The most vicious derbies in the world are all propelled by a dividing factor. One that leaves fans geometrically split and left on opposing sides. For instance, the Superclásico, the perpetual struggle between Boca Juniors and River Plate, Argentina’s two biggest clubs, is a battle between the social classes. Boca representing the historical working class, whereas River are associated with Bueno Aires’ wealthier citizens. The derby between Barcelona and Real Madrid, perhaps the most glamorous event in football’s calendar, leaves fans segregated based on their opinions on Spanish nationalism and the life and actions of General Franco.
The derby that comes with the most intense atmosphere, the most visceral of hatred and the longest litany of misdemeanours is the Old Firm Derby, the eternal clash between Glasgow’s giants Celtic and Rangers. Historically Celtic have represented the nation’s Catholic contingent, while the Protestant Unionist ranks have been linked inextricably to Rangers. This is an image that has been seared into our consciousness for generations, however as we move further and further into a more technologically advanced age is this still the case? And if so, how long will it persist for?
In one of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books, a character espouses the view that “You cannot truly hate a man without loving them first”. This is a theory that can be applied to the Old Firm. You would assume that the disdain that the two clubs share for each other has been applicable from birth, yet this is not the case.
Rangers founded in 1872 and Celtic in 1888, lived harmoniously for a number of years, sharing the city amicably. The embryonic stage of the relationship was defined by the phrase made popular by an unnamed commentator, who said that the two clubs were fast becoming “old firm friends”. It was not until Scotland was placed under significant strain, both from a financial and emotional standpoint, that there was a fractioning of the relationship. Key issues like an economic depression and the feeling that the lives of men who practised faith from opposing factions were thrown away in disproportionate numbers during the First World War – the Battle of the Somme becoming a particular bone of contention – did we see a true dissolving of the burgeoning friendship.
Scotland as a whole became more segregated. Football did what is always did and always will do, and became a microcosm of society as a whole. Celtic, established as a way to deliver aid to the impoverished Irish immigrant community, quickly became a source of salvation, while also serving as readily identifiable target for the Protestant folk angered at the state of things. And as such, Rangers Football Club became the mirror image, providing a similar sanctuary and extended support base for the Protestant masses.
Life continued in this manner, if anything the relationship regressed as time passed and the wounds, often literal ones, were allowed to fester. Things became so vitriolic that it was an unwritten law that Rangers would refuse to sign a player with Catholic origins.
Who knows how long things would have continued in this manner if it was not for a man with such an impregnable ego, such an unshakable belief in his own prowess to enable change, a man like Graeme Souness. Souness, in an effort to turn around the fortunes of a club that had become mired in mediocrity, realised that limiting the attainable pool of talent by such a huge degree was tantamount to madness. In an effort to demolish this way of thinking he pulled off perhaps the most dramatic transfer in Scottish football history. The signing of Mo Johnston.
Mo Johnston was a Catholic, however he was not just any Catholic. He was a truly dazzling forward who, at his best, flirted with entering the ‘world-class’ bracket and just happened to have already cultivated a successful career with Celtic, winning the league title in 1986. To throw additional fuel to the flames, it appeared that Johnston had already agreed a deal to return to Celtic Park, only to be stolen from under the noses of the Parkhead hierarchy.
This moment, for many, was the nadir of Scottish Football. There were reports that huge (probably hyperbolic) numbers of Rangers fans were so infuriated with the club’s new direction that masses of Rangers emblazoned hats, scarves and flags were set ablaze, as well as a number of season tickets. The whole city was abuzz with fury; fans of Rangers at the breaking of tradition, while Celtic fans at the perceived betrayal – signs festooned with the message “Judas” were anything but sparse. Johnston’s transfer was seen as a huge blow for Celtic, one emphasised by the sentiments of Billy McNeill, the manager at the time and captain of the Lisbon Lions side that won the 1967 European Cup final, when he said to Johnston, “You mess me about and I’ll fight you all the way. I’ll make sure you never fucking play again”.
While the scenes were undoubtedly ugly, they were also necessary. A moment of this magnitude was required if Scotland was ever to levitate itself from the baser emotions it had got itself embroiled in, it jolted the nation the way a shock from a defibrillator can kick-start a failing heart. Rangers’ owner Sir David Murray confirmed as much when he said, “it removed a cloud that hung above Rangers”.
Today the football and cultural landscape is painted in a vastly different manner. God, and the manner in which He extrapolates faith has been shrunk hugely. In Scotland, this is the case across the entirety of the board. According to the results of the latest Scottish Social Attitudes survey 52% of the nation identify as ‘not religious’. The number of people willing to align themselves to the Church of Scotland has decreased 15% since 1999, while Catholicism has neither developed nor diminished in terms of followers. Now the reasons for this lethargy are as diverse as they are numerous, however the dissenting opinion that is nearly universally accepted is that we have entered a more advanced age. An age in which mysteries of the past can be, at least partially, explained through the rigours of science. The number of folk who have abandoned conventional religion for a failure to provide empirical evidence is rising at an exponential rate.
This rate of change can be matched by few entities. One, however, that is morphing at a similar rate, is football. In the same 16-year gap that has seen religion retreat like an ocean’s tide has seen an explosion of popularity for football – the people’s game is undeniably a global phenomenon.
Since the advent of Sky, viewing football has gone from an almost seedy, guilt-pleasure to an absolute necessity. Even folk who hold football in nothing but contempt have a far greater knowledge of the game than their early 1990s counterparts. This is largely down to the sheer quantity football that is packaged and distributed to us on a daily basis. In this respect, Scotland is far from unique.
Despite the fact that Scotland’s reputation as a football nation has plummeted from a cliff, (both on domestic and international fronts), since the turn of the century, the population has remained committed, almost ritualistic in their football viewing. Data taken from Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s excellent book, ‘Soccernomics’, suggests that Scots are some of the most fervent supporters on the planet. In terms of the total spectator average as a percentage of the population, Scotland rank fourth in Europe with 3.9%. To give this statistic some relevancy the percentage of England’s population who attend games is just 2.5%. This statistic is helped hugely by the Old Firm’s staggering number of passionate followers
It seems like there is a real lack of conviction in the modern-day bickering of the two clubs whenever religion is brought into the equation. For fans that are newly indoctrinated into the Old Firm rivalry, the bigotry is hollow. Words and insults that have been inherited from a bygone age are spouted with little or no belief. Rhetoric spat with the aim to cause an annoyance rather than to inflict any spiritual harm.
It is important to remember that there are still some shocking scenes witnessed anytime the two sides meet, with the bottle-attack on an eleven-year-old Rangers fan becoming little more than the latest in a long line of regrettable actions. However, there is a clear reduction in the importance of sectarian infused bile. There is a visible presence for eradication (according to the same Scottish Survey Agency, 9/10 people in Scotland believe sectarianism is an enduring problem), sadly, there are just too many stumbling blocks in place. The most important of which come from a financial standpoint. It has been estimated that the Old Firm rivalry could be worth up to £120 million per year. Anything that causes the rivalry to mellow-out, (including reducing the prominence of religion), would cause the value of the fixture to decrease, and as Scottish Football’s only real, global draw this is something that I do not feel will be tolerated by the upper echelons inside the SFA’s corridors of power, who time and time again have shown a reticence to endure a hit to their personal finances even if it is for the game’s betterment. Abuse now seems to come mostly in the online, anonymous name-calling that has blighted every corner of our society.
As we, as a society, continue to develop and grow, expanding communitive knowledge it seems inevitable that religion will continue to diminish. The football juggernaut, on the other hand, shows no signs of slowing down. With BT Sport now a viable source of competition for Sky there will presumably be an increase in quality viewing. So, while the Old Firm is not quite bigger than God, in the near future, who knows?