Northern Ireland news

Sectarianism 'more an issue in Scottish than Irish football'

Chants of "sad Fenian b******" could be heard echoing around Ibrox stadium

SECTARIAN abuse of players, managers and rivals is now a greater issue in football in Scotland than in the Northern Ireland soccer scene, it has been claimed.

Political commentators have noted the "irony" that fans of Scottish clubs continue to fight over largely Irish issues, when the local game had made efforts to rid the sport of sectarianism.

In the most recent incident, Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke this week faced abuse during his side's cup match with Rangers.

Chants of "sad Fenian b******" could be heard echoing around Ibrox stadium.

Clarke acknowledged the abuse by aiming a thumbs-up at the home support but could barely contain his anger afterwards, accusing supporters of living in "the Dark Ages".

Hearts manager Craig Levein backed his fellow boss for refusing to accept the flak, saying it was "a societal problem".

Kilmarnock captain Kris Boyd also said he was subjected to sectarian abuse during a match against Celtic last Sunday.

Brendan Crossan: GAA must do more to address 'British' and 'Queen' taunts towards northern players 

Other recent incidents include Celtic being hit with a fine over a pro-IRA banner waved by fans in a Champions League match in 2017.

Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke during the cup match at Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow

Mark Langhammer, vice-chairman of Crusaders FC, said Scotland appeared to have "an entrenched sectarianism present within football".

"What Steve Clarke faced at Ibrox was unacceptable on any level. The local game has made changes, but anti-sectarianism remains a work in progress," he said.

"No Irish League fan could pretend not to have heard similar comments, even today, so we can't be complacent. Most clubs now understand that increasing attendances at games requires a welcoming, family-friendly, safe and passionate stadium environment, but without the trappings of political, sectarian or national allegiance. Football aside, that's what brings people back as spectators and we can't compromise on that.

"At Crusaders, notwithstanding extensive efforts within long-standing community relations projects such as Mes Que un Club, still face isolated incidents. We had to bar a so-called supporter for abusive sectarian language after a game at Solitude last year."

Mes Que un Club was a five-year, sustained initiative between Crusaders FC and Newington FC to develop mutual understand and tackle sectarianism through sport - involving more than 50 schools.

"Overall, though, sectarian and racist abuse is less prevalent. The Irish FA's efforts, led by Michael Boyd's Football for All campaign have been very positive, but the more recent and insensitive insistence on playing the UK national anthem at an Irish Cup final was an unnecessary step backwards," Mr Langhammer added.

"We, at Crusaders are about to embark upon a structured programme with our friends and rivals, Cliftonville - focussed on our young players, their parents and fans - but we need more. Sterling grassroots initiative to combat sectarianism need to be backed-up by actions by the most senior administrators in the game."

Political commentator and football fan Chris Donnelly said there was "an irony in the fact that sectarian chanting on the terraces, as well as attacks on players and managers, is more of a feature in Scottish football today than in Irish League football".

While many Irish League clubs continued to be perceived as being supported by fan bases primarily from one community or the other, he said, sectarian incidents had been few and far between over many years.

"Areas of contention still remain though - witness the Irish League's decision to reverse an earlier policy decision and play the British national anthem prior to Irish Cup finals and in relation to minute's silences for games played on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday," he added.

"On a positive note, the return of Irish League football to the Brandywell could not have gone any better, and fans travelling to and from grounds rarely attracts the attention it did in the past."

Mr Donnelly added that no one figure straddled the two worlds of football in Scotland and the north quite like former Celtic player and manager Neil Lennon.

"His international career for NI was cut short after he received a death threat, and he was assaulted on and off the field as a player and manager by sectarian thugs," he said.

"There is an onus on Scottish football authorities to deal decisively with the issue. Steve Clarke's comments, in particular, should act as a wake up call."

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