According to the calendar, it is time to bash the first Old Firm match of this season. After all, ample material currently exists to do so just on their recent performances in Europe alone. Rangers failed to keep their European campaign alive past August whereas Celtic’s grand contribution was successfully challenging UEFA on the validity of an FC Sion squad that bested them on the pitch and in so doing earned default 3-0 victories off the pitch. The league coefficient enthusiasts politely chuckled at how Celtic’s fortunes were better served when they were not playing. On the evening Rangers, Celtic, and Heart of Midlothian were bounced from Europe, BBC Radio Scotland commentators immediately chastised the Old Firm, stating supporters of the two clubs should care less about the rivalry played out at Ibrox and Celtic Park and more about the shame heaped upon them by their continental transgressions. A good portion of the less than positive views on Scottish football at the moment stems from an assessment of just these two clubs, from their dominance of the domestic league and their failures abroad down to their player recruitment strategies and threats to quit Scotland altogether.
Granted, there are myriad sticks with which to beat Scottish football right now–feel free to pick up one for each hand and ask a friend to hold one for the national team too–but the reputation of top flight club football there continues to erode, and the Old Firm sides are where most look to first for finding fault.
Add to this the ongoing turmoil for Rangers off the park. Not only did the Ibrox club, the country’s top flight champions, lose their way in Europe, but they could also possibly lose their battle with HMRC on overdue taxes. Fighting the media, the tax man, and those fuzzy numbers at the bottom of his account ledger, chairperson Craig Whyte runs the risk of losing his shirt too, which could find Rangers forced to undertake all the vagaries of a club attempting to remain a going concern through redundancies and fire sale. Certainly, HMRC would fail to recover the full value it insists is owed should it go for Whyte’s jugular, but a heavy defeat in the courts would decimate the Light Blues and make it most difficult for them to continue challenging at the top with Celtic for spell, making Old Firm derbies potentially irrelevant with regard to league titles and Champions League placement. If Rangers had a problem this summer attracting players like David Goodwillie to their club, such an unfortunate series of events would persuade talented footballers to treat Ibrox like Superman handles kryptonite. That would really push the dagger in a bit deeper for those who gave up those whipping sticks and progressed to the knife-throwing portion of the programme–Scotland’s champions, giving themselves a Glasgow kiss along with losing at roshambo.
As for Celtic, their critics point more to performances on the pitch. Their finances appear in reasonably good shape owing to prudent fiscal management and shrewd player signings over the years, but here is a club that has been unable to take back the league title over the past three seasons from a Rangers squad that shrunk annually while under the thumb of the Lloyds Banking Group. Over those campaigns, Walter Smith spit into the dirt that was crumbling under his feet to make clay, shaping it into league triumphs while Celtic first tried out Tony Mowbray and now Neil Lennon to return Hoops to their contemporary glory days under Gordon Strachan and Martin O’Neill. Indeed, affixing Strachan’s name to Celtic glories might turn a Celtic supporter’s stomach faster than Daniel Majstorovic could ever hope to turn in the penalty area, but the former Middlesbrough manager is still the last Celtic boss to put his hands on a Scottish Premier League trophy, and did so thrice in four seasons. With Lennon having a full season under his hooded warm-up jacket and a Scottish Cup added to his CV, many picked Celtic to break the current run by Rangers even before their tax issues became more salient, but losing to a club like St. Johnstone in Parkhead earlier this season elicited some guffaws from rival supporters and perhaps halted advanced planning for celebratory parades.
At least Mowbray sported nifty striped ties during his time in charge, eh?
Now they play each other once again. This firmly old encounter, which seems to occur more often in a season than El Clasicos, can bring out the worst attributes in some fans owing to the sectarian nature surrounding these contests, and sucks any coverage of Scottish football into a vortex of Gers and Hoops to the omission of all other matches happening this weekend, is not a particularly unique occurrence. Cynics might consider it but the opening shot in a domestic squabble to determine which club gets the slice of humble pie dished out to the league champion during next year’s Champions League qualification. Even the most predictable outcome, much like a World Cup final, will follow a well-read script. Even though El-Hadji Diouf is not playing in this one, his own brand of crazy will likely be replicated in some way. There will be some controversial ruling by the referee with half the crowd screaming that whatever happened was a clear card or penalty while the other half pull an Arsene Wenger and claims not to have seen it. After all the shenanigans, Georgios Samaras , who will invariably be called upon by Lennon for this one will inexplicably score either the winning goal or probably the equaliser nearing full time.
This scenario is becoming as regular as some poor old fellow on a prunes binger.
Why, then should we pay attention to an Old Firm derby, and in particular this Old Firm derby? Perhaps now, more so than at previous times, this match represents so many feelings that captures the heart and soul of Scottish football that it screams for our attention. With criticism pouring in from seemingly all corners these days, an Old Firm match speaks to the beastly to be found in the beautiful game, both on the grass and among the crowd. It represents moments of family bonding, as grandfathers share stories with their grandchildren, mothers encourage their sons’ dreams by taking them to the big match, and fathers bring daughters closer into their own lives rather than leaving them back at the home on the weekend. The Old Firm embodies a stubborn Scottish refusal to take their football with a cup of tea and a prawn sandwich. Instead, they go with a pie and bovril, and invite you to put down your lighter fare as well to see what individual quality there is still in the Scottish game. The clubs and the overwhelming majority of their supporters share disdain for the sectarian element with the rest of us, and every Old Firm derby provides yet another opportunity for them to prove the popularity of these matches comes about because of the football, not what has tarred it from the extremist fringe elements.
Further, when Neil Lennon, Ally McCoist, and Old Firm supporters declare this match takes precedence over any Europa League tie, they have something to justify this position in addition to the qualitative argument. While media pundits lament this view, arguing the clubs and their fans should put the Old Firm on a lower pedestal, studies suggest there is a greater economic benefit to the Glasgow area and Scotland as a whole when the pair meet. While accounting for nearly three quarters of net Gross Domestic Product and employment for the Scottish sports tourism industry, 50% of this comes economic activity is generated from fans living outside Scotland. The level of the appeal is considerably consistent over the years, regardless of good news or bad for the Old Firm sides. During a season of Old Firm matches, the financial impact generated for Glasgow was found to be equivalent to the city hosting an Olympics every twelve years. An earlier survey indicated the Old Firm brings in three times the money of Edinburgh festivals, creating over 3000 local jobs in the process. Thus, it behooves the Scottish Premier League to embrace the Old Firm and accentuate its importance on the Scottish sports calendar rather than treating it as just some other league game to feed that consumer need and fuel sports tourism for an entire nation.
It seems any Old Firm encounter–and indeed every one of them–matters in so many ways. What those numbers indicate is that it will matter most importantly to football supporters, who embrace it without the guilt or shame they should be properly feeling according to media pundits after Scotland’s “darkest day.” Most importantly, this match goes a considerable some way in determining the SPL winner, and any top flight encounter where a title is on the line screams for attention. So, for the weekend, European woes are behind them, the tax man’s office are closed, and tens of thousands are going to Ibrox. Take it in without regret, for a derby between Rangers and Celtic is once in a lifetime event.
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