A story broke last week which may have bypassed Football League and SPL fans. It concerns the latter league's two major protagonists and my own, beloved, Carlisle United.
Over the last year the Cumbrian club have worked to strengthen links with the Glasgow giants, seeing these cross-border but near neighbours as ideal test beds for competitive reserve team fixtures and even smuggling Rangers fringe player Rory Loy down the M74 in January. The relationships have caused some consternation with some of the fanbase whose upbringing in the shadow of the two clubs has led some colour (either orange or green) to rub off over the years but the majority, and prevailing, view has been that such links with internationally renowned clubs (Carlisle also have good ties with the Uniteds of Newcastle and Manchester) are in our best interests and a solid marker of the esteem in which Carlisle are held.
Bhoys manager Neil Lennon sought to cement the ties by offering to send a Celtic squad to Brunton Park for pre-season friendly on the 30th of July. A chance for Carlisle's young charges to test their mettle against players of top pedigree and for the club to take advantage of hosting a Champion's League side and their fervent travelling hordes. A moneyspinner, surely?
Well, not quite.
Enter Cumbria Constabulary to voice concerns over the safety of the match. The 'local fuzz' have a track record for taking a 'safety first' view of matches at Brunton Park which has seen potential revenue raising clashes with Leeds United and Newcastle (in pre-season) clock in only just in the black. The official reason given for classing the clash as 'high risk' was the potential that Rangers fans would stop off en route from their clash with Blackpool at Bloomfield Road the day before the proposed game. The result being that the game has been mothballed with a projected crowd of around 7-8,000 even too low to cover the potential policing costs.
Forgive me for a moment for wondering if we have stepped back to the 1980s; I may be wrong but I thought the days of club 'casuals' turning up at rival team's fixtures died when the last Danny Dyer 'rumblepic' flopped at the box office. Besides, I take my hat off to any 'NED' so committed to the cause that they pull into a conveniently placed Premier Inn overnight and pay Lenny Henry's wages for the chance to be charged by a police nag. It shows more commitment than Richard Offiong did in a Blue shirt in any event.
Admittedly tensions on either side of the Clyde reached a newly worrying peak last year with the tinderbox style of Lennon seemingly the heat to complete the combustion triangle that is the Old Firm landscape but it still seems a shame that this has been allowed to spill over into the fortunes of a club based around a hundred miles, and a different league away. One hopes, perhaps, that such a churlish knock on effect may give the central actors pause for thought where the intervention of conflicted, partisan or unwanted political influence has failed in the past.
Rangers reaction has been, perhaps fairly, nonplussed. In a statement to local Cumbrian Newspaper the News & Star they spoke of their consternation at the cancellation:
"The reason this fixture has been cancelled cannot reasonably have anything to do with Rangers or our supporters.
“The suggestion that a game should be cancelled on the off chance of a small number of supporters being in the same town a day later does not make any sense.”
Part of me has sympathy with the Gers position but when I call to mind the behaviour of their fans following the 2008 Uefa Cup final, that for all the provocation of the 'Ginger Dwarf' it is Rangers fans actions, along with the hot air expunging from Lennon's mouth, which have really ramped up the heat in Glasgow. They who sent the bullets, the bombs and the veiled threats.
Whilst Cumbria Constabulary's actions have recalled those of silent movie mogul Mack Sennett's 'Keystone Kops' in their madcap, self defeating and frankly laughable handling of the situation, Rangers response to a regrettable set of affairs seems to come straight from the playbook topped 'Wisdom of Fools'.
Extending the analogy it's tempting further to see the errant Lennon, in proferring assistance, cast as the born and bred Cumbrian Stan Laurel - all non-plussed head scratching and (not so) cheerful bluster. For all their posturing Rangers come over like the bluff and lagubrious Oliver Hardy bemoaning Lennon's actions, without stopping to consider their role in the palaver - 'another nice mess' indeed.
Watching the Rangers/Celtic debacle from a distance is harrowing enough, but when your club's the stooge, taking the metaphorical custard pie in the face it really does grate at the levels of childishness at play, the impact that it can have on the most tangentially pointless event. As it is we'll merely have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and ready for the next two-reeler. It'd be refreshing to think that next year's Old Firm blockbusters will continue in this vein to resemble in plot the lines of the halcyon days of early Hollywood rather than the gangsta stylings of the modern box office leviathan; it'd reinvigorate the interest of this observer at least.