fabric of society. Once that root motivation disappears, however, those arguments become hollow. Sir Tom Devine, one of the leading academics on the subject, has argued for some time now that the experiences of the major religious groups in terms of discrimination and hate crimes, are ‘exceptionally similar’. But still, the old folk mythology is so hard for so many to give up completely.
A large part of that is down to the very visible pantomime that football so readily provides us with. Attend any Old Firm game now or over the last 30 years and you would be forgiven for thinking that the Kirk and the Chapel still dominated thousands of lives with some of the songs and iconography on show. But it is dress-up. A sort of postmodern community signing. A way for people to feel a part of something bigger, even just for an afternoon. A nod to the history that made the fixture what it is, when practically all that is left in the modern world is just the football.
Almost all. It is fair to say that the other development of this deep historical religious identity – political and national identity – is still alive and well and it remains strongly represented by the two fanbases. As the theological disputes waned in the late 1960s, they were replaced by the increasingly violent politics of Ulster. Songs became more political and xenophobic than overtly religious but, even to this day, there is still an element of paramilitary cosplay about the whole performance. The Troubles didn’t make their way to Scotland, despite genuine fears at the time, but unionism and republicanism, with some Scottish nationalism thrown into the mix for good measure, are still a valid touchstone for a significant proportion of supporters. These are issues that still divide us. These are, at least, real.
But, although their roots are in religious conflict, can we really say with a straight face that, in an overwhelmingly secular country, these displays are evidence of a religious hatred? Of course not. Certainly not now and arguably not even when Johnston sat down in that Blue Room for the first time. For much of the century there would have been a riot at Ibrox after such a signing. A boycott by fans would have stuck. As always, people’s actions are more indicative than their words. When it came down to it, the true-blue loyal Rangers support didn’t really care about his religion at all. Which should be unsurprising when religion was a significant part of life for so few of them. You simply cannot have a problem with religious hatred when so few care about religion in the first place.
More accurately there was, and arguably still is, an issue with political sectarianism and xenophobia, one where the future of Scotland and the Union and the potential unification of Ireland still matters to many. But to define the situation more appropriately would bring others into the conversation outside of the Old Firm. Fans of other Scottish clubs react to the perceived positions of both Glasgow clubs on constitutional affairs and with plenty of passion, vitriol and abusive language to boot. The appetite for widening the net of blame appears to be very light as would characterising Barcelona v Real Madrid, Boca Juniors v River Plate or Galatasaray v Fenerbahçe – all of which have a political division at the heart their story – in exactly the same way.
Instead, they simply represent the colour and passion of the beautiful game, something that Rangers and Celtic are rarely allowed to do. Despite hooliganism and violence scarring the game in cities all over the world, criminality surrounding the Old Firm is almost always reported as being faith-based and not because far too many people place far too much emotional fortune at the feet of strangers and that the resulting tension, when mixed with drink and drugs, becomes too much.
The most vociferous reaction to the Johnston move was from Celtic fans – Mo’s father was attacked on the weekend of his first appearance for Rangers – but, if it was any other two clubs involved, this would be rationally explained without the need to reference excommunication and transubstantiation. The following summer, the Johnston affair was made to look very small-time when Florence burned after Roberto Baggio was sold to Juventus. The Fiorentina support hate Juventus – the establishment club of Italy – and this deal was treated like treason. In reality the Celtic rage was fuelled more by a sense of footballing disloyalty and justified fear about what that could now mean on the park. Football rivalries exist the world over – many with an old grudge as their origin story – and this beautiful irrationality is sold as part of the charm. Looking too closely at that – at what makes calm, professional people lose their minds in crowds of 60,000 or 6,000, at the top level or the bottom tier – is understandably resisted because it would likely include the inquisitor themselves. Far easier, then, to blame the pantomime villains.
The footballing benefits were obvious but what did the signing of Maurice Johnston do to Scottish society? Rather than an event that changed attitudes because it happened, it was more an event that could only happen because attitudes had already changed. It was symbolic of what was possible in 1989 but would have been almost impossible in 1959. What came after the signing – the effort, the desire and the success – was a necessary encore to the main event. Gustav Mahler almost certainly did not come up with that tradition aphorism himself, it would have been one that he rephrased, but his intentions were positive. The composer who bridged the romantic and modern eras of classical music warned against worshipping the past for its own sake. Such action is lazy and safe. Instead we should hold on to the creative spirit that has been passed down to us and change the form if necessary.
The Johnston signing perhaps exemplified that observation perfectly. Those fans who worshipped the faded and hollow practices of the past because they were shared by their own imagined communities were only fooling themselves when they defiantly predicted that a ‘true-blue ’team would still be able to succeed in modern football. Instead, this important chapter of Rangers ’modernisation was evidence of the management preserving the fire of the original founders story and the best qualities of those who kept it burning for 120 years, by ensuring that sporting excellence was all that mattered.
Outside of football, however, in universities and editorial rooms throughout Scotland, a new industry was born from the sensationalism of the Johnston transfer that sought to relight the fires of the past, instead of stamping on their ashes. Those new flames may have been theatrical special effects, but – for those who came into contact with them – they could still burn.
 He would do something similar at Parkhead in January 1998 and ex-Celtic midfielder and now pundit Davie Provan would again raise fears that it could destabilise the good work that was being done in constitutional negotiations. It did not.
 By this point Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon were in charge of Rangers and Celtic but it is hard to think of another case whereby a fairly common occurrence on the sports field would lead to a parliamentary inquest into theological tensions.