When I got in from work this evening, I sat down and watched the somewhat infamous Rangers-Celtic derby match from 1987. As I said yesterday, this watch something that I’d been delighted to find in order to download. It’s a match that has gone down in history as one of the most ill-tempered in the history of British football.
In 1987, Rangers had brought in a number of Englishmen to bolster their squad, with immediate results. Graham Roberts, Chris Woods, Mark Falco, Terry Butcher and Trevor Francis were amongst those lured north by a pot of gold, and the dividends were immediate when they snatched the title back from Celtic (who themselves had, the season in before that, only won the league from Hearts on the last day of the season by beating St Mirren 5-0 away from home whilst Hearts blew their chances by losing at Dundee). The early 1980s had been the leanest time that either of the Old Firm could remember, but as their challengers (Aberdeen and Dundee United) faded, the big Glasgow clubs scented blood, and by 1987 their hegemony was well on the way to being restored.
There was nothing much to indicate that the match between the two sides would go off in the way that it did. Celtic were four points clear (in an era when Scottish clubs still played two points for a win), so it was a vital match for Rangers to win. Watching it back, I’m struck by the sheer intensity of the atmosphere. The crowd is a wall of noise from the very start, and the players waste no time whatsoever in kicking lumps out of each other. The key incident came after seventeen minutes, when self-proclaimed “playboy” striker Frank MacAvennie clattered into Rangers goalkeeper Chris Woods. The words “handbags” spring immediately to mind, but the full-on assault by Graham Roberts and Terry Butcher that followed was anything but. To general disbelief, MacAvennie and Woods were sent off, and Butcher went into the book. This being the age before substitute goalkeepers, Roberts went in goal for Rangers.
It should, of course, have been all over at this point. Celtic raced into a two-goal lead – Rangers might have had all manner of attacking options, but their defending with ten men was atrocious. It was only a mixture of profligate Celtic finishing and surprisingly competent goalkeeping by Roberts that kept Rangers in the match. With Ally McCoist having pulled one back for Rangers, it was time for Butcher’s moment in the limelight. After challenging Alan McKnight for the ball (and deservedly conceding a foul), he took a well-aimed kick at the prone Celtic goalkeeper. A straight red card followed, even though he had already been involved in the earlier flare-up.
With the roofs of the Ibrox stands threatening to lift clean off, Richard Gough scrambled a last minute equalizer. Graham Roberts then covered himself in a very dubious type of glory at the other end of the pitch, first by clearly diving at a challenge from Owen Archdeacon, and then following that up by leading the supporters in one of their oh-so-charming sectarian songs. After the match (as noted in the comments below), the three players sent off (along with Roberts) found themselves in court on criminal charges, although the charges were later dropped. On the pitch, Rangers’ dramatic point didn’t make much difference in the long-term. Celtic won the league with a record 72 points.
I’m told that the sectarianism isn’t as bad these days. Money is the name of the game nowadays. Celtic sign Protestants and Rangers sign Catholics, because winning and making money are more important than anything else, including upholding long-standing religious bigotries. Having said that, though, if or when Kenny Miller (who has joined Celtic from Wolverhampton Wanderers) plays for Celtic, he’ll be only the third player in recent times to have played for both the blue and green halves of Glasgow. Both clubs have banned sectarianism chanting from their grounds, and most of the bile within the Scottish domestic game is aimed towards the big two from the other SPL clubs and their supporters, who largely wish they’d just piss off to England so that their league had an element of competitiveness about it again. Of course, English clubs don’t want two rich clubs with average crowds of over 50,000 joining their league and further lessening their (already rapidly receding) chances of winning anything. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
Hearts, of course, blew their duopoly apart last season by beating Rangers into second place and winning the Scottish Cup, but whether they can continue this form next season or not is open to debate. Their season was pleasingly pantomime-esque, of course, what with George Burley quitting because the chairman was reported to be trying to pick the team and all. If anything, it was a miracle that they held off Rangers’ challenge. It’s doubtful that they’ll have a better chance to break the big two’s stranglehold on the league, though. But still: at least with two teams having a realistic chance of winning the league, Scotland is twice as competitive as England at the moment.