The Old Firm Derby Lives Again


Celtic and Rangers meet this Sunday and, as always, it will be as big a clash off the pitch as it is on it

By Graham Ruthven | Image by PaulVIF
[F]or all intents and purposes it was an Old Firm derby. The scoreboard read ‘Celtic versus Rangers,’ the two sets of supporters aimed bilious–and often sectarian–barbs at each other. The two teams on the pitch fitted the bill too: one in red, white and blue, the other in green and white hoops. And yet all of this was merely superficial.

This was an Under 17s game, contested last year by players not even old enough to drive. A proper Old Firm derby it may not have been, but even at this level there was nothing half-measured about the rivalry. Just like the real thing, both sets of fans–totalling a bumper 8,000–were escorted to and from the ground by police ready for trouble. And the men in blue weren’t left idle, with three arrests made as smoke bombs and flares were set off inside Celtic Park.

The two clubs no longer need to feign the real thing. Sunday will see Celtic and Rangers face each other for the first time in nearly three years. They will be competing for a place in the Scottish League Cup final, although that almost seems like something of an irrelevancy given the context and gravity of the fixture.

They will be competing for a place in the Scottish League Cup final, although that almost seems like something of an irrelevancy given the context and gravity of the fixture.

For so long Hampden Park has acted as a buffer between the blue and green sides of Glasgow, providing a neutral setting for Cup final clashes between the two Old Firm clubs. One club has its roots in the catholic church and Irish republicanism, while the other finds its identity in protestant unionism. Sunday’s fixture will only add another thick layer to the already hefty narrative.

It’s difficult to explain the true nature of the Old Firm rivalry to an outsider. The term ‘Old Firm’ has its origin in an off the-field alliance that used to exist between the two clubs, with the first derby match in 1888 described by the local press as “a friendly encounter.” Celtic and Rangers once shared business interests and even boardroom overlap, which can be dated–at least in some sense–until very recently, when the two teams shared sponsorship deals. The fixture has survived, along with its intricate political and social elements, but the tagline certainly hasn’t.

With the two clubs in different leagues, and without a derby meeting since Rangers entered liquidation following financial meltdown–forcing them to reapply for league membership at the foot of the pyramid–in 2012, Celtic and Rangers supporters have been forced to find alternative battlegrounds, even if that means taking the rivalry’s toxicity to the stands of youth games. Or, as has become common ground over the past three years, social media.

Twitter in particular has become a theatre of poison and resentment between the two sets of fans, with the general discourse crossing well into tedium. Social media has, in a sense, filled the void left by the lack of actual soccer.

But now that we finally have a game to address it seems somewhat jarring to look at the clash from a purely sporting perspective. Because after all, there is an actual soccer game to be played. Both teams are at their weakest for years, with Celtic struggling to adapt to life after Neil Lennon, and the continental philosophy of new manager Ronny Deila, and Rangers reeling from the resignation of their manager, Ally McCoist. In fact, the League Cup’s other semi-final–between Aberdeen and Dundee United–will likely be a more compelling contest.

Given the intensity of the Old Firm rivalry–arguably the most notoriously fearsome in European soccer–it’s little wonder that, with nearly three years passed since the last clash between the two clubs, fans have sought physical outlets for their suppressed energy. It goes someway to explaining why Celtic and Rangers supporters saw it fit, or even appropriate, to crash a youth fixture. On Sunday they’ll actually be invited.

Howler

Graham Ruthven is a soccer writer based in Glasgow, working for Scottish TV, NY Times, Guardian, Grantland, Eurosport and Bleacher Report among others. He tweets at @grahamruthven