Celtic & Rangers: Old Firm, Old Enmity, New Century
Imagine different circumstances surrounding Manchester United’s defeat at Liverpool last Sunday. Leave aside Jamie Carragher’s nasty tackle on Nani, Nani’s ability to race to the referee before collapsing in an injured heap and the glorious sight, which may stay with me forever, of referee Phil Dowd, arms folded, watching from a distance like a disapproving dinner lady on playground duty at a primary school as players from both sides got their handbags out. Imagine instead, that United had three players sent off and nine booked. Imagine Nani crossing three-parts of the Anfield pitch to the Liverpool bench to confront Kenny Dalglish et al after the first dismissal. Make Carragher’s tackle a genuine yellow card offence, rather than the red card offence it was and have Sammy Lee pointing an accusing finger at Paul Scholes as the team’s entered the tunnel at half-time.
Then imagine Wayne Rooney, already booked for raking his studs down the back of Dirk Kuyt’s leg with the ball elsewhere, sliding in on Luis Suarez in the last minute and dumping him into some pitch-side photographers before joining two-thirds of his colleagues in buffeting Dowd and attempting to snatch the yellow card from Dowd’s hand. Move on to the final whistle and imagine United’s players are into Dowd again, jostling him and threatening him, with Ryan Giggs sent off for his part. Then imagine Giggs walking half the length of the Anfield pitch, shirt off, ignoring police advice to head straight for the tunnel, before throwing his shirt to the United fans and being bundled away by said constabulary.
Meanwhile, back in the managerial technical area, imagine Dalglish embracing Mike Phelan but recoiling in anger at something Phelan says (with apologies to fans of the perennially mild-mannered Phelan, strong imagination needed here) then snarling in Phelan’s face and gesticulating threateningly. And finally, imagine that Liverpool become the focal point of all subsequent press criticism that doesn’t lump both sides together, while United’s thirteen cards of varying hues and generally appalling conduct on the pitch is largely disregarded.
You have to imagine it because it simply would not happen. However, substitute ‘Celtic’ for ‘Liverpool’ and ‘Rangers’ for ‘Manchester United (as I’m sure you all did long ago) and you have to imagine nothing at all. It is what has happened in the aftermath of Celtic’s recent Scottish Cup victory over Rangers, where there were twelve bookings and three dismissals, disgraceful touchline and dug-out scenes and stupidity of both green and blue hue. Some friends tell me I shouldn’t find it difficult to understand why Rangers provided most if the disgraceful behaviour, both on and off the Parkhead pitch last week, yet Celtic received most of the criticism. Rangers are the Scottish, protestant, ‘establishment’, Celtic the second-class, catholic, underclass. And even in the more homogenised modern football culture, such divisions remain intact.
I’ve never bought all of that. I’ve seen justification in many accusations of Celtic ‘paranoia’ over their treatment in Scottish football. As a kid I knew about the aftermath of Celtic’s 1970 Scottish Cup Final defeat to Aberdeen. The excellent 1987 Celtic club history The Glory and the Dream is littered with perceived injustices being meted out to the club, usually, though not exclusively, in contrast to the treatment afforded Rangers in the same circumstances. That book’s explanation of the events which allegedly conspired against Celtic against Aberdeen was a simple “the referee had a poor match.” And way more often than not, the injustices are perceived, not actual.
I do sometimes wonder, however. My first sight of Hampden Park on the telly begged the question “why is only one end covered?” The answer I got from an old Scottish guy I knew – “because it’s the Rangers end, son” – was the only definite one I ever received. And in the three decades since, I’ve been given no reason to doubt that explanation. For my sins, one of my reactions to last October’s controversy when referee Dougie McDonald gave Celtic a penalty at Dundee United only to change his mind because Dundee United players protested was “I can’t imagine that happening to Rangers.”
And maybe it was paranoia which led to my disbelief a couple of months back at the reporting in the English press of one midweek round of SPL fixtures. Rangers won 2-0 win at Hibernian, with Rangers striker Nikica Jelavic scored both goals and that they were his first after a four-month injury lay-off. Celtic, the SPL leaders, hosted third-placed Hearts, who were on a run which threatened to separate the old firm at the SPL’s summit for the first time. It was the big match, first against third could not have been bigger with second-placed Rangers playing someone else. It was the big story, Hearts genuinely challenging the SPL’s long-derided duopoly. And the match itself was a story, too, as Celtic won 4-0. Had I been asked as part of my journalism training to write a 400-word round-up of the night’s SPL fixtures, I’d have been taken to task for leading with the Rangers game. Yet the press agency report which supplied the English press did just that.
Paranoia? A minor issue? Well, maybe and maybe. Yet clearly Rangers were considered bigger news, despite the context and the SPL table. But I’ve never bought the theory that Rangers and Celtic are “as bad as each other.” As a kid, I knew that Rangers fans had rioted in Barcelona after the 1972 European Cup Winners’ Cup final. But I didn’t understand when my cousin told me Rangers had won. Surrounding Rangers loss in the 2008 Uefa Cup final in Manchester to Zenit St. Petersburg were what my Rangers-supporting mate mischievously referred to as approximately “120 isolated incidents” in Manchester city centre involving Rangers fans. Surrounding Celtic’s loss in the 2003 Uefa Cup final to Porto in Seville were approximately 120 fewer “isolated incidents.”
Yet last week, amid all the ‘even-handed’ ballyhoo surrounding the game, the focus in England was on Celtic manager Neil Lennon’s behaviour in the touchline clashes with Rangers soon-to-be-boss Ally McCoist and the lovable scamp El-Hadji Diouf, rather than Diouf’s and Bougherra’s behaviour on the pitch. The Rangers Supporters Trust has called for an investigation into allegations of racist behaviour by Lennon against Diouf, which must have been made by lip-reading experts among the Rangers armchair support, as the clashes between Lennon and Diouf took place in front of rows of Celtic fans, half the pitch away from the Rangers following at Parkhead. And, lest we forget, the clash also took place half the pitch away from where the game was stopped after the first Rangers dismissal of the night. Oh, and Diouf denies there was anything racist about their clash. By the way. Nonetheless, Strathclyde police are investigating. And doubtless they’ll be as thorough in those investigations as in those concerning the bullets sent through the post to Lennon this year, and the hoax nail bomb in the days after the game. That’s the bullets sent through the post to Lennon and the hoax nail bomb in the days after the game. By the way. I haven’t seen the Rangers Supporters Trust’s take on that, although I’m happy to assume there is one and that it is condemnatory. So what of the fact that Rangers had nine bookings and threeplayers sent-off during the evening? Well… so what?. The behaviour of Diouf and Majid Bougherra (the third player dismissed, Steven Whittaker, was unlucky, his first yellow card unjustified, in my opinion) apparently paled into insignificance alongside Lennon’s callous positioning of his post box in the path of an envelope full of bullets and a hoax nail bomb.
Diouf, apparently, was just being Diouf. And Bougherra apologised to the referee. So that’s all right, then. Time to get to the real question, which is, apparently: “Why are there Catholic schools at all?” This beauty came from the unlikeliest source, Jeremy Paxman on the BBC2 nightly Newsnight programme on March 8th. He chaired a brief end-of-programme discussion on the holding of the “Old firm summit” which was part of the response to last week’s match. With him in the studio were former Scottish first minister Lord McConnell, who had instigated a previous summit, and “writer and comedian” A.L. Kennedy who… er …well, it seemed to be her job to tut disapprovingly at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.
But the longevity and depth of the religious divide in Scotland was the focus of the conversation, especially compared to “other parts of the union”, which meant Liverpool in this context. Paxman was quick to blame “apartheid in education” and Catholic schools, hence his question. McConnell answer was “because they are successful,” a comprehensive debunking of Paxman’s offensive slur, itself the sort of sectarianism he described as “political immaturity” later in the discussion. This view was admirably debunked by Kennedy. But the damage was done. Even worse, though, was the filmed introduction to the discussion, which took great pains to detail the historical context of the Old Firm’s rivalry, leaving no issue unhighlighted, no sectarian attitude unexposed.
Except one. Rangers’ decades-long refusal to field Catholic players, which might, you’d have thought been a key component of that historical context. I know the response this article will receive. Much of it will be accusations of bias (my name hardly hides which side of the divide I come from on this issue). Much of it will be prefixed by “yeah but what about…?” and variants thereof, as I’m reminded of the many times Celtic have been guilty of misbehaviour, violence and singing shi’ite Irish dirges about some bloke from Galway nicking some corn in the 1840s.
But I’m not here to defend any of that. There was no good behaviour at Parkhead last week, with the possible exception of Pat Bonner and Neil McCann in the Sky Sports studio. But there were TWELVE bookings and three red cards. There were disgraceful touchline and dug-out scenes. And there was plain stupidity in both blue and green. It’s just that most of it came from Rangers, while most of the criticism has been directed at Celtic. And that is just plain wrong.
Twohundredpercent is aware that the Celtic vs Rangers rivalry is an emotive subject. We would, however, request that comments on the subject are constructive. Abusive comments will be deleted without being published and the comments section will be closed if we deem it necessary. We’re sure it won’t be.
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