As Celtic prepare to face a Rangers side for the first time in almost three years, Richard Purden looks at one argument in favour of the contest
SUNDAY sees the return of what many believe to be the greatest football club rivalry in the world — Celtic versus Rangers.
The Scottish public and even the fans themselves are in conflict about the return of the ‘Old Firm’. For some the game is an intimidating relic of a bygone era. Elsewhere it’s not popular to admit that you are anticipating the arrival of the gladiatorial contest in its latest form.
Many other fans behave like spurned divorcees refusing to admit the role this match played in both histories. I recently overheard a Celtic supporter admit to those willing to listen that he “missed the Rangers and things weren’t the same anymore”. The response from another fan was emphatic: “Rangers are dead; I don’t want to see them play at my club ever again.”
There will also be others who point to the decline in domestic violence and violent crime on derby days. It is fair to say that Scotland’s journalistic culture needs to raise its game and be mindful of inciting weak minds. Sections of the press in Scotland have habitually pandered to the lowest level of thinking. As recently as 2011 The Daily Record was forced to apologise after it ran with the headline: “Who’s More Hated At Ibrox?” above images of Neil Lennon and the cartoon tax man, Hector.
A convincing argument in favour of the fixture comes in the form of an exhilarating new book by Stephen Murray, Ten Men Won The League, which revisits what is arguably Celtic’s most dramatic Scottish league conquest in living memory. Having been dazzled by more recent eras, it is perhaps fair to say that the 1978/79 Scottish Premier League victory hasn’t been looked at in this detail before.
Nearly every fixture in a strong, competitive league was a battleground for points. The author provides evidence of just how difficult Celtic’s task was. Competition was fierce with the Bhoys facing the rising stars of what would become known as ‘The New Firm’ in Aberdeen and Dundee United, while the Celtic v Hibernian fixture was known as the ‘battle of the greens’ due to the tenacity of those games.
Adding to the picture is 1979’s winter of discontent, which created irregular circumstances. After languishing third bottom of the table as late as February, Celtic began to make winning against the odds look natural. It’s the kind of domestic competition we can only dream of today.
The author shows great respect to rival teams and the prose paints a vivid picture of opposing strengths, making the final victory even more of an accomplishment. Murray has reminded us that, for the majority at least, this is a rivalry that can be passionate, life-affirming and humorous without crossing the line.
He also amplifies broadcast and print media’s sheer power before the dawn of the digital age. Among the lesser known anecdotes, he turns attention to Rangers’ European tie against Cologne broadcast by STV. In the middle of coverage a crucifixion scene appeared randomly.
“It transpired that STV technicians were preparing to show an advert for the forthcoming series Jesus of Nazareth and someone made a blunder by starting it in error during the match,” says Murray. Needless to say that the more extremist elements of the Rangers support found the incident to be a part of a “Catholic conspiracy”.
It would be impossible to overlook the political shifts taking place both here and in the North of Ireland which continually had an impact on the behaviour of spectators. A fantastical appraisal of the Celtic support isn’t offered either as the book highlights a particularly violent episode involving fans in Burnley.
Meanwhile The Celtic View “created quite a stir” by featuring Seasons Greetings from politicians, including Margaret Thatcher. It’s probably fair to suggest that the former Prime Minister is the equivalent of Lord Voldemort for the vast majority of Hoops supporters and the mere mention of her name absorbs a positive atmosphere.
It’ll be strange for some to read her festive message: “Unfortunately in England we do not have the opportunity to see top Scottish teams like Celtic very often. However over the years I have seen Celtic in their famous green and white hoops. They have such a great reputation both in this country and also in Europe. Seasonal Greetings to all Celtic fans.”
It’s the contradictions that make the Celtic story so captivating and unstoppable. Davie Provan is one of the undisputed heroes and was limitless in his endeavours to do damage that season. He also delivered one of the most famous political quotes to come from a Celtic player’s mouth when he said: “I was brought up in a house that supported Rangers and voted Labour. I signed for Celtic and voted for Maggie three times.”
Not afraid to stride into debate, Mr Provan also challenged the weary notion that a lack of education was the raison d’être for Old Firm hate crimes.
“The biggest problem is the intelligent, professional, middle-class bigots and there are those on either side. You can understand the knuckleheads who don’t know any better but if you have an intelligent man who can’t open his mind and see the stupidity in it all, then Scottish society is going to have a problem for a long time,” he said.
Perhaps the nature of this one-off semi-final will give some indication of The Old Firm’s future. As Scotland’s most eminent historian Sir Tom Devine suggests, it will take great minds and expertise to tackle the hatred. Like it or not the game is coming back. Some of us aren’t categorical about it, there’s a lot of mixed emotions in the air.
But there’s no such thing as a lost cause; nobody is born a bigot. To those against the idea I would urge them to read Stephen Murray’s book, which brings all the power and drama of the night Celtic won the league after defeating their most deadly rivals on the last day of the season with only 10 men.
The author suggests that the game brought about a higher state of being for many in attendance. Former professional footballer and sports commentator Pat Nevin strengthens the argument, he described that night as the closest thing he has had to a “religious experience”.
Ten Men Won The League by Stephen Murray is available on Amazon.co.uk