Saturday, 11 November 2000

A rivalry that makes the Old Firm seem friendly

                                                                                                                            By Bernard Thompson
Irish Times online edition
It's that time of the season again in Scotland. The country's most bitter rivalry resurfaces with a league match that brings together the two sets of fans who reserve a special degree of contempt for each other.

The teams in question are, of course, Rangers and Aberdeen.
Black and White?: Controversy rages on about this tackle

For more than a decade these two sides have maintained a level of hostility that would make the relationship between Celtic and Rangers seem to be tame in comparison.

It would be naďve to say that the Old Firm fans have developed a healthy regard for each other - football related murders remain too fresh in the memory for that. But the antipathy between followers of the Dons and the Ibrox side regularly plumbs depths that would shock and bemuse most outside observers.

In preparation for Sunday's match at Pittodrie, another unsavoury incident occurred, on cue, with the likely result being a Rangers visit to the Granite City that will be brimming with vitriol.

This week, Aberdeen officials were forced to make their excuses for an unregulated forum, on the club's official website, in which fans had made distasteful remarks about the tragic deaths of two Rangers supporters in a weekend road accident. It was just the latest in a series of antagonisms that have often puzzled onlookers searching for its origin.

Although Aberdeen's visits to Glasgow had been highly charged affairs since the days of Alex Ferguson, commentators usually cite 1988, and the injury of Ian Durrant, as the birthdate of the real hatred.

One of British football's most promising midfielders at the time, he suffered at the hands of Neil Simpson, who seemed to stamp on Durrant's knee as he went in for a tackle. Durrant's recovery was slow and painful and he was never to achieve the same level of performance that had preceded the injury. While Rangers fans rallied round him, Aberdeen supporters felt that Simpson was unreasonably vilified during the protracted court case that followed, resulting in a Ł225,000 award of damages.

As a result, Aberdeen fans indulged in regular taunts, relating to Durrant's misfortune. The player himself recalled, in his autobiography, that when pictures of his new baby son appeared in the newspapers, an Aberdeen fan sent him a copy of a photograph with a bandage drawn on the child's knee.

There have been numerous other incidents. David Murray was forced to distance himself and Rangers from an unofficial fan magazine that had used its pages to urge Rangers supporters to "pay a visit" to an Aberdeen pub, which was a notorious haunt for the North-East clubs' fans. The management of the bar in question had announced to the media that they had installed new perspex urinals, which would have Rangers videos playing behind them.

More recently, Murray was forced to take action with regard to the Rangers' official match programme describing an element of the Aberdeen support as "scum".

Another occasion saw a well known Rangers-supporting comedian being attacked on the Ibrox pitch, as he led the home supporters in a song on one of Aberdeen's visits to Ibrox.

The upshot of this has been a degree of paranoia surrounding both sets of supporters where the other side is concerned. Aberdeen's poor performances against Celtic over recent years have led to absurd accusations from Rangers fans of them "lying down".

Those with this conviction seem unaware of the fact that the Dons' competitive performances against Rangers are probably directly inspired by the acrimony that such claims cause.

On the other side, Aberdeen fans complained that when David Murray urged Rangers fans to buy orange Netherlands shirts for last season's Scottish Cup Final against Aberdeen, it was a direct incitement to violence. And the decision, by the SFA, to refuse Aberdeen an equal share of tickets for the same match did nothing to improve relations.

There have been lighter moments. Dick Advocaat, oblivious to the history of ill-feeling between clubs, made the mistake of claiming there was little difference between playing Aberdeen and Greenock Morton, when stating his case for a 16-team league. The remark was received with customary indignation.

However, the incidents which can be greeted with amusement have been few and far between. The aforementioned goading on the Internet is more typical.

If Aberdeen manage to secure a result on Sunday which will further damage Rangers defence of the Championship, a gleeful reception from the Pittodrie followers will be guaranteed. However, in the climate of hatred that exists between the clubs, it is never certain that the talking points will concern the football.

Thursday, 9 November 2000

Jefferies departs amid uncertainty at Tynecastle

By Bernard Thompson

Published in Irish Time online edition,

As supporters of Heart of Midlothian come to terms with the departure of their manager, Jim Jefferies, the reactions are of anger, frustration and disappointment, but not surprise. On winning Hearts' first major trophy for 36 years with a Scottish Cup win, in 1998, there was optimism at the club that they were finally making substantial progress on the field.

However, neither the Cup success, nor a major sponsorship deal was to signal a sustained challenge to their domestic game's established order. Last year, the Scottish Media Group, invested £8m in Hearts, with the promise from Chief Executive, Chris Robinson, was that half of that amount would be spent on players. In fact, less than £2m went on transfer fees, with the club arguing that a similar sum was allotted to player salaries. This infuriated supporters, who felt that they had been betrayed.

In a catastrophic failure of communication, Robinson appeared to be back-peddling from his earlier promises and it is clear that Jefferies had been under the same illusion as the supporters. Instead, after believing that he would be in a position to sign players of greater stature, Jefferies would be further dismayed to find that financial problems meant the gradual disintegration of his playing squad.

Since the Cup win, Neil McCann, Paul Ritchie, David Weir and, most recently, Gary Naysmith have left the club, representing much of the core talent at Jefferies disposal. The departure of Colin Cameron has been seen as inevitable since the season began, and it has been made clear to Darren Jackson that the club cannot afford to honour a contractual clause, guaranteeing him a one year extension. By any measure, Jefferies was in an irresolvable position.

The extent of Hearts, financial difficulties were indicated with the revelation, earlier in the season, that the club was attempting to manage losses of £250,000 per month. Clearly, this meant little prospect of improvement and an offer by former Chairman, Leslie Deans, to invest £2.25m in the club led to increased acrimony.

Again, Jefferies was in the middle of a situation that was outwith his control. Deans is a friend and admirer of Jefferies but his offer was dependent on the removal of Robinson, who had been known to be lukewarm in his support of the manager. The claim that Robinson had proposed dismissing Jefferies infuriated fans and was roundly criticised in the media, where a drama of personalities was increasingly represented.

For Robinson, who remains defiant in his statements, the question of Jefferies future has always seemed to be critical to his role within the club. Robinson's support in the boardroom still holds.

However, the warmth generated by his relationship with the fans approaches absolute zero and yesterday's events will surely test the resolve of the directors. Meanwhile the comments by Paul Ritchie, now with Manchester City, that no one can succeed at the club while Robinson remains, reflect an opinion that is widely held.

The timing of Jefferies' resignation, on the same day that Stuart McCall announced that he had no wish to manage Bradford City has caused some people to link the two events. Jefferies may well go to Bradford - he must be a strong candidate - but, unquestionably, his commitment to Hearts was total. If the availability of the Premiership club's position had any bearing on his decision, it is unlikely that there were any sinister dealings, as the club's agreeing to pay him for the remainder of his contract would indicate.

But he was also aware that his own reputation was at stake. Results have been mixed and there have been recent fan protests outside Tynecastle. Jefferies will have been well aware that it was better to leave while the supporters remained solidly behind him than risk his own credibility with further decline and he had voiced concerns over the security of his position, earlier in the season.

He will also be aware that the timing of his departure was astute, in terms of the club politics. The shouting matches by fans outside the ground had been in addition to a red card protest during a recent match with St Johnstone. Again, Robinson was the main target of abuse.

With Jefferies having stated his desire to return to Hearts in the future, the pressure on Robinson and the Board of Directors is intense. The touted appointment of former player, Craig Levein, might buy a degree of goodwill but it is difficult to see how he could improve on Jefferies achievements.

Last night, the protesters were not concerned with results and performances but were a highly inflamed group of supporters reacting to a situation which, as far as they are concerned, has clearly defined heroes and villains. In the last three years, Hearts have experienced the good and the bad. Now they must prepare for the truly ugly.