“Theatre of vile bigotry and hatred” – that is how one Herald columnist described the most evocative of fixtures. No other match in world football compares to the Old Firm derby for passion, intensity and pressure. Perhaps the only other such rivalry that comes close is the River Plate v Boca Juniors clash in Argentina, and like the Old Firm it was founded on demographics and socioeconomic factors as opposed to football.
In Argentina, River Plate are seen as the club of the establishment and, historically, their followers tend to be from the more affluent suburbs of Buenos Aires. Whereas Boca Juniors are seen as the ‘club of the people’ and attract supporters from the poorer reaches of the Argentine capital. This is the principal reason that Diego Maradona is revered as a working class hero throughout the country, not least with fans of the Genoese.
When compared with Glasgow’s finest, Boca’s story aligns closely with that of Celtic, whilst Rangers’ is similar to that of River Plate in that they are the more ‘Bourgeois’ of the two Glasgow clubs. Celtic Football Club was founded in 1888 when the club was set up by the Irish Marist Brother Walfrid as a means of raising funds for his charity The Poor Childrens Dinner Table. His aim was to raise enough money to feed the impoverished Catholics in the East End of Glasgow.
However philanthropic his mission, the indigineous Protestants were outraged at this broadside from the immigrants in the east end and their anger prompted an outbreak of Sectarian violence throughout Glasgow, with gangs of local youths springing up and fighting amongst each other. Perhaps, the more cynical observer could suggest that such in-fighting amongst the clans is to be expected from a country that oversaw the highland clearances and has throughout history been involved in some kind of civil war or uprising, but as the years have gone on and the violence has continued, there can be no doubt that this religious conflict has become entrenched within Scottish culture.
Indeed, ‘whit school ye went tae’ or ‘whit foot ye kick wae’ can earn you a free drink from a stranger in a boozer or a punch from the self same enebriate depending on whether or not you answer to his satisfaction. You can, of course, opt for the cop out and say “Kilmarnock” or “Falkirk” but the small-minded bigoted bile remains at the centre of the Scotland’s psyche. Religious hatred is the distinctive ingredient that makes the foundation of the Old Firm rivalry more rock solid than any other, including that of the Superclasico in Argentina, but why does this rivalry, now more than a century old, continue to evoke so much passionate hatred and emotional torment amongst individuals who, 6 days of the week, are tolerant, rational human beings?
Perhaps the deep-rooted sectarian bigotry, fuelled by the continuing, if sporadic, troubles in Northern Ireland plays a large part, but there can be no doubt that the football is a constituent ingredient as well. Between them, Celtic and Rangers have won more than 200 trophies with both sides competing at the pinnacle of European football in the 1960’s and 70’s. Unfortunately a combination of SFA politics – a discussion for another, probably rainy, day – a lack of competitiveness domestically, and the dearth of television money in an era dominated by Rupert Murdoch and the monolithic entity that is BSkyB have contributed to Scotland becoming no more than a backwater on the European stage. Celtic and Rangers though, continue to compete outside their weight division as appearances in the last 16 of the Champions League and in the Final of the Uefa Cup (or Europa League, as it is now) from both sides in the last decade would prove.
As a result of the general stagnation of the game north of the border, quite often the match itself, as a spectacle, is not the prettiest. Time on the ball, technique and skill are in short supply and in recent years, the standard of player is not the same with the Paul Gascoigne’s, Brian Laudrup’s and Henrik Larsson’s making way for the Peter Grant’s, Peter Lovenkrands’ and Filip Sebo’s of this world. No disrespect to the latter trio, but it is fair to say the degredation in quality over the last decade to fifteen years has been remarkable.
Many fans would tend to argue that the general deterioration and disillusionment within the domestic game led to the fixture losing its sparkle, particularly over the last five years or so – but the last meeting between the two in a powderkeg Scottish Cup fifth round tie, put paid to any such suggestion. It was a thrilling 90 minutes – a proper rollercoaster cup game.
There was a wonderful contrast in the way both sides lined up, with Celtic favouring an attacking approach based on bountiful possession and an artisan’s approach to carving out chances, whilst Rangers, despite being the home side, looked to spring out on the counter, exploiting any gaps left by Celtic in their quest to create opportunities. The sideplot created by the arrival of El-Hadji Diouf provided another spicy overture to an already fascinating clash.
By the time the last of the supporters were settling into their seats, Rangers already led thanks to the first goal of Jamie Ness’ career, and what a strike! His spectacular rocket of a shot thundered into the corner of the net and would not have been stopped by three goalkeepers let alone the solitary, albeit considerable, frame of Fraser Forster. Celtic equalised in the 15th minute when a well worked move down the left was stroked home by Kris Commons, who was making his Old Firm debut. Celtic looked to be in control of the game but five minutes before the break, Forster tripped Naismith in the area. The 6″7 keeper, on loan from Newcastle United, was dismissed, leaving the Bhoys a man down before Whittaker stepped up and, with impressive ease, stuck the penalty away.
Like all Old Firm games, there were a multitude of subplots in play throughout the overall drama, and in this case the battle between the industry and tenacity of Hoops captain Scott Brown, and the technique and swagger of Diouf proved the most enthralling. Diouf skinned Brown multiple times in the first half and was the most incisive of Rangers’ attackers. The Scot, however, had the last laugh, curling home a delicious equaliser beyond the reach of Alan McGregor before celebrating by raising his arms above his head whilst inches from the Senegal international’s face.
That was the end of the scoring but not the last piece of drama. McGregor produced a fantastic save from substitute Georgios Samaras’ point-blank header before Steven Naismith went down in the area expecting to win a second penalty, but instead receiving a second yellow card for what referee Calum Murray considered to be simulation. Samaras was then flagged offside by the entertainingly named linesman Willie Conquer (no he willnae!) when clean through despite being almost three yards onside.
So many contentious issues, so much to debate as the subsquent spat over Naismith’s ‘dive’, the war of words between Diouf and Brown, Neil Lennon and well, everyone, proved. Another fascinating encounter with so many incidents and so much commotion to ruminate over in the subsquent days. And that is perhaps the other reason that passions remain so stoked when Celtic and Rangers meet. Alongside all of the history, there is always something fascinating about the current predicament of both clubs. It is all about context.
A lot of it goes in circles as well, for example this time 15 years ago, it was Celtic owing money to the bank and in severe danger of financial meltdown but now that is the Gers predicament, although Celtic’s overall debt has increased by over £6million in the last year. At the moment, Celtic and Rangers are closely matched in the league and cups and this particular chapter in the Old Firm chronicle is all about the vigour and passion of the young pretender to the throne, Lennon, jousting with the old battleaxe that is Walter Smith, in his final season at the centre of the goldfish bowl.
Smith knows more than most about the history of the fixture and about the subtleties of this greatest of all rivalries. But what makes the Old Firm rivalry stand above any other, is that despite the sides having faced each other competitively close to 400 times, the desire to win remains as fierce as it did when the sides first met at Celtic Park on May 28th, 1888.
Off the pitch, there are a multitude of strictly non-footballing reasons that rivalry endures, but importantly, there have been just as many reasons on the pitch that have served to fuel the rivalry over the last 113 years. This will be the first season that sides have met each other seven times in the one campaign, but despite that fact, there is absolutely no danger of this particular fixture going stale. Roll on Sunday!
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