This feature is part of A Tale of One City
There are football rivalries around the world that are intensified by issues of race, class, politics and religion. It’s what drives a football match contested between teams from the same city to different heights; it gives it an edge over your everyday fixture. In a city rivalry, the emotion, ferocity and sense of pride are elevated to levels that seem to transcend matters of football.
In Glasgow, the historic and bitter rivalry between Celtic and Rangers is quite possibly the perfect embodiment of footballing hatred. Over the course of some 125 years, Scottish football has been largely conceptualised by the deep-seated hatred shared by Celtic and Rangers.
The Old Firm derby, considered by many to be the most brutal and uncompromisingly intense football match on the planet, is characterised by the historic Catholic-Protestant division across Glasgow which has shaped the nature of the rivalry and the animated behaviour of the fans who bring the matches to life. Across the broad spectrum of rivalries in global football, it could be argued with great confidence that the Old Firm is the most closely associated with religious tensions. It is a piece of footballing tribalism that inflames a fan’s antipathy to heights seen so rarely anywhere else.
To the Old Firm, the historic element is the essential narrative needed to explain the fundamentals of the enmity shared between Celtic and Rangers fans. Celtic Football Club was founded in 1888 in the east end of Glasgow by Brother Walfrid, a Marist monk, in an attempt to raise money for the city’s impoverished Catholic community. This religious affiliation and foundation distinguished Celtic from the majority of Scotland from their outset as the country was predominantly Protestant. As Celtic developed as a club, it attracted large numbers from the Catholic-Irish community to coincide with the club’s burgeoning success on the pitch.
Rangers, on the other hand, were founded in 1872 by a group of young men from the Gareloch in Glasgow. A prominent figure in Rangers’ infancy was John Ure Primrose, an active unionist and freemason who politically aligned to the Orange Order. Primrose vociferously expressed anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiments and thus became a patron for Rangers. Before long, the blue side of Glasgow grew to become the symbol of the Protestant community due to the club’s size, success and location in the southern part of the city.
Rangers became the Protestant entity that was blooded the stand up to the dominance of Celtic – who were establishing their superiority in Scottish football with four league championships in five years between 1893-98. And so the two largest football clubs in Glasgow were formed in the latter stages of the nineteenth century and quickly developed into two entities that represented the polarised identities in Scotland.
Of course, the rivalry is not purely Scottish. The Irish contingent is more than influential in the history, tradition and antagonism of the rivalry. Although Glasgow is not geographically divided along religious lines in the same manner as Northern Ireland, there is a strong and undeniable cultural division that has been evident throughout the course of Old Firm folklore. The historically-rooted breach between the Celtic and Rangers faithful dates back over three centuries.
After the Treaty of Union was signed between Scotland and England in 1707, a drastic change in agriculture led to the need for an increased workforce for the Scots. Due to the mass unemployment in Ireland, a large number of migrants made the short journey across the Irish Sea to Scotland to find work. These Irish migrants would be involved in the industrial revolution of Scotland, building roads and railways. When the Great Famine struck Ireland in the 1840s, it prompted another mass migration of the Irish population to Scotland and, according to a census conducted in 1901, there were 205,000 Irish-born people living there.
The soundtrack to the Old Firm has always been one of febrile bigotry. The more uninformed gentleman would tell you that, in spite of the bitterness and vitriol evident at matches, Celtic and Rangers fans still respect each other. For many, however, that is nonsense. The supporters are driven by a burning mutual disdain that has fuelled the rivalry and thrust it to levels of simmering tension that have boiled over into incidents of riotous behaviour in the past.
The Rangers fans like to portray their nemeses as IRA gun-runners while Celtic project an image of their opposite numbers as right-wing Protestants, enamoured with the monarchy. It has fashioned a shocking language of hate between the two sets of fans but without it, the Old Firm wouldn’t have the same character of malevolence and combustible hostility that has established it as one of the most thrilling derbies in world football.
Fans travel to games through pre-ordained routes specifically to avoid each other before the match, but it only serves to pent up the rage inside them and cause them to spew abuse at each other inside either Celtic Park or Ibrox. Interestingly, though, the most infamous spate of Old Firm violence occurred outside of the two Glasgow derby homes. It happened at Hampden Park in 1980, in the Scottish FA Cup final. In a fairly tepid match, Celtic claimed a late victory thanks to an extra-time strike from striker George McCluskey but it is what followed the game’s conclusion that is regarded as one of the most violent explosions of Old Firm tensions.
Following the final whistle, thousands of Rangers fans stayed inside Hampden Park with the intention of abusing Celtic supporters and raining on their team’s parade. While Celtic fans joined the players on the pitch to parade the trophy and celebrate the victory, Rangers fans also invaded the pitch and a riot followed that simultaneously shamed Scottish football and showed the Old Firm rivalry at its most repugnant. The police had insufficient manpower inside the ground and were subsequently futile in their attempts to quell the ensuing disaster. Photographer Donald McLeod could not believe what he was witnessing unfold before his eyes: “I was stood near the dugouts when it all kicked-off and it was like an invasion of angry Bay City Rollers fans. They all seemed to have long hair and their scarves tied around their wrists.”
The scenes also prompted famous remarks from match commentator Archie MacPherson: “This is like a scene now out of Apocalypse Now … We’ve got the equivalent of Passchendaele and that says nothing for Scottish football. At the end of the day, let’s not kid ourselves. These supporters hate each other.”
The riot was viewed as the product of excessive consumption of alcohol and as a result, parliament passed a bill thereby banning the sale of alcohol at Scottish sports grounds. Alcohol may have been taken out of the equation, but the abhorrence of the fans was as toxic as ever after a rampaging derby incident that had both Celtic and Ranger chomping at the bit to get at each other once again.
What makes the Old Firm so important, though, in the wider context of Scottish football is that Celtic and Rangers are the two most successful teams in the country’s history. Celtic remain to this day the only Scottish team to have lifted the European Cup – they were the first British club to claim it in 1967 – and both teams lead the way in domestic football as well.
In terms of league titles, Rangers can claim bragging rights with an astounding 54 to Celtic’s 45. In addition, Rangers have a better all-time head-to-head record in the Old Firm, leading Celtic 159-144 over 399 meetings. Between the two clubs, they boast an incredible 99 Scottish League championships, 68 Scottish Cups and 41 Scottish League Cups. They are undeniably the premier forces in the history of Scottish football and it only adds to the derby, as having the title race at stake lends matches a tremendous weight that amplifies the tension and drama.
A derby with the added spice of a league title at stake is always worth savouring and that was exactly the case in May 1979, a year before the Hampden Park riot. The occasion was cloaked in the usual insinuation of violence and the palpable sense of sectarian tension hung in the air. On a warm early summer evening at Celtic Park, everything hung in the balance as the two Glaswegian teams prepared to do battle. Celtic needed three points on the final day of the season to be crowned champions whilst a draw would see Rangers retain the title they had won a year previous. After Alex MacDonald gave the visitors an early lead, the match descended into a ridiculously entertaining, seesaw rollercoaster of a ride.
A goal down, Celtic looked hopelessly adrift when Johnny Doyle was sent off but Roy Aitken and George McCluskey led the green and white charge as Celtic fought back to turn the game on its head. Rangers were far from dead, though, as Bobby Russell fired an equaliser 14 minutes from time to set up a nail-biting finale. Unfortunately, the day was not meant to be for Rangers as Colin Jackson headed into his own net before Murdo MacLeod wrapped up the title for Celtic with a stunning 25-yard strike in stoppage time, etching the match into club folklore as the “ten men who won the league”.
The win prompted elated celebrations from the Celtic fans and the crescendo achieved inside of Celtic Park was deafening. The noise of the Old Firm has always been a pivotal element of what makes it a truly great derby. Prior to any kick-off, the build-up is dominated by relentless roars and cheers by two sets of fans trying to out-sing the each other. It is true that when the teams are released and the pitch is fully prepared, in those closing moments before kick-off, Ibrox or Celtic Park can rival any stadium in terms of noise and spectacle, and that’s part of the reason why the Old Firm can be held in the same regard and mentioned in the same breath as El Clásico in Spain or the Merseyside derby.
However, a derby would not be complete without those episodes of sweet revenge and Rangers got their own back on Celtic in 1999 when they clinched the championship at Celtic Park with an emphatic 3-0 win. The Blues were dominant and won courtesy of a Neil McCann brace and a Jörg Albertz penalty which gave Rangers one of the sweetest memories in their existence as it remains the only time they have claimed the Scottish league title in their enemy’s back garden. Think Arsenal clinching the Premier League title at Old Trafford in 2002 and multiply that by ten. That was just how big that occasion was for both clubs, and it is one that Rangers fans have not let Celtic forget about since.
Sometimes the flames can be stoked by the key actors in the Old Firm match itself. Paul Gascoigne famously incited outrage amongst Celtic fans when he mimicked a flute player in an Orange Order march. Unsurprisingly, it sparked something more than murmurings of discontent from the Celtic fans and was a stark reminder of how footballers themselves can get caught up in the magnitude of the occasion. The players and fans may be forgiven for getting carried away with their raw emotion, but even managers have historically had a tough time concealing their contempt for the other half of Glasgow down the years.
Chaos threatened to overshadow Celtic’s 1-0 win over their rivals in the Scottish Cup in 2011 when their manager, Neil Lennon, was involved in an ugly touchline spat with then-assistant Rangers manager Ally McCoist in one of the most notorious chapters in the Old Firm history book. In a highly-charged match, tempers flared on the pitch as well as off it as Rangers had three players sent off. But the night will always be remembered for the two men on the touchline becoming embroiled in an exchanging of words before they locked horns and had to be separated by the myriad coaching staff that surrounded them.
El Hadji Diouf was sent off for dissent after the final whistle and the former Liverpool player had to be escorted off the pitch by police as he insisted on throwing his shirt towards the Rangers fans having already been given his marching orders by referee Calum Murray. However the real flashpoint was in the dugout as Lennon and McCoist confronted each other aggressively instead of shaking hands.
Although Lennon said weeks later that the two had resolved their differences, the mutual feeling of distaste signified that the rivalry between the two clubs was still as strong as ever. Lennon himself symbolises some of the more volatile elements of the derby, establishing a legacy that will not soon be forgotten.
A Catholic from Northern Ireland, Lennon has endured his fair share of Old Firm-related troubles. In 2002, two years after joining Celtic as a player, he was forced to quit playing for Northern Ireland following death threats issued to him before a game. In 2003, two students attacked him as he enjoyed a night out near his home in the genteel West End. In 2004 he was the victim of a road-rage incident in the middle of the M8 which led to a man being fined £500. In 2008 he was beaten unconscious by two men as he left a pub. Suffice to say, Lennon epitomises the uglier elements of the Old Firm divide and has seen his fair share of controversial moments as both player and manager at Celtic Park.
The Old Firm may not have boast superstar names in the same manner as El Clásico in Spain, and may not quite match up to the illustrious spectacle of a Manchester derby, but its a rivalry every bit as fierce and exhilarating and deserves to be appreciated in the wider sphere of city rivalries. The truth is, Glasgow just would not be the same without their most famous sporting event and Scottish football has very much missed the barren Old Firm spell since Rangers were demoted down to the lower echelons for financial irregularities. The Old Firm is the heartbeat of the Scottish Premier League and the sooner Rangers climb their way back up the ladder, the sooner the Old Firm can start writing new chapters in an already storied history.
Although it is technically a footballing rivalry, the Old Firm will always be viewed through the lens of sectarian hostility. The match has always been a release valve for fans to express their antipathies and it has been largely defined as the battle of two divided communities in Glasgow. The likelihood is that it will continue be viewed against the backdrop of a religiously-fuelled history but that same discord is the reason why the matches are breathless, cantankerous and riveting. It is the driving factor behind why so many people in Scotland, Ireland and beyond hold the match so close to their love for football.
The Old Firm is no ordinary football match; it is a social institution and a dramatic example of how football, politics and social identities can become closely intertwined. This sporting conflict acts both as the showpiece of Scottish football and as a mode of sublimation for social tensions. Although both clubs maintain a firm stance against sectarianism and violence in the Old Firm, a Glasgow rivalry without those tensions is an idealistic notion. As long as Celtic and Rangers continue to play each other, the opportunities for an expression of sectarianism and resentment will remain.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11