The Mo Johnston Signing: Sectarianism and the Business of the Old Firm

His house was petrol-bombed, his father was attacked, and he was called the “Salmon Rushdie of football”. It was twenty years ago this week that former Celtic star Mo Johnston became the  first well-known Roman Catholic to sign for Rangers, and Glasgow erupted. One enraged Rangers fan said that, “My blood is boiling. Is Mo Johnston going to run about Ibrox with his crucifix?”

The religious and political overtones were evident when the Belfast Telegraph broke the news in Ulster: a group of “angry loyalists” marched to their office and demanded they retract the unbelievable “fairytale” of Rangers signing a high-profile Catholic. Twenty years later, the Telegraph notes that Rangers signing a Catholic would not even “raise an eyebrow”. How much has changed, and why did Rangers make the decision to break with their unpleasant “tradition”?

The history of the sectarian divide at the centre of the furor was embedded in the divisions of Scottish society, but it was also a history that in the case of the Old Firm, had almost as much to do with business as with religion. For a long time, religious bigotry made both clubs rich; by the late 1980s, the opposite was the case, and the Johnston signing broke a taboo that would never again have the same meaning for Rangers or Celtic.

The History of Sectarianism and the Old Firm in Glasgow

The intensity of sectarianism in Scotland dates back to the severe extent of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, where according to Bill Murray’s 1984 book “The Old Firm: Sectarianism, Sport and Society in Scotland”, “every sign, sound and sight of popery was removed from the reformed creed”. In 1790, the total Catholic population in Glasgow numbered 39; yet there were no fewer than 43 active anti-Catholic societies in the city. As Catholic immigration to Scotland from Ireland increased with industrialisation, tensions only intensified in the nineteenth century ahead of the founding of Rangers and Celtic in its final decades.

Religious tension soon suffused the derby matches between Rangers and Celtic, though it was notable that the mutually beneficial commercial appeal of their matches led to the nickname “The Old Firm” — the Scottish Referee ran a cartoon for the 1904 Scottish Cup Final with a sandwich board reading “Patronise The Old Firm”.  Football had exploded in Scotland, Glasgow in particular, with three of the biggest stadiums in the world opening at the turn of the twentieth century, Ibrox, Parkhead and Hampden — and by becoming the cultural symbols of sectarian divide in Scottish society, Rangers and Celtic soon eclipsed all other clubs in popularity as supporters rushed to them as religious markers.

The Old Firm in recent times

The Old Firm in recent times

Neither Rangers or Celtic were technically sectarian clubs, unlike others including Edinburgh’s Hibernians, whose constitution initially stated that all players had to be practising Catholics. But it soon became clear that the identity of each club as the representative of their respective religious faction fed strongly into the appeal of each, and made their rivalry only more lucrative. As Murray writes of Rangers, early presidents such as Sir John Ure Primrose Bart “were clearly aware of the financial benefits they could gain from their challenge to Celtic, and the clearer the religious lines in these games, the better for rivalry.”

Celtic were founded by Brother Walfrid in 1888, from the Irish Catholic Marist Brothers with stated charitable purposes, but also to give young Catholic men a social outlet that would keep them away from Protestant influence — and it became a limited liability company by the century’s end.  Celtic’s success was immediate. They became indelibly linked with Catholicism and Irish sympathies (many in the club were closely connected to Irish republican causes). Despite this, they employed non-Catholics as players and administrators from their early days. Sectarianism at Celtic, for what its worth, was more sympathetic than discriminatory, though it certainly brought politics into sport and remained at the heart of their identity.

Sectarianism was even more obvious at Rangers. In its first hundred years, no Rangers management was Catholic, and staff found out to have been Catholic were often dismissed, according to Murray. Rangers players even found to be dating Catholics found themselves in trouble. For decades after Word War II, the club did not knowingly sign a Catholic player (Laurie Blyth was signed for the 1950-51 season, and the discovery of his Catholicism led to his release at the end of the season). Even before World War II, only one Catholic, Archie Kyle, stayed with the club for more than a couple of years, out of the mere dozen or so Catholics who even played at all for Rangers.  By the mid-1970s their manager, Jock Wallace, was encouraging players to roar the Unionist catchphrase ‘No Surrender’ on their way up the tunnel before matches.

Rangers Supporters in Dublin

Rangers Supporters in Dublin

Old Firm matches had become tinderboxes of bigotry and violence. Certainly, this was not a result of the football itself, or the creation of the clubs: it fed off sectarian rioting that went far beyond the terraces. But the naked sectarianism was so embedded at the clubs, it almost passed without mention in the decades after World War II that Rangers would never sign an open Catholic, or that politics pervaded the Parkhead terraces.

Sectarianism was part of the culture of the clubs, who did little to challenge what had become the lucrative bedrock of the Old Firm rivalry, though Celtic were notably more open to addressing it honestly than Rangers. Jock Stein, after all, became a Celtic legend — and he had been their first Protestant manager, appointed in 1965; there was no comparable opening up by Rangers, who had a hard time denying their bigotry. Rangers director George Brown explained in a Daily Express article in 1972 “Why we will not sign a Catholic”, based on the club’s tradition.

By the 1970s and 1980s, Rangers’ sectarian policies were no longer tacitly accepted by the public or authorities; outside the hardcore Orange Order sympathisers, their closed attitude attracted more and more criticism that the club ignored. European competition, in particular, demonstrated the difference between the clubs: where Celtic fans were considered a credit to the club on travels abroad, Rangers fans brought disrepute that soon became attached to the club’s hardline sectarian attitude. Riots in Barcelona and Birmingham in the mid-1970s brought shame on the club, with Managing Director Willie Waddell tacitly admitted the cause by announcing in public the club would sign a Catholic if one was “good enough” — thus dissociating the club from a policy it officially denied even existed!

But no high profile signing came, and the club continued to bury its head in the sand, with fears that signing a Catholic would drive thousands from the terraces. The sectarianism even drove away Alex Ferguson from signing on as Rangers manager in 1983: a former Rangers player, Ferguson would not countenance managing the club until it unequivocally abandoned its unofficial sectarian ban on signing Catholics.

The Mo Johnston Case

For the rest of the 1980s, little changed until the day Mo Johnston was stunningly snatched away from Cetic by Rangers manager Graeme Souness and Chairman David Murray on his return from Nantes in France in 1989, shocking Ranger supporters, many of whom burned scarves and season tickets outside Ibrox in protest. And of course, he became Judas to Celtic fans. Johnston was not the first Catholic to play for Rangers, but he was certainly the most controversial.

Mo Johnston and Graeme Souness

Mo Johnston and Graeme Souness

Many Rangers fans make the point that it wasn’t so much Johnston’s Catholicism itself that was the cause of the furor; it was that it was Johnston in particular, a former star for Celtic who had head-butted Rangers’ Stuart Munro in the 1986 Skol Cup final and taunted Rangers fans on his way off the pitch after receiving a red card. But if it was something personal, Rangers fans were soon to forgive as Johnston started scoring goals for Rangers, including a winner against Celtic. Despite the minority of Rangers fans who foreswore returning to Ibrox, the great fear that a Catholic signing would drive away the crowds proved to be far from true for the great majority of Rangers supporters. Instead, the signing would be the crucial catalyst to ensure Rangers had a place at the table of the European elite in the 1990s.

For a few, certainly, signing Johnston was beyond the pale.  One Rangers fan, Rob Kenny, lamented on the day of the signing that “This is a kick in the teeth. . .We’ve managed for over 100 years without Catholics, why should we need them now?”

In fact, as was often the case with the Old Firm, the answer was money. Where before there had been good business in keeping with what had become a ‘tradition’ of barely disguised bigotry to guarantee the teams the greatest support in the Protestant and Catholic communities across Scotland and even in Ireland, it became evident in the 1990s that the commercial, gobalising imperatives of football required a less obviously bigoted identity, especially for Rangers.

Major global sponsors would not invest in clubs associated with sectarianism and the global transfer market made it foolish to exclude players based on religion. David Murray, the Rangers chairman who had taken over the year before Johnston’s signing, explained it all succinctly: “Sectarianism has no place in a European Super League.” Bigotry was now bad for business, and both teams have run public campaigns to stamp out sectarianism at games since then, with considerably more effect than earlier, less than half-hearted efforts in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sectarianism has far from vanished from the culture of support around the Old Firm despite the campaigns by both clubs, but much has been done to sanitise the Old Firm’s bitter rivalry since the signing of Johnston twenty years ago broke the back of Rangers discriminatory “tradition” — and the lucrative business of the Old Firm rolls on, with the European Super League still in their sights.

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