The Smell Of Fear

Soccer - SPFL Championship - Rangers v Alloa - Ibrox StadiumI knew what the subject of this article was going to be with roughly ten minutes remaining in Sevco’s disastrous match with Alloa last night.

The score was 2-2 but I knew they were out. I knew it the way I knew Hibs were doomed with something like ten games to go last season. I can’t explain it better than to say there was something in the air.

That something was the smell of fear. It was so raw you could taste it.

Fear is a strange thing. The ability to inspire it in an opponent is a tremendous force multiplier. Throughout recorded history, it has been used as a weapon.

The American’s call it “Psy-Ops”, or Psychological Operations.

There are two fantastic examples of psychological warfare, and the use of fear as a weapon, that automatically spring to mind; one is from fiction, the other is from fact. Both, curiously, involve the same tune, although played in a different style. The tune is El Degüello, otherwise known as “the Cuthroat Song”. The historical context is that it was played, on bugles, by the Mexican Army at the Battle of the Alamo.

The fictional version, which is more an ensemble instrumental piece, is in the movie Rio Bravo, a particular favourite of mine, where Nathan Burdette, the gangster who runs John Wayne’s town, has got his hired hoodlums to play it as they are besieging the jail. As Wayne and his cohort sit inside the walls, it is the Kid, Colorado, who clues them in on the historical context mentioned above. The song signifies that “no quarter will be given.”

Cassius Clay, before and after he was Ali, was probably the best sportsman ever to utilise the power of fear in achieving success. His tactics, in and out of the ring, were designed to throw opponents off balance, often to mask his own nervousness. When he fought Sonny Liston he was so scared in the weeks leading up to the fight that he couldn’t sit still for a second, and it was his fear that was the genesis of his famous “Bear Baiting”, in particular when he drove to Liston’s home and marched up and down outside, challenging him to fight there and then.

On the night of the bout, Clay later said he knew he could take his man the moment they faced each other in the ring. Liston thought he was certifiably insane, and although he wanted to knock his opponents head off for the way he’d been humiliated in the run-up to the fight the doubt had entered his heart. Clay was afraid too, but he handled it better, getting on with the job at hand.

In the end, Sonny Liston became the heavyweight champion to surrender his crown from a stool.

Sometimes fear is needless. Sometimes fear is groundless. My girlfriend is one of the very many people with arachnophobia, and it makes me smile because, to me, it seems so ludicrous. How can you be scared of something about 1/1000th your size, that could not harm you even if it had the intelligence and the intent to try?

Nothing will make me understand it, but nor does she understand my own fear of heights. Sometimes even standing on a raised platform, not even a particularly high one, can set me off. I’ve urged her to consider those therapies you can get where they make you handle spiders and things, to demonstrate how silly her phobia is … but I ask her this with a knowing smile, because there is no force on Heaven or Earth that would compel me to climb a rock face wearing a harness or jump from an airplane with a parachute on.

Other fears are more understandable, more rooted in reality. Since I was old enough to be reading about the subject (I started when I wasn’t even a teenager) I have had on-off nightmares about nuclear war. There was a time when the chances of it seemed very real, almost tangible.

Of course, that fear turned out to be the most groundless of them all, inspired, as it was, by a strong belief that our species is, in some small way, insane. As it happens, we’re not. We’re self-interested to a degree that sometimes makes me despair, but that, coupled with the most horrendous weapons ever conceived, has conspired to save us from ourselves, and I fully expect that it’ll keep on doing so, all the way to the natural event which does the job.

As to some natural event that kills us all, that particular fear – a meteor strike, an asteroid impact, a super volcano eruption, a global ice age – well those things are simply part of the history, and future, of this planet and fearing them is the same as fearing your own death. They are inevitable, and if one of them is going to finish us off then the one consolation I draw from it is that we’ll all go together.

In other words, it’s certain, and because it is certain its not worth worrying about. That one is out of our hands. There’s nothing we can do about it, except get up each day and play the odds, the odds that when it does happen we’ll be long dead and gone, and thus won’t experience it.

Every one of us knows more immediate fears; those which impact on your life in the present time, or those which perhaps loom, just out of sight, over the horizon. Contracting some serious illness. The loss of something precious to you; perhaps a person, perhaps a job, perhaps your whole life, obliterated in the blink of an eye by some force majeure event, some freak incident or accident over which you have no control or influence.

They happen every day. They are not a flight of fancy. Fear of those is grounded, and real, especially when there is a family history of illness or the place where you work is losing money and job losses are being mooted.

The subject fascinates me, as you can probably tell.

I saw that fear on the Hibs players last season, saw the way they reacted to adversity, and I knew for sure, instinctively, the way you sometimes do, that they were going to drop, like a stone, and that nothing would save them.

When Hamilton scored late in the play-off match at Easter Road, sending the game into extra time with just about the last kick of the ball, there was bedlam on the radio and on the TV as people reacted to the drama of the occasion.

I felt left out of it. I had been expecting it. Like I said, there was something in the air.

I felt the same way watching Sevco last night, as if something had happened that we couldn’t see, but that we could maybe sense. Perhaps it was the body language of their players, from the moment Alloa scored the first goal.

The shoulders hunched. They started looking at each other, for someone to step up to the moment, and grab it. No-one did.

There was a palpable sense – even watching it on TV – that they realised the tie they’d thought to be secure was suddenly slipping out of their hands, although they still had a lead and would have been overwhelming favourites.

Everything went after Alloa equalised. It was like watching a balloon deflate. All the belief went out of their players, and looking at them you got the sense that it had been replaced by that cold, clammy, sick sense that they were in a whole lot of trouble.

They were scared to death; it’s as simple as that. And I knew watching them that they were going to blow it. They had ridden their luck the whole match, they’d taken a two-goal lead but hadn’t given enough to deserve it.

They looked at their opponents, part timers all, many of whom, had come from their day jobs to play the match, and they saw the exact opposite of themselves. They saw players who could smell the blood and the fear on them.

They saw a team that was hungry, a team that wanted it more.

Young Greig Spence has said it this morning. He and his team-mates realised they could do it, the they were playing against a team they weren’t afraid of, a team that was there for the beating.

I had written the headline and the third, fourth and fifth paragraphs of this piece before the third goal had been scored, adding the first two right after the full time whistle. If I could have somehow pressed the pause button, and stopped the clock, I could have written the whole thing, at 2-2, and then settled down to watch it unfold.

The fear now wafts out of Ibrox like something that’s been left to go bad, and rot. This is not just the conventional fear of the spooked or the scared though; it is the stench of resigned dread, the way I feel in those nuclear war nightmares, lying on the floor listening to the sirens, that colossally horrifying period of waiting for the flash of white light and those loud noises that mean the end of everything.

Disaster – not simply setbacks or problems; utter collapse and disgracing – is expected now. Every day they remain afloat is a small victory, but the glacier on which their institution is drifting continues to shrink. A little more of its surface turns to ice water every minute.

The clock never stops counting down.

Some of their fans are able to suspend their critical faculties and fear competes with hope as they try to imagine someone yet coming along to rescue this situation, but most of them know better now. Those who are able to grasp reality, and who know that the time has come for it, are starting to mentally prepare for the worst, although their expectations of what that will look like veer wildly from Best Case Scenarios where they don’t get promoted and have to endure another season in the Championship, impoverished, living hand to mouth, to the Unbelievable Catastrophe Scenarios, where they collapse like a house of cards and wind up in the bottom tier, with it all to do again.

The real stench of fear comes from the small, but growing, number who realise something even more disastrous than that could happen, and they both dread this but understand that it might be for the best. They are the fans who know the club cannot be sustained running at the current level, who know the pumped up steroid version of the Rangers they knew was a freakish time in their history that ought never to have been, a period when they lived on someone else’s tab, and developed a false impression of themselves in the process.

Rangers was a West of Scotland football club that mistakenly believed it was a global institution, a cultural phenomenon because it had a distinct personality. Yet they are not the only football club in the world that has that. Other clubs in other countries have history beyond the bricks and mortar of the stadium, beyond the trophies and the great players who’ve worn the jersey.

Outside of Ibrox, the identity they embrace is shared by a very small number of people. Those who try to pigeon hole their club as “Protestant and Loyalist” are limiting its attraction and global appeal, but theirs are, sadly, often the loudest voices you hear.

This idea of themselves as some kind of cut above, this notion Murray brought with him when he said they were “Scotland’s biggest institution after the Church”, has done them immense harm in the last five to ten years.

Living beyond their means had become the accepted norm. The real fear is reserved for those who understand that.

Rangers was like a drug user who, after he’d sold everything of value, robbed where he could, blagged and begged after that and finally hit rock bottom, but still couldn’t kick the habit. The NewCo has the same crippling addiction as the club that died, and the mess they are in now is like an addicts worst nightmare; Cold turkey (at best) is on its way, as the permanent state of affairs.

Everyone at Ibrox is living in the shadow of bad choices which all are afraid of, and keep putting off. But all that does is expands the area of destruction.

The club needs a minimum of £10 million to get to this time next year, and that depends on a highly improbable transformation in their fortunes. Yet even if they somehow found the money … what then? They will continue to haemorrhage it at an alarming rate, and unless someone brings some sanity to the process trouble will never be far away.

There are a dozen first team players out of contract at the end of the coming season. They cannot afford to re-sign them all, not even half of them. But any players who go will have to be replaced. They don’t have the money to do that. The concept of forward planning is non-existent. The fans who look ahead to next season do so with the deepest uncertainty.

There are some who were placing their hopes in the youth team. They were given a hard lesson in reality this week too, when Celtic’s young guns destroyed theirs in a 6-1 rout. That makes faith in that particular future a little hard to sustain, and makes the width and depth of the club’s catastrophic position impossible to underestimate. Not one part of the Ibrox machine works as it should. The cost of building them into even half of what the OldCo was is light years beyond their reach, unless Ashley suddenly develops altruism and funds it out of his pocket.

That’s not going to happen. Part of their fear comes from what Ashley might extract as the price for keeping on the lights. The supporters who are talking about protesting, and boycotting his stores, are banging their head agaisnt the ultimate immovable object; this guy can afford their petulance because he’s the real deal, a guy sitting on a fortune in the billions, and doesn’t need to make friends.

Their club is an epic shambles, from top to bottom, with a rudderless, directionless board of directors, many of whom are grabbing what they can before the whole ship goes down. The fans themselves are divided and bitter, a support that teeters on the brink of civil war. The one thing they are agreed on at the moment is that the manager has to go – and last night’s calamity surely brings us to the very edge of his personal abyss – but once that situation is resolved (soon, it has to be) the focus will turn, at last, to what the long term future holds.

They are afraid. They are right to be afraid. Their fear is not irrational, but grounded in realism and, for some, the knowledge of what is coming.

At the weekend past, we saw a sterling example of the power of fear when Kilmarnock came to Ibrox in the cup and were beaten, easily, by the same team who lost to part-timers last night.

Kilmarnock are not the only SPL side to have lost at that ground in recent years; Motherwell, St Johnstone and Inverness have lost there too, and I don’t think that was entirely to do with how good a side Sevco Rangers are or how bad the opposition was.

I think part of it was fear, a fear steeped in history, the fear of people who are still too blinded by the Ibrox lights to understand how much, how completely, things have changed over there.

Motherwell lost managed by Stuart McCall, who spent his best years playing in a damned good Rangers team, and I think he simply couldn’t see past the name and the ground and the fans.

St Johnstone were managed by former Linfield boy and Northern Ireland international Tommy Wright, who’s background suggests a similar awed view of the Ibrox stands.

The Kilmarnock team who lost at the weekend were managed by former Rangers player Alan Johnston, who’s hat-trick against the club, as a player, was long ago enough to have receded into memory whilst the cold sweat of playing on that pitch remains. And, of course, Inverness were managed by former Celtic manager John Hughes. This one might have thrown me, but I have lost count of the number of former Celtic players who still look at Ibrox and see a “massive club” and can’t get the notion out of their heads.

Watching Kilmarnock, you could tell that there were players there who were simply not up to the psychological task of winning at a ground whose name alone would once have scared the life out of them. Before the St Johnstone game, Wright talked up his opponents as much as he did his own team, who had already won the Scottish Cup last season, a mistake John Hughes made too prior to Inverness taking them on, and I recall Stuart McCall sounding like a guy whose team had been beat from the moment he heard the draw.

In short, these guys, to one degree or another, bought into the “Sevco equals Rangers and Rangers equals a big club” fantasy … instead of realising how much has changed. They treated the club with more respect than its position and current squad deserves.

Not so everyone. Hearts have beaten them twice this season, treating them as just another club and the task as just another game. Last night, an amateur side who were two goals down refused to be beaten, and when they scored the first goal on the way to their epic comeback you could sense the pendulum swinging the other way, as Sevco’s players realised they were on the verge of a shameful reversal.

Fear cuts both ways, and it can be used to devastate you or motivate you, depending on your own mentality. I said earlier that two examples of psychological warfare came to mind, one real and one not, the fictional one partly based on the factual. I mentioned them both not for the debilitating effect on those who were the targets of it, but because it inspired them instead.

At the Alamo, whatever initial effect the playing of El Degüello may have had, in the end the defenders realised that “no quarter given” quite literally removed any sense of doubt as to the outcome. It forced the small band of Texans to recognise the inevitability of death, and it made easy the decision to fight to the last drop of blood or die with dishonour.

It’s not for nothing that people remember them, and the battle, today.

In Rio Bravo, the stalwarts in the jail refuse to be broken by the song; indeed, it’s what finally sobers Dude up once and for all. When he begins to sing My Rifle, My Pony & Me (it helps that he’s played by the brilliant Dean Martin) their own spirits begin to rise, and it psych’s out the opposition instead, who immediately fall silent.

Something similar may yet happen at Ibrox, if some of their fans can conquer the fear instead of letting it paralyse them.

They could use it to inspire their next move.

Some are already openly discussing something that would have been unthinkable; of accepting that Rangers, as they knew it, is dead and gone and that a brand new club and identity should have arisen from the ashes of the liquidation, instead of a NewCo dressed up in the cerements of the grave.

It will not be easy to sell their fellow supporters, or the media, or the governing bodies, on the idea that when this club falls into administration that they ought to just let it die, once and for all, starting afresh, perhaps even away from Ibrox, with a slimmed down version and a new way of looking at the world.

Let’s face it, in the scramble for the assets that will follow this time, there are no good choices or options. There’s only the understanding that whoever ends up with the reigns, the club will be run for their benefit and not that of the fans.

When all you have left is the idea of what your club should be, there’s no reason any longer to let fear of what it is stop you from doing what needs to be done.

Wimbledon fans did it, many of them rejecting the MK Dons relaunch out of hand, and the club they formed, AFC Wimbledon, has climbed from the ninth tier of English football to the fourth, and actually holds the English record for longest unbeaten run; 78 matches between February 2003 to December 2004.The term “phoenix club” has never been used more appropriately.

On 7 October this year, AFC Wimbledon recorded their first ever win over the MK Dons, a 3-2 victory in the Football League Trophy.

It can be done. If they fight through the fear, and the uncertainty, and swallow their pride, face up to reality and act.

What happened last night was not just a bad result. It was a watershed moment. The writing is on the wall, not just for the manager but for the whole club. The reek of fear out of Ibrox is palpable. Even the most optimistic supporters realise that the trouble that swirls around them is worse, far worse, than they can now deny.

The manager himself, McCoist is done for, a dead man walking if ever I’ve seen one in football. The club itself is floundering in stormy seas, and in truth there’s no reason any longer to keep it afloat.

The great American author, Chuck Palahniuk, the writer of Fight Club amongst other imaginative and brilliant works, once said “Find out what you’re afraid of and go live there.” It was Woody Allan who said “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Well it’s coming, Sevco fans. The Second Death is on its way, and you can either face it with confidence and start to plan the next move, or you can let the fear envelope you as it did your players last night, and go down squealing like pigs.

Let your club die and accept that it did.

Then, and only then, can you find the courage to start anew.

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10 comments on “The Smell Of Fear
  1. What a brilliant article on the story that just keeps giving!

    Get Along Home Cindy! Cindy!

    Well done James!!!!

  2. like yourself James,I watched the game and when Alloa scored to make it 2-1 for Sevco,I just had this feeling,there was only one winner and it was not long ball Sallys team,and in the end the better Football team did win.
    Great article again H H

  3. James,

    The imagery evoked by your writing is quite brilliant.

    Your style is developing into something incredible ….as a real time documentary on the Govan Clusterfuck……reckon we will read back on a lot of your material,for reference on these issues, in years from now……Chapeau indeed!!

    I felt the same as you did….when the part timers equalised……I could almost smell the fear from the sea of Blue shite on my screen.

    Only wish I would have phoned an in play bet for Sevco to get friar tucked in 90 minutes.I hope you and Larsson7 filled your boots at the fat bookie’s expense.

    Rangers then. Sevco now. Friar tucked Forever.

  4. Didn’t see the Alloa game, We were at Celtic Park supporting the team ,,,we need to talk about Alexander !

  5. Unlike some on here my DAUGHTER took a punt at 2-2 and made herself a few quid. Sadly I’m not a betting man -unfortunately.

  6. It surely has to be obvious to even the most staunch of the Sevco followers that Ally only cares about one thing and that is Ally. His greed overcomes all else no matter the personal humilation and embarassment he is facing, he is refusing to recognise the damage he is doing to his club all for personal gain. There is a major protest being planned aimed solely at him tomorrow, and he will ride that out in the hope that it forces the board to do the right thing and not he himself, An absolute shameless disgrace as a human being let alone a so called football manager.

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