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Fran Sandaza interview opens up old wounds of Sectarianism at Rangers

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ibrox1Sectarianism reared its ugly head once more this week when Rangers striker Francisco Sandaza told Spanish paper AS that he was advised not to cross himself before matches.

He was quoted as saying: “Am I a Catholic? I’m not talking about that. Is it strange to play for a Protestant club? That is not something football should be concerned about. But on my first day I was advised not to cross myself before matches.

“It’s not a subject that worries me too much. I’m at Rangers, a historic club and one that will return to the highest level very soon.”

Despite the Spaniard’s claims, Rangers denied that they had influenced Sandaza to not bless himself, an Ibrox source told the Daily Record: “It has never been the club’s policy to advise players on this type of thing and it never will be.”

While it may not sound a huge deal to outsiders, the fact that a current Rangers player has stated that he was told not to bless himself before matches opens the old wounds of sectarianism at Rangers Football Club.

Rangers’ sectarian signing policy

“Historically Rangers have maintained a staunch Protestant and anti-Catholic tradition which includes a ban on signing Catholic players.”
– Giulanotti, R., 1999: Football: A Sociology of the Global Game.

It is a well-known fact that Rangers had an anti-catholic signing policy and burst into public view in the 1960s. Speaking in 1967, then vice chairman of Rangers Matt Taylor was asked of the club’ no Catholic signing policy, he was quoted as saying that the policy was ‘part of our tradition….we were formed in 1873 as a Protestant boys club. To change now would lose us considerable support’.

Of course there were Catholics at the club, as Ibrox club records tell us, but no high-profile ones until Maurice Johnston signed for the club in 1989.

Before the end of World War One, Rangers had Pat Lafferty (1886), Tom Dunbar (1891–1892), J Tutty (1899–1900), Archie Kyle (1904–1908), Willie Kivlichan (1906–1907), Colin Mainds (1906–1907), Tom Murray (1907–1908), William Brown (1912), Joe Donnachie (circa.1914–1918) and John Jackson (1917) at the club. And prior to Johnston’s signing the club had Laurie Blyth (1951–1952), Don Kitchenbrand (1955–1956), Hugh O’Neill (1976) and John Spencer (1985–1992). Between 1872 and 1989, a total of 117 years, Rangers only had fourteen Catholics on the books and together they amassed around 25 years of service to the Ibrox side. In fact John Spencer was the longest serving Catholic on the books at Rangers, with the others amassing a mere year here or year there before his signing in 1985.

The signing that changed Rangers’ signing policy

“When I came here in 1964, we had no Catholics. Not just the playing staff, anywhere. There was no bit of paper, it was an unwritten rule. David Murray changed that and it moved on significantly in 1989 when Maurice Johnston signed. You cannot clear up 80 years of sectarianism in eight months, but we are a huge way down the road.”
– Sandy Jardine

The signing of Mo Johnston by then Rangers gaffer Graeme Souness and then owner David Murray shocked Scottish Football to its core. First they had signed a former Celtic striker at the 11th hour under the noses of Celtic and he became the first high-profile Catholic signing the club made. That break with ‘tradition’ made headlines across Britain, but his signing did not sit well with both sides of the divide.

“We signed him [Johnston] as a football player firstly, and also to break the tradition of this club in not signing a Roman Catholic. That was wrong.”
– David Murray

There is no denying the abuse, the threats and the hate that Johnston received at the hands of Celtic fans following his move to their arch rivals and to this day he is still labelled Judas by many Celtic supporters, but he also received abuse and threats from his new club’s supporters.

Former General Secretary of the Rangers Supporters Association, David Millar, was quoted on the Johnston signing, he admitted: “I never thought in my wildest dreams that they would sign him. Why him above all? It’s a sad day for Rangers. There will be a lot of people handing in their season tickets. I don’t want to see a Roman Catholic at Ibrox. Rangers have always stood for one thing and the biggest majority of the support have been brought up with the idea of a true blue Rangers team. I thought they would sign a Catholic eventually, perhaps in three or four years time, but someone from the continent.”

A pretty damning statement from the representative from one of the club’s official fan organisations.

If that was not bad enough, Rangers legend Terry Butcher stated in his autobiography that the newly signed striker was treated as an outcast by his Scottish team mates at Ibrox.

Butcher explained: “It was [signing Johnston], as far as I was concerned, a fabulous signing for the club because Mo was such a good player, while Souness had achieved his ambition of beginning to break down the sectarian barriers at Ibrox. Our only doubt was we knew Mo was fiercely proud of being a Celtic fan and we wondered how he would settle. We need not have worried – he was terrific.

“Next day, the club wanted the Scottish and English players to hold a press conference to tell the media what a good signing he was. There was no problem as far as Ray Wilkins, Chris Woods, Mark Walters, I and some others were concerned. But the Scottish players – Davie Cooper, Ian Ferguson, Ally McCoist, John Brown and the rest – declined because they had received so many calls from friends telling them not to become involved.”

So Butcher outed the now Rangers manager Ally McCoist, as one of many players who took advice not to support a new team-mate because of his religion?

Rangers kitman Jimmy Bell, who is still at the club in the same capacity, also persecuted Johnston because of his religion. According to Butcher, Bell refused to leave Johnston’s training kit outside his hotel room during an Italian pre-season tour, yet he did with every other player.

Butcher added: “Jimmy Bell didn’t want to become involved at all. Mo roomed with Ally McCoist, as he had done for the national team, and it was Jimmy’s practice to put fresh kit outside everyone’s room for the next day. But he refused to do so for Mo, just leaving Ally’s, forcing Mo to go down three flights of stairs to the kit room to fetch his gear. Mo did so stoically and without complaint. In fact, in the end he made a joke about it.

“But this was a complete upheaval for the club. Even at meal-times there were a number of Scots who would not sit with him. What had happened to the moral high ground claimed by Rangers? They always used to say it was Celtic who were intolerant and unable to cope with the mixing of religions. Wrong.”

But not all at Ibrox would treat Johnston as an outcast, as a stain. In those early days, the English players treated Johnston the way he should have been treated – as a footballer – a signing that would go on to score 46 goals in 100 appearances over the course of two seasons at Ibrox before he left for Everton.

Butcher said: “There were no such difficulties for the English players, of course. All we knew was that we had signed a good player who was going to help us retain our title.

Fellow countryman Ray Wilkins, also commented on the hatred of Catholics by Rangers players, speaking in a 2007 ESPN documentary, Wilkins said: “I’d just come from Italy and France which are catholic countries, very warm and friendly and here I was in Glasgow with some of my (Rangers) team-mates hating catholics. I just couldn’t understand it and frankly found it ridiculous.”

Karaoke king Donald Findlay QC

The anti-Catholic stance at Ibrox was not limited to players or fans, but to board room level also as the previous comment from vice chairman of Rangers Matt Taylor testified too. But that high level of anti-catholic rhetoric was to become even more public when vice chairman Donald Findlay QC decided to attend a supporters night in 1999.

During a time when chairman and owner David Murray was trying to ride the Ibrox side of sectarianism, the ublication of footage of Findlay singing anti-Catholic songs was like a kick in the teeth to the supremo.

Findlay later handed in his resignation, not before he took a swipe at the fan who went to the press with the footage.

Since that day, Findlay has represented a number of high-profile Rangers supporters who have fallen foul of Scotland’s justice system. He argued that William Walls’ singing of the racist Famine song was merely him exercising his right to free speech. He also represented Neil McKenzie who along with Trevor Muirhead were jailed for five years each after being found guilty of conspiracy to assault Mr Lennon, former MSP Trish Godman and the late Paul McBride QC. Both are currently appealing their convictions. He also defended convicted killer Jason Campbell in court for slitting Celtic fan Mark Scott’s throat and murdering him after a match. An act that led to the creation of anti-sectarian charity Nil by Mouth.

Blessing yourself is not a crime

Polish keeper Artur Boruc was cautioned by Police following an accusation of making gestures during a Glasgow derby game. The Pole who was a controversial character in Scottish Football was a Catholic and before every game and just before the second half of every game, the keeper would turn to his goals and bless himself. A gesture, an act that he did at every club he played for, at every ground he played at and every country he was in. But only in the West of Scotland would blessing yourself at a football match would warrant a caution.

A crown office spokesperson explained at the time that Boruc’s actions ‘included a combination of behaviour before a crowd in the charged atmosphere of an Old Firm match’. It was deemed that his blessing of himself had ‘provoked alarm and crowd trouble’.

The decision to caution the Pole was met with fierce criticism from the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, which claimed that Boruc had been cautioned for the act of blessing himself.

Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Catholic Church, said: “It’s a worrying and alarming development, especially since the sign of the cross is globally accepted as a gesture of religious reverence. It’s also very common in international football and was commonplace throughout the World Cup.

“It is extremely regrettable that Scotland seems to have made itself one of the few countries in the world where this simply religious gesture is considered an offence.”

But a second statement from the Crown Office stated: “The decision to use an alternative to prosecution in this case was based on an assessment of behaviour, not one single act, which appeared to be directed towards the crowd, which was being incited by that behaviour and which caused the police to intervene and calm the crowd.”

Steady stream of Catholic footballers

Rangers, since the signing of Mo Johnston, have signed Catholics from the continent but other than Johnston, the only other Scottish player that has been Catholic was Neil McCann. Former Rangers player and US international Claudio Reyna claimed that McCann was subjected to sectarian abuse at the hands of Rangers fans.

The Ibrox side also had Gabriel Amato, Lorenzo Amoruso, Mikel Arteta and Jorg Albertz graced their jersey and the latter three became club legends, but they were still told not to bless themselves – reminiscent of Sandaza’s claims.

Georgian striker Shota Arveladze was booed and jeered by Rangers and Linfield fans in a friendly after blessing himself.

And former Rangers super sub Nacho Novo was assaulted by a Rangers fan for reportedly wearing a crucifix on a night out in Greenock.

Who advised Sandaza?

Is Sandaza lying about being advised not to bless himself? The club is adamant they did not tell him. If they didn’t then who did?

McCoist – Despite previously taking advice on the Johnston signing, I cannot see the Rangers manager being the man to advise a player not to bless himself.

McCulloch – The Rangers skipper knows how the club and the fans tick. It is his job as captain to lead by example, to take new players under his wing and to show them what playing for Rangers is all about. He is a possible adviser.

Jimmy Bell – The Rangers kitman has previous with his ‘actions’ with Mo Johnston, but would a player listen to a mere kitman? Well he is described by some Rangers fans as part of the Ibrox furniture, an institution within an institution. Maybe his word does carry salt after all. Another possible adviser.

Rangers team mates – Could some of his fellow team mates have taken him aside and told him not to bless himself for fear of abuse? Possibly.

Given that Sandaza did not state who counselled him in the art of being a Rangers player, it is all guesswork in regards to who the culprit is. But several things are clear – what would Sandaza have to gain by claiming he was told not to bless himself and despite all the hard work done by anti-sectarian initiatives at the club, someone is still of the opinion that openly practising your faith in front of Rangers fans is a step too far.

Of course there are many decent Rangers fans who don’t care one iota about religion or if a player blesses themselves, but this decent section of the Rangers support will forever be overshadowed by those who spout bile, who peddle hate and who believe that they are upholding the traditions of the club.

Will Rangers ask Sandaza who counselled him? Will Rangers hold that adviser accountable? Blessing yourself is not a crime…. but Sectarianism is.

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About Author

Andy Muirhead is the Editor of Scotzine and Women's Football Weekly. He produces the Scottish Football show The Final Whistle for Pulse 98.4FM and is the ESPN blogger for Celtic FC. He works on a freelance basis and has contributed to the Daily Record, The Scotsman, the Daily Mail and also blogs at Huffington Post UK.

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