Aidan Smith: Steven Gerrard shouldn’t be indulging in whataboutery over sectarian abuse

It was an unfortunate edit. There was Steve Clarke on Friday condemning sectarian abuse, 36 hours after he’d last condemned it. For Sky Sports News this was surely powerful stuff. Normally at that time of day the rolling chitchatterama offered by the station mostly involves a checklist of groin strains. The Kilmarnock manager’s voice was freighted with emotion. At one point I thought he was about to lose it. Then at the very next moment the programme cut back to the studio so the presenter could get on with the important business of previewing Sky’s exclusive coverage of Manchester United vs Liverpool.
Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke and Rangers boss Steven Gerrard. Pic: SNS/Alan HarveyKilmarnock manager Steve Clarke and Rangers boss Steven Gerrard. Pic: SNS/Alan Harvey
Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke and Rangers boss Steven Gerrard. Pic: SNS/Alan Harvey

Production values on SSN are never high-end at the best of times but this interruption was especially clunky. Clarke had just been talking about English reaction to the abuse. He said: “I’ve had so many messages from people in England saying, ‘I saw you on telly, I hope you’re OK.’” Why had they called him? Because England didn’t understand what he dubbed the “Dark Ages” attitudes which blight Scottish football. “That’s a sad reflection on us,” he said, and maybe the abrupt end to the transmission from Rugby Park was another example of the bafflement.

Chants likes those aimed at Clarke at Ibrox on Wednesday night baffle and bother and bewilder. More than that, they kick the spirit around like it was a discarded loyalburger wrapper. They also ruin dreams.

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Right now, Scotland is trying to position itself as a modern, progressive, open, inclusive, big-thinking little country in a world full of big-thinking little countries, all of them proud and ambitious and keen to be noticed as such. Even if you don’t support independence, you’d surely view modern, progressive, open and inclusive as desirable aims. But Clarke being derided as a “sad Fenian bastard” by a section of the 40,000 crowd – and any at all involved in this is too many – was a blow.

In Aylesbury and Westminster and wherever the Labour Party meet now that smoke-filled rooms are banned, there is vicious squabbling. Scotland has ongoing issues but had been hoping that by 2019 sectarian abuse would no longer be one of them. Fat chance. The only saving grace was that the devoutly preserved sanctity of the Champions League meant the game was kept off TV so no one else had to listen to the hateful bile.

Into this little country last summer stepped a man just up from England, Steven Gerrard, pictured. A proper football man, and it’s been good to have him around. He’s box-office and his ex-Liverpool boss being across the city at Celtic adds a juicy sub-plot to the blockbuster which, being in charge of Rangers, this was always going to be.

He’s pushed the club on and, in what is his first job, has rather made a mockery of the fact that Pedro Caixinha held 11 coaching positions before he turned up in Govan. We shouldn’t forget this is Gerrard’s first job, but nevertheless, indulging in whataboutery over the abuse meted out to Clarke hasn’t been a smart move.

Clarke’s initial response to the chanting, right after Killie’s painful exit from the Scottish Cup, was emotive enough to ensure instant inclusion in the quotes compilations which will eventually help tell the story of this year – and if we don’t succeed in ridding football of sectarianism they’ll hang around for longer than that. “I wake up every morning and I thank Chelsea for taking me away from the west [of Scotland],” he said. “My children have nothing to do with this … ”

His denunciation of the bampot element of Rangers support was headline news but then social media started to fill with ripostes pointing out that Clarke hadn’t been so quick to condemn the Celtic fans who’d abused his player Kris Boyd at Rugby Park the previous weekend, and hurled coins at him.

It’s hard to believe that Gerrard on his day off that Sunday was poring over Clarke’s post-match comments to check for such criticisms, or that he was scanning Twitter on the Thursday when Clarke was taken to task for his apparent lack of even-handedness on the matter of sectarian name-calling.

More likely, someone at Ibrox keenly tuned in to the rumblings of the stands had pointed this out to him and suggested it might be worth raising when Gerrard next faced the press, which he duly did.

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Sure, Gerard said “antisocial behaviour” was bad – he didn’t label it sectarianism – but this tit-for-tat showed his callowness, though admittedly the complexities and perversities and knuckle-dragging absurdities of football, Glasgow-style, will do that to many.

Wasn’t Clarke deserving of some clear and heartfelt sympathy from the opposing manager standing just a few feet away as the hatred rained down, rather than the nit-picking and gallery-pleasing stuff?

At least Rangers got their story right on Friday when Dave King, the chairman, came out with a strongly-worded statement in which he didn’t flim-flam: the club “abhor” sectarianism he said, and he used the word. “We are also deeply distressed that Steve Clarke has been subjected to this unwarranted abuse and on behalf of myself and the club, I offer our most sincere apology.” King went on express the hope that such incidents wouldn’t force Clarke out of Scottish football and the statement was so strongly-worded that reading it you half-expected a sign-off offering the Killie boss teddy bears for the kids and a seat at Ibrox in perpetuity, should he want to avail himself of it (unlikely).

Gerrard arrived in Scotland thinking he knew about rivalry. To a certain extent he did and Liverpool vs Everton is a rivalry for sure. But Rangers vs Celtic is on a whole different level and not in a good way. When the two tribes are at their most extreme and really going for it and each other, the level reached is right down in the primordial sludge.

Maybe working here for a while will set up Gerrard for other challenges when I’m sure he’ll make more statesmanlike utterances than he did last week. Meanwhile, the day after he moves on with hardly a backwards glance, we could be stuck in the mud, the big-thinking little country with the giant embarrassment, still struggling to rid ourselves of it.