I always felt very lucky when I was a footballer in my younger years. In the late 1980s and through to the start of the new millennium, I played for a variety of different clubs at a range of levels - from my humble beginnings as an under 10 juvenile with my pals for our local boys club before achieving 'S' Form with Dundee Utd and representing my country at youth level. Ultimately, for various reasons, my footballing career (as much as it was) fizzled out but the experiences (most good, some bad) will live with me forever.
With that in mind, I've kept a close eye on the recent debate on historic child abuse within Scottish football. Some of the names involved in the subject were familiar to me and I also played for three years at Hutchison Vale, one of the club's highlighted in the yesterday’s SFA report. I was also fortunate enough to play with Dundee Utd for a few years and for Scotland at under 15 and under 16 level. Included in this were travelling to and playing at places such as Northern Ireland, Wales, Italy, Sweden, France, Holland and more. I played against teams from Cameroon, the USA, the Czech Republic, Italy, Thailand and more: enjoying a post-match craic with our opponents, shared language or not. I was managed by Jim McLean, trained with Duncan Ferguson and played against Thierry Henry. I was that good as a 'keeper, I even allowed Phil Neville to score against me at Ibrox. But, hey, so did Stefan Klos.
All this happened over a number of years but I never witnessed genuine abuse; sexual or otherwise. Verbal 'bullying' was perhaps as bad as it got and that was something we all dealt with in our younger years at school so wasn't unique to football. You made a mistake; sometimes you got support from your coach and team-mates, sometimes not. We were big boys and could handle it. Fun might have been poked at the lad with the dodgy first touch or fashion sense but it didn't matter on the park. At that point we were a team and everyone stuck together. Background or personality didn’t matter and rarely did I ever witness anything get out of hand. And I was treated brilliantly by almost all the people I worked with. There but for the grace of God it seems…
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With more specific regard to the SFA’s report, as a young teenager, sexual abuse wasn't something I knew much, if anything, about. I’ve always felt my upbringing was probably as normal as one can have: a loving family, a council house and an estate full of friends (and enemies) with few worries as we explored life with the relative freedom most kids have. I was naïve enough to think when you're in your mid-teens, you don't really worry about much other than homework and a new spot appearing before a school disco. I didn't understand for others it was physical, mental and sexual abuse. But that immaturity was exactly why we all need protecting at that age.
Even now, as a father of two kids approaching their teenage trials and tribulations, I don't think I'll ever fully realise how tough it must be for some young people. Times appear somewhat different now and kids seem to be older than their years but other complexities develop: social media and online threats mean regular reminders to my girls explaining the dangers out there are a necessity. Embarrassing such talks may occasionally be but happen they must.
Decades past may not have seen parent/child relationships so open or so liberal. Reading the horror stories from people I knew from my time in the game make that clear and it's tragic that so many have suffered and continued to do so because the education wasn't there and modern (though still imperfect) safeguards weren't in place. To that end, culpability can genuinely be tricky to apportion. First and foremost, the blame lies with those that blighted the sport (and society as a whole) but if there's a case to answer for others involved then answer it they must. And the colour of the shirt or standing in the game should not matter to us either.
When I stopped playing football twenty years ago, I bought a season ticket for Ibrox as I finally had the time to follow follow my childhood team and I still love doing this two decades on. The pride I have in my club is immense and whilst times have been tough for the last ten years, our form this season and the chance of renewed success has taken away some of the stress and frustration of being unable to attend games because of the pandemic. No matter, I love supporting my club whether at Ibrox or from my RTV subscription.
However, that doesn’t mean I can’t see the faults within it. Be it historic bigotry, financial mismanagement or abuse of young people, I’d argue it is a key part of being a supporter to question the club and look for improvement in all areas. In that vein, slowly but surely, the club is becoming more inclusive over the years and I’d like to think that post-2012, today’s and future custodians will be more mindful of its fiscal obligations. I’ve also no doubt the child protections and safeguards we now have are second to none. Even so, Rangers is not perfect and it’s not a weakness to admit such.
In that sense, how Rangers react to their part in the SFA report is important. Yes, the club have every right to use legal care in their approach and to protect their (our?) reputation. But we also have a moral duty to examine any allegations and act accordingly if, as may be the case, there were genuine failings under our responsibilities. If that is the case, and where such failings are proven, apologies must be made along suitable reparations. We must do the right thing and be seen to do so. Let us lead from the front on that: no prevarications about Oldco or pointing the finger elsewhere, just solemn acknowledgement where appropriate whilst ensuring we have processes in place so such abuse can never happen again.
When our club almost ceased to exist in darker days ten years ago, supporters were keen to cement the idea of Rangers ‘then, now and forever’. That was an admirable slogan during a difficult period to try and ensure we all moved on together. It’s certainly a message that resonated with me and one we should return to if or when any historic abuse failings are discussed. And doing that should be a priority not an after-thought.
The past may not always be something we can be proud of but if there’s an opportunity to address our mistakes, grab it we must. We cannot control what happened to these people then but we can do so now and forever.
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