Drive out the hatred

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:11 PM ET

The return e-mail was short and to the point.

“I don’t do interviews about back home,” said Mo Johnston, Toronto FC’s director of soccer.

Johnston, a former star striker with Celtic F.C., was asked if he was attending Friday night’s friendly between his former club and Manchester United at the Rogers Centre. He was asked if he was taking part in anything Celtic-wise this weekend.

Johnson refused to say, but TFC’s media and public relations person, Michelle Lissel, confirmed that Johnston would not being going to the game or meeting up with the Celtic players or staff.

Relations strained

It’s clear that relations between Johnston and his former club are still not great. And that, said Indy car star, and major Celtic supporter, Dario Franchitti, is just ridiculous.

“It’s like something from the Dark Ages. There’s no place for it.” said Franchitti, a Scot who has been a Celtic supporter since his teens.

Franchitti, who is out to defend his Toronto Honda Indy title this weekend, believes it’s time for both Celtic and Rangers fans to live and let live, when it comes to Mo Johnston.

“It’s a very complicated situation,” said Franchitti, who may be risking the ire of his fellow Celtic supporters with his opinion on the matter. “But to me, it should be about the football and nothing else.”

When Johnston signed with the Rangers in July 1989, after originally indicating that he would be going back to Celtic, it was like an atomic bomb of outrage exploded over Scotland.

The two Glasgow sides represent one of the most intense sport rivalries in the world. Johnston, who scored 52 goals in 140 appearances with Celtic, left the Scottish side to play two seasons with the French club Nantes, before returning home in 1989.

The Scottish international originally indicated that he would return to Celtic but, shockingly, signed with the hated Rangers. Johnston certainly wasn’t the first Roman Catholic to pull on the blue for Protestant-supported Rangers, but his status as a player with Celtic certainly made the signing intensely controversial.

To this day, older supporters of both sides continue to express vitriol toward Johnston, who has spent the last five years in North America — away from the anger and resentment back home.

What’s happened to Johnston, said Franchitti, who met up with Celtic manager Neil Lennon at a media gathering in Toronto on Thursday, represents everything that’s wrong with the historic Celtic-Rangers rivalry — the hatred involved.

“It’s something that’s been ingrained for years,” Franchitti said. “It’s really a bad side of Scottish football because people attach these religious angles to the thing, and it’s been going on for a long, long time, and it’s just wrong.”

Franchitti, who actually spent a day training with Celtic F.C. some years ago (“I was terrible. I do my best work sitting down. My co-ordination’s much better when I’m sitting on my arse”) said it is possible to be a supporter of one side, without the hate and loathing for the other.

“One of my very best friends and his son, who’s my godson, they’re big Rangers fans,” said Franchitti, the 2007 Indianapolis 500 champion who has already recorded victories on the Indy circuit this season, at Iowa and Long Beach. “And we have such a laugh ... just the banter back and forward. But it’s about football. And that’s what it should be. But some people use it for darker purposes. I love to talk to football with people whether they’re Celtic or Rangers fans.

“Talk to Neil (Lennon),” Franchitti added, when asked about the atmosphere at Celtic-Rangers games. “He’ll be able to tell you all about that, having played in a lot of them and having suffered some serious abuse at the hands of fans. Some of the things the players have to put up with on both sides is wrong. It’s absolutely wrong.”

Lennon, who became the Celtic manager in March after the departure of Tony Mowbray, was attacked outside of a Glasgow pub in September, 2008, the victim of “sectarian abuse” according to a Celtic club spokesman.

Big market

The attack occurred hours after Celtic lost to the Rangers. For his part, Lennon also believes that it’s time for Johnston to be welcomed back into the fold.

“Maybe Mo’s someone the club could use, in terms of taping into talent ID, because there’s a big market over here,” Lennon said.

“We’re hoping to bump into Mo while we’re here,” added Lennon. “But I haven’t heard anything from him.”


Videos

Photos