The Return of the Old Firm Match? No Thanks

by | Sep 15, 2016

“Over the past few years some people have said they haven’t missed the Old Firm game. Frankly they’ve been lying through their teeth,” gurned Sky Sports presenter David Tanner at half-time in last April’s Celtic/Rangers Scottish Cup semi-final. “F**k off, f**king calling me a liar. You don’t even f**king know me,” I said. And it was more insulting to fans of other Scottish clubs, who will have missed Celtic/Rangers as much as, say, fans of any London club “missed” the Manchester derby when pre-oil money Manchester City toured England’s second and third tiers. As Dundee United fan Stuart Milne noted on the Terrace Scottish Football Podcast site on April 19th: “As a fan of a different club, why would I be lying?”

Tanner’s idiocy was an example of the Celtic/Rangers hyperbole on Planet Sky Sports; where only matches they cover matter and only one Scottish match matters, regardless of league position. Hence his apology last Saturday for “four years of interruption.” Or, as he really meant: “Hey, St. Mirren, St Johnstone, Ross County, Aberdeen, Hibernian, Inverness Caledonian Thistle. You won trophies but you mean nothing.” I hadn’t missed Celtic/Rangers matches since April 2012, when Celtic beat Rangers 3-0 at Celtic Park in front of a banner of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, one of whom was “Hector” the cartoon symbol of the tax office. Where that banner was a sample of dark humour heralding Rangers going bust, what hung around the stadium on Saturday, as Celtic thrashed the new Rangers 5-1, was a sample of the dark hatred which besmirches this fixture. Could someone explain how hanging Rangers-scarved effigies from the Celtic Park rafters was a “good idea?” (A “Rangers spokesman” called it “a vile and insensitive stunt.” And when Rangers spokespeople get things right in this era of loonball official club statements coming out of Ibrox, you know your position is wholly untenable).

I haven’t “missed” that any more than I’ve “missed” the destruction of property so frequently follows away defeats at Celtic Park and Ibrox. Before Saturday’s game, many were expecting green Celtic Park seats to fly through the air with the greatest of ease if the game followed the form book. Instead, pictures and videos emerged later on Saturday of toilets utterly destroyed, with the roof crashing down as people sang about being up to their knees in fenian blood (reports of hollow sounds when parts of the roof crashed onto fans’ heads are unconfirmed but possible). Could someone talk me through that too?

When the BBC gained the rights to show Celtic/Rangers matches live in 2002, the studio analysts included Alan Hansen, who started his senior football career in Glasgow at Partick Thistle. They were united in awe at the “atmosphere,” without a care for the poisonous nature of much of that “atmosphere.” Hansen, especially, should have known much better. I haven’t missed the “songbooks” getting top-volume airings. The “Billy Boys,” (in praise of 1920s fascist Glasgow gang leader Billy Fullerton) which seems to disgrace most Rangers games these days. The paean to the boys of “the IRA (provisional wing),” part of the, ahem, ‘updated’ “Boys of the Old Brigade” which Sky’s effects mics caught on Saturday. Or the revolting “the famine is over, why don’t you go home?” (Glasgow’s equivalent of “Pakis go home” if English readers want to feel that revulsion). Or the Fields of Bloody Athenry, an interminable dirge even without the added “Sinn Fein/IRA” chorus.

I haven’t “missed” the more serious social consequences of these games. Strathclyde Police frequently suggested the games were linked to rises in domestic abuse incidents. In 2009, their figures revealed “huge spikes in violence, disorder and domestic abuse on the day of Old Firm games.” And in 2011, Scotland’s chief legal officer, the Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland, reported “a clear link between Old Firm football matches and a rise in the number of domestic abuse cases reported in Glasgow”. In an attempt to scientifically test their veracity, the University of St Andrews undertook a study of these claims and published a report in September 2013, entitled Association Between Old Firm Football Matches and Reported Domestic (Violence) Incidents in Strathclyde, Scotland, which confirmed them.

It noted “concern regarding the apparent increase in the number of reports of domestic incidents associated with Old Firm matches has arisen in response to media reports based on Strathclyde Police data” and “a number of limitations in the analyses described in these media reports.” However, the study, led by Dr. Damien J. Williams, a Public Health Sciences lecturer at St Andrews, found “a statistically significant increase in the number of reports following Old Firm matches” with their analysis “confirming previous speculation concerning the association between Old Firm matches and reports of domestic violence.” Those claiming they’ve missed that are lying through their teeth and are pretty repulsive humans.

I haven’t missed the print media’s hyperbolic window-dressing. Like Sky Sports only one Scottish match matters to the print media, regardless of league position. If a football story couldn’t have “Old Firm” appended to it last week, it wasn’t worth telling. Anybody and everybody (and more than one nobody) was summoned to call the game the greatest sporting occasion on Earth. Herald newspaper group “senior sports writer” (and “Rangers correspondent,” make of that what you will) Chris Jack lumped all the hype into one September 4th article. “…lunchtime showdown…title rivals…two giants of the city and the game…watched by millions around the world…dominate the back pages…oh, and the Manchester derby is on as well.” You’d laugh if you were sure that Jack, an Ibrox cheerleader way beyond his Rangers-correspondent remit, was joking.

“The game that Scottish football has missed for four years,” he lied, Tanner-style. While those experiencing it “for the first time, this week will be like nothing they have known in the game.” This was true-ish. Celtic’s Kolo Toure and Rangers’ Niko Krancjar played, and occasionally starred, in the biggest club and international tournaments. But nothing like the Old Firm. Jack called Celtic/Rangers “box office television, an all-action, edge-of-seat, hour-and-a-half of drama, controversy and emotion.” And the last two Celtic/Rangers games have produced good football; Rangers’ first half at Hampden, Celtic in spells on Saturday. But the general fare for years has been frantic rubbish, 1975 “dystopian science-fiction sports action film” Rollerball… in shorts. But when Jack addressed why Celtic/Rangers is really “like nothing they have known in the game,” he condemned himself: “Nothing is perfect… there are unsavoury sides to this game,” he said, brushing aside all the bigotry and hatred and, worse, claiming that “the history, the rivalry and the tribalism… makes this match special.”

And it’s not like “Old Firm” was coined as a compliment. Fifa’s website credits it to “a popular periodical, The Scottish Referee, (which) made a sneering reference in April 1904 to the profiteering of “The Old Firm of Rangers, Celtic Ltd.” This cartel at the expense of all other clubs ceased to be when Rangers went bust, which is partly why Celtic, as per club policy since 2011, don’t use the term. That one journalist last week thought this was news says much about the quality of Scotland’s football press. Their incessant use of the term is historically misguided and contemporarily wrong.

Media reaction to Saturday’s game, the easy Celtic win predicted by most rational observers, was just as grim. Rangers manager Mark Warburton has avoided press criticism in his year-and-a-bit at Ibrox, thanks to Rangers’ organised PR strategy and the media willingness to accommodate it. Hearts became Scottish second-tier champions by 21 points in 2015, 24 clear of third-placed Rangers. But it wasn’t once assumed that they would be title challengers. Rangers became Scottish second-tier champions by 11 points in 2016. But because they were Rangers, they were automatic title challengers. As Ewan Murray noted in the Guardian newspaper: “No other promoted team would be expected to challenge for a title… in the manner of Rangers.” And when reality bit on Saturday, the press bit back hard. Hence Warburton’s reference to “poisonous, mischievous dialogue.”

Warburton is a good coach/manager. Saturday hasn’t changed that. Even legendary Celtic boss Martin O’Neill lost his first away Rangers/Celtic game 5-1. But Warburton will suffer because Scotland’s football press has to cover for how badly their PR-driven coverage was exposed by Saturday’s hammering. Although even now, Jack is comfortable calling Celtic “(Rangers’) only rivals for the (title) silverware.” The “Old Firm” obsession skewed media coverage of the whole weekend. Second-placed Hearts’ comeback from one-down to beat Hamilton 3-1 was arguably its most significant Scottish Premiership result. You would struggle to see that acknowledged in Scotland’s football press. Even with the excessive focus on the history between managers Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, the Manchester derby didn’t blot out the rest of the English Premier League (EPL), despite being a meeting of two of the three EPL teams with 100% records going into the game – first against second, had Manchester United scored one more goal.

The response to fans’ behaviour was also typically depressing. Rangers’ response to the effigies and banners suggesting “Hun scum” should “know your place” was an example of how they habitually follow high-profile defeats with outlandish official statements which (handily?) deflect attention from said defeats. The banners were contemptible but the statement was hypocritical. If any fans know about “sickening and shameful…outright sectarian hatred” it’s Rangers’. Celtic rightly refused to “become involved in a tit-for-tat spat.” And their efforts to “deal with all issues arising in a proper and professional manner in line with our well-established policies” must leave the relevant Celtic fans stuck for something to do on future matchdays. Because “sickening and shameful” is about right.

Celtic’s shoe-ing in Barcelona puts the “Old Firm” in proper worldwide perspective. In 2015, the latest available figures, the Old Trafford Manchester derby was watched by four times as many people in the UK as the Glasgow derby semi-final. And the Mourinho/Guardiola spice probably added more to this year’s Manchester derby figures than “the first league meeting for four years/ever” added to the Glasgow derby audience. Estimated worldwide TV audiences in 2015 were 650m and 100m respectively. Such estimates are notoriously hype-infested, but the comparative figures differ sufficiently to refute Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers’ post-match suggestion on Saturday that Celtic/Rangers is “the greatest derby in the world.”

Nothing about the “Old Firm” game is untarnished. It rarely produces classic football. It brings out the worst in a dreadful Scottish football press and, worse, the worst in both fanbases, within the stadium and in the real world outside. While on the world football stage, it will merely be a bit-part player for the foreseeable future at least. And even days after a thumping Celtic victory, I am frankly not lying through my teeth when I say I haven’t missed the Old Firm game.

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