Feeding off the terraces…
It’s a mid-January Saturday evening in Glasgow’s East End and the pubs are full of rumour. The Scottish Cup fourth round has been raging all day and Airdrie are in town to take on Celtic. But the rumour mill has more than just the staff and players of Airdrie on the guest list for tonight’s encounter.
Apparently, the former English Defence League (EDL) generalissimo and now UKIP political advisor Stephen Yaxley-Lennon — also known as Tommy Robinson — is among the visiting Airdrie support.
WhatsApp group’s buzz and the rumour grows from a whisper to a rallying cry of defiance. The Celtic fans are not going to let Tommy Robinson into their ground. He shall not pass.
The scene moves from the pubs of the Gallowgate to the away end entrance of Celtic Park. Airdrie fans make their way into the ground through a human tunnel of police lines which is in turn holding back the assembled body of Celtic fans, who don’t appreciate his right wing politics trying to block the way.
Here and there small skirmishes break out where those on either side have managed to momentarily slip police lines. Arrests are made.
With the clock ticking past five the Airdrie fans, defiant after a day’s boozing and emboldened by the apparent victory of simply making it inside the ground, unfurl Union flags, let off smoke bombs and launch into the usual songbook.
A Chelsea Headhunters (a notorious football hooligan gang linked to Combat 18) flag is spotted among the away support, but Tommy Robinson has proven to be just a rumour. He didn’t pass because he didn’t appear. A myth. A work of fiction, just like his name.
He had been in Glasgow, though, just 24 hours earlier. Robinson and a people carrier full of supporters had turned up at the constituency office of Scottish National Party representative Stewart McDonald, blocking off all exits as they demanded to “speak” to the MP.
McDonald, speaking in the House of Commons, in October 2018 had labelled Robinson a “violent, racist thug and fraudster” after spotting him on the grounds of Westminster being wined and dined in the House of Lords by a UKIP peer.
It’s likely Robinson was very pleased with the reports he would have received from Celtic Park on that Saturday evening. Without even needing to be present his myth had helped spread fear.
Believed to be born to an Irish mother and Scottish father in Luton, Stephen Yaxley Lennon/Tommy Robinson has been using the football terrace for recruitment purposes for more than a decade. Since his recent incarceration for almost bringing down a child sex abuse trial, his subsequent release pending referral of the case to the Attorney General, his name has become a terrace anthem in some parts of Britain.
In December, former Hearts captain and now BBC pundit and SNP member Michael Stewart warned that a sub-section of Hearts fans are also venturing down “a very, very dark road“.
A walk around Gorgie in Edinburgh’s west end, where the atmospheric Hearts ground is situated, leads you past lampposts emblazoned with Union flag stickers featuring Tommy’s face and the word ‘Hearts’. It’s not a good look from either a graphic design or societal point of view.
How the son of an Irish immigrant who sees himself as an English nationalist has come to be a folk hero for sections of Scotland’s football hooligan community would probably require more paper than is available to tease out. Or perhaps that’s to lend some undue credit to the morons who have decided to hitch their anti-immigrant wagon to Tommy’s non- stop circus.
But Britain doesn’t stand alone when it comes to the rise of fascism on the terraces.
In Italy at the St. Stephen’s Day game at the San Siro stadium in Milan, the black Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly was booed for the entire match.
The crowd ignored the pleas of the stadium announcer to lay off the monkey chanting.
Before the game rival groups from Milan and Napoli fought street battles resulting in the death of one of the ultras, Daniele Belardinell, who was hit by a passing car as he fled the scene.
Italy’s right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini described the abuse suffered by Koulibaly as “heavy teasing”. Salvini, just 10 days earlier, had shown up to an AC Milan Ultras show of strength.
As the giant flags waved and pyro erupted, he walked on to the park to take the salute. By his side was AC Milan hooligan leader and convicted drug pusher Luca Lucci. Salvini, like Tommy, needs the terraces.