Your fathers, their fathers, and their fathers before them, have walked away from football grounds thinking the game in Scotland was skewed in favour of another team. As a club founded by immigrants, with our historical support drawn largely from some of the poorest sections of society, for decades Celtic-friendly people were underrepresented in the professional classes, the very classes those who administered and refereed our game were, and still are, drawn from.
No one believes more than me that times have changed. That immigrant community gained equal access to all professions years ago – yes, including referees. The prejudices which, perhaps not surprisingly, developed in Scotland when an incessant flood of around 800,000 immigrants poured into the country over a few short decades, have moved on. Our society is not without prejudice, but it’s others who are now targeted most.
Football decisions made by referees are difficult to prove to be deliberately unfair. I have no doubt that Celtic suffered unfairly in this regard for decades, but I see little evidence of it now, and even if there was, it is impossible to tell the difference between incompetence and bias.
Conclusive evidence of what we were up against was established in 1999 when an independent SFA Commission heard a complaint from Celtic that Jim Farry, the Association’s chief executive, deliberately delayed the registration of Jorge Cadete, meaning the player was unable to play for Celtic in a cup game against Rangers. The Commission upheld Celtic’s complaint and Farry was sacked for gross misconduct – even back then holding a torch for due process.
That incident came at the end of a difficult period to be a Celtic fan. Rangers had violated one of our cherished records, Nine-in-a-row, was matched, not by wonderful athletic achievement, as Celtic did, but by the might of the cheque book. Fergus built a stadium, left us a little over £2m in debt and taught the SFA a valuable lesson. In short, he put Celtic on a level playing field with everyone else in the country.
In August 2000 an almighty game of football reset all the dials. Celtic scored six against then champions Rangers. We won the league by 21 points, won the Scottish and League cups, our first treble in 32 years. On and off the park, we were better than a team who only a few years earlier seemed light-years ahead of a sorry looking Celtic.
Rangers responded by flooding more cash into their football squad, this time using Employee Benefit Trusts. In February last year Celtic Quick News was first to raise the question that these EBT payment might not have been registered with the SFA and SPL. Within three weeks the SPL commenced an investigation into the question, which found Rangers had a case to answer. The league set up the Commission which will report at noon today.
This is the most important decision in Scottish football history with implications for past and current directors of the organisations which run our game; people who were legally obliged to ensure rules were applied fairly, thoroughly and evenly.
It has implications for the Rangers group of clubs and for the international reputation of Scottish football, but none of this matters to you and me. We want to know if we were watching a level playing field for 11 years, or if the game was rigged. I can’t think of a more important decision in the history of British sport. There has never been and will never again be a decision which casts a shadow on 14 trophies, ‘won’ allegedly by a team playing by different rules to the rest.
The First Tier Tribunal decision last year and forthcoming Upper Tier Tribunal are sideshows. This is the main event, second only to Lisbon in importance to Scottish football. I am confident the decision will go against the group of clubs. If it doesn’t, we should not demean ourselves by slipping into paranoia. This is an independent commission, anyone who tells you otherwise is deluded.
My only concern is that the scale of punishments which would be appropriate for a guilty verdict are, frankly, so enormous, I expect every available opportunity to mitigate the sanctions to be exploited. This is a black cap verdict, but despite their impartiality, I don’t expect the Commission to dress sombrely when signing the decision.
A bottle of expensive fizzy stuff is in the fridge, in case we need to toast all those generations who, unlike us today, never had the opportunity to nail the truth.
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