On 31st March 2019, two teams will meet for the 416th time in what is arguably the most fiercely contested derby in Europe. The Old Firm contest – Celtic vs Rangers is much more than a football match between two sides from the south-west and the east of Glasgow. It is a clash of identities in which a potent mix of religion, politics and history is intertwined – the Union Jack versus the Irish Tricolour, Protestant against Catholic, Unionism as opposed to Socialism.
Fans of rival clubs in other cities may dislike each other sometimes, but often, away from football, they can be friends, lovers, or even members of the same family. This is true too with Celtic and Rangers but much less so, and it is rare that, with other teams, you find sections of the fan base with such visceral hatred of their opponents as you will find in Glasgow. That means that before and after the match this March both the hospitals and jails are likely to be full with the victims and perpetrators of such dislike. Parkhead that day will be no place for the faint-hearted.
Rangers vs Celtic: The Historical Roots
However, to understand how we got here, it is necessary to delve into the history of both Britain and Northern Ireland, because the origins of the present problems date centuries back. Although originally a Catholic country, following the Protestant and Scottish Reformations in the 16th century, Scotland adopted Presbyterianism as the State religion, forcing Catholics into a minority position in the country. Then in the late 19th and early 20th century, a wave of economic migrants from Northern Ireland, both Protestant and Catholic came to Glasgow seeking jobs, bringing with them the politics and disputes of that region.
However, when Rangers was formed in 1872, many of those factors had yet to emerge. Founded by four men – William McBeath, Peter Campbell, and two brothers Moses and Peter McNeil – Rangers had a Protestant identity from the start but not an overt one. And while Celtic, founded 16 years later in 1888, had its roots firmly in Irish Catholicism, relations between the two clubs were initially cordial. It was Rangers who provided Celtic with their first opponents, and, within a few years, the clubs were travelling to away matches together. They became so close, in fact, that the Press coined the phrase “Old Firm” to describe how the pair had established a cosy monopoly over the Scottish game.
Harland and Wolff
If the schism between the two clubs and communities can be traced back to a single event, it was the opening of a huge shipyard in Govan by Belfast shipyard Harland and Wolff in 1912 in Govan, just a short distance away from Rangers’ home ground in Ibrox. The company had a “Catholics need not apply” employment policy, and with many of the club’s supporters now working in the shipyard, Rangers moved to becoming increasingly a Protestant and Unionist club. As a reaction, Celtic, which already had a Catholic fan base, became associated with Irish Nationalism and socialism as well.
Attitudes then became hardened in the following decade, as fans reacted to events like the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin, and the heavy losses of both Scottish and Irish regiments during the First World War.
From that date, Rangers adopted an unwritten policy of not signing any Catholic players, a taboo that stayed in place until Graeme Souness in 1989 recruited Mo Johnston. For their part, Celtic had a more egalitarian outlook, and some of the most iconic figures in their history have, in fact, been Protestants – Jock Stein, Kenny Dalglish, and Danny McGrain, for example.
In fact, nothing exemplifies the bitterness and the rancour of the derby than the story of the present Celtic manager, Neil Lennon. Born a Catholic in what used to be predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland he grew up supporting Celtic as a boy, and after a career that took him to Crewe Alexandra, Manchester City, and Leicester City, he ended up playing for them between 2000 and 2007. He also played for the Northern Irish national side, and captained the team, but Lennon was forced to quit international football when he received death threats before a match against Cyprus, after claiming he wanted to play for a team representing a United Ireland. The outlawed Protestant terror group the Loyalist Volunteer Force later denied responsibility for the threats.
But the threat of sectarianist violence was never far from the scene. In 2003 he was attacked by two students near his home, and a year later a road rage attack on a local motorway led to a man being fined £500. Then in 2008 two men knocked him unconscious when he was leaving a pub.
In 2011 things went a step further. In January of that year, packets of bullets were sent to him and his player Niall McGinn, who had transferred from Irish club Derry City to Celtic two years previously. Then later that year, Lennon, along with two other prominent Celtic supporters, lawyer Paul McBride and politician Trish Godman were sent parcel bombs packed with nails, which were later described by police as viable. The two men eventually convicted of the crime were both ardent Rangers supporters, and one Trevor Muirhead, had strong links with Protestant loyalist organisations.
Celtic vs Rangers: The wider picture
Sectarian violence is not confined to Glasgow it should be said, with Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian also divided on religious and cultural lines, although their Edinburgh rivalry is less bitter and acrimonious than that between Celtic and Rangers. Broadly speaking, Hearts are associated with Protestantism and Hibs with Catholics. The rivalries do overlap though. In 2011 a Hearts fan invaded the pitch, shouted and swore at Celtic manager Neil Lennon during a match between the two clubs. He was sentenced to 8 months in jail for a breach of the peace. And, to bring things right up to date, a Hibernian fan was arrested by police for man-handling Rangers captain James Tavernier as he went to take a throw-in during a game in March 2019. However, it is in Scotland’s largest city that the fault-lines are most prominent.
Rangers vs Celtic: Recent Developments
With the influx of foreign players into the game, the two teams that face each other later this month will likely contain men from various nationalities, and political, religious and cultural affiliations.
Over the years as societal attitudes changed, and the political landscape in Ulster embraced the Good Friday Agreement in 1995 and the cessation of violence in Northern Ireland itself, the sectarian elements in the Celtic-Rangers rivalry appear to have become ameliorated.
However, three elements in recent years have combined to bring tensions to the fore again – the rise of social media, the Scottish Referendum in 2014, and the liquidation of the original Rangers club in 2012.
The role of social media in helping to spread and encourage support for extreme views, is a complex subject, and beyond the scope of this article. However, a 2017 study on the role of social media in encouraging sectarianism in Scotland found that the biggest single factor in its spread was football (76%), followed by Orange Order marches (73%) and Republican marches (63%), two factors which also help fuel the Celtic-Rangers enmity. Nearly half (48%) of respondents interviewed described the use of sectarianist language on social media in Scotland as a big problem, whilst a further 36% labelled it a “small problem”.
In 2014 Scotland held a referendum on whether it wanted to break away from the rest of the United Kingdom and become an independent sovereign nation. Those living outside the country may be surprised to know that Scottish flags are rarely seen at an Old Firm match. Instead Rangers fans will brandish Union Jacks, whilst their Celtic counterparts will wave the Irish Tricolour.
However, although many Rangers supporters would have voted for Independence, whilst Celtic fans would have voted to stay in the UK, broadly speaking Rangers are pro-Unionist and, therefore, in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom, whilst those of the green and white persuasion would prefer an independent nation.
In a bid to remain successful and competitive at the top level in the late 1990s, Rangers began to exploit a legal loophole called Employee Benefit Trusts (EBTs) as a way of paying players, and avoiding tax. Although the EBTs were legal at the time, the way that Rangers used them was not, enabling them to acquire players – and win trophies – that they otherwise could not afford. When EBTs were subsequently outlawed, the club was faced with an enormous tax bill that it simply could not meet.
In the end, the holding company that owned Rangers were forced into liquidation in 2012. A new company bought them, and the club was forced to reconstitute itself and reapply to the league, joining at the lowest tier of Scottish professional football in League Two.
It took them four years to climb back to the Premiership, and, apart from the occasional cup game, there were no derbies in that period. In their absence, Celtic established themselves as the dominant force in the Scottish game, winning seven Scottish Premier League titles, three Scottish Cups, and four League Cups.
Some Celtic fans have taunted their Rangers counterparts by claiming that their newly formed club are just parvenus with no history. Yet, whilst there were a section of Celtic fans who professed not to miss their old rivals, TV companies, broadcasters and club treasurers certainly did. No other games in Scotland come close in terms of how much money is generated from them.
Celtic vs Rangers: Tragedies and Controversies
No other match in British football has seen so many tragedies and controversies, on and off the pitch.
The worst incident came in 1971 at Ibrox, home of Rangers. It was a stadium that had seen its share of deaths before. In 1902, 25 people died and 517 people were injured when part of a stand collapsed during a Scotland and England match. Two people were killed in a crush on a stairway in 1961, and, both in 1967 and 1969, there were injuries on the notorious Stairway 13. Two years later, disaster struck in an Old Firm match. With Celtic leading heading into injury time, thousands of Rangers fans tried to leave early. However, their side conjured a late equaliser, causing pandemonium and a deadly crush. 66 people died, and more than 200 people were injured. It was the worst British stadium disaster before Hillsborough, which happened 18 years later.
Sadly, deaths have not been confined to the stadium. There have been numerous fights and stabbings amongst rival fans, and the threat of violence is never far from the surface.
Another flashpoint came after the 1980 Scottish Cup Final, which Celtic won by a single goal. However, that was completely overshadowed by the aftermath which saw rival fans battle on the pitch, using bottles, cans, bricks, wooden staves and iron bars. More than 200 people were arrested, and an alcohol ban was imposed on fans attending Scottish matches. Both clubs were fined heavily, and the matter was also discussed in the British parliament.
As for red and yellow cards, the fixture is littered with them. There have been so many that it is hard to single any match out, but the 2011 derby is particularly memorable. Rangers finished the match with only 8 men, Steven Whittaker, Madjid Bougherra and El-Hadji-Diouf all getting their marching orders, whilst, after the game, the two managers, Lennon of Celtic, and McCoist of Rangers, squared up to each other on the touchline.
Six years earlier, Lennon, still a Celtic player at the time, was sent off for dissent after the final whistle, joining team mate Alan Thompson who had already been dismissed (Thompson was a serial offender in derbies, getting three red cards in his time with Celtic).
Rangers vs Celtic: Head to Head
As the head to head record show, Rangers currently have a very slight edge in head-to-head encounters.
|Matches||Rangers Wins||Celtic Wins||Draws|
Rangers vs Celtic: Trophies Won
|Major Trophies Won||Rangers||Celtic|
|Scottish First Division/Premiership||54||49|
|Scottish League Cup||27||18|
|European Cup/Champions League||1|
|UEFA Cup Winners Cup||1|
*Data Tabulated 27th March 2019
Whilst the passions and sentiments that underpin the Celtic-Rangers rivalry may seem parochial to an audience outside Scotland, they inform one of the most bitter enmities between two clubs to be found anywhere on earth. Of course there are many well-behaved and mild-mannered supporters of both clubs, but there is a hard core for whom such fixtures provide a focus for religious and political bigotry that would otherwise have no outlet in polite society.
Expect more headlines to be written after their next match, not all of them, ostensibly at least, to do with football.
Andy is an exiled English football fan living in Cyprus. He loves all sports but football is his abiding passion, and he still has dreams every now and then about scoring the winning goal in a Wembley Cup Final, even though his playing days are long gone. He follows most major leagues, across Europe at least, and has a favoured team in each. When he’s not watching, listening, reading or downloading podcasts about football, he spend his time worrying about his beloved Arsenal.