A love letter to the Old Firm

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At the risk of sounding like a geriatric or your least favourite elderly relative, I remember the good old days.

I remember the days when I would wake up, and it would be a weekend morning. Either Rangers or Celtic, if not both, would be playing a fixture that day – if not against each other, then against another team. For both teams I would await results anxiously; for the blue side, a loss or a draw; for the green and white, a win.

I remember several final-day thrillers and spillers: Rangers winning by a single goal in 2003, their winning in 2005 after Motherwell striker Scott McDonald scored twice to sink Celtic in the final few minutes of the season, and, most cherished of all memories, Celtic winning on the final day in 2008, having looked out of the race two months previously, and, undoubtedly more poignantly, a few days after the death of club icon Tommy Burns.

Most of all, though, I remember the Old Firm matches. Taking place at least four times per season, you could feel the tension around Glasgow any day they were taking place. For me, they were a constant source of rivalry with my father, a Rangers man himself, and no matter how well or badly a day might be going, the Old Firm result could make or break it.

I remember Rangers’ impending bankruptcy in 2012. The constant headlines, the rumours, the usual idiots on social media throwing in the usual stupid opinions that people fought to give them the right to spout. Although my heart said this was the final victory for Celtic, that no more should the lot at Ibrox bother the annual title challenge, my head said two things: one, that Celtic themselves were half-an-hour away from bankruptcy in 1994; and two, that the demise of Rangers would precipitate a similar demise in Celtic.

The final Old Firm game to take place before Rangers’ relegation ended a comfortable 3-0 victory to Celtic. It was almost too comfortable, a match that we all knew who was going to win, a match that was meaningless in the grand scheme of the title race, a match that everyone watching knew was going to be the last they saw for a while yet, and for all the wrong reasons. It was the day Scottish football, as I knew it, died.

An Old Firm match in 2008. Photo credit Wikimedia
An Old Firm match in 2008. Photo credit Wikimedia

So imagine my excitement upon hearing, late last year, that Celtic had been drawn to play Rangers at Hampden Park in the League Cup semi-final, a match that took place a few weeks ago from now. I even thought about getting a ticket for the match (before realising that, sadly, I had other commitments for the day). Yet, as the match loomed, I could not help but feel just a little underwhelmed by the experience. There was nothing like the same tension as in the days of old.

Maybe it is because I am older, and have other things than football – my studies, career prospects, all that spiel – to worry about. Maybe it is because I have been, since 2012, based in St Andrews, hardly the hotbed of sectarian tension Glasgow was and still can be. Or maybe it was something other than that. That the match’s odds were hugely skewed in Celtic’s favour; that this was the weakest Rangers team they would be facing, certainly in my lifetime.

When the day itself came, I streamed the match on my laptop in bed. I had a Sunday League match of my own to play in (we lost 9-1, by the way) which meant I would not have been able to watch the match in full. Still, I watched as Leigh Griffiths rose to head home Stefan Johansen’s cross to put Celtic into the lead within 10 minutes. Griffiths, at 5’8, is hardly a towering presence, yet he was able to beat Rangers central defence of McGregor and McCulloch with ease. Already, the easy tone of the match was set, and by the time I stepped out the shower, Kris Commons had scored to put Celtic two goals up.

After the first half ended, I left for my doomed Sunday League match, but from what I was able to gather later, the second half was pretty much a walk in the park. Rangers ended the match with just the one shot on target and, in February, find themselves practically out of any chance of winning silverware for this season.

A few months ago, I wrote an article about sporting rivalries, mentioning of course the Old Firm. Mentioning that Vice magazine had called it, albeit “ironically”, the “greatest show on earth”. To me growing up, it really was. But what happened on 1 February was more Mrs Brown’s Boys than Cirque Du Soleil – indeed, perhaps the fact I missed the second-half is a blessing in disguise.

A sizeable proportion of people will say this is a good thing. They will point to the sectarian history of the match, the strain it puts on police resources and its contribution to Glasgow’s “hard” image (thanks, Danny Dyer). They will say that the Old Firm will be consigned to the past, as it should have been already. But I see these arguments and call: the Old Firm is absolutely not, to the vast majority of fans, about doing bad things to the Pope or the Queen. Christmas Day is one of the busiest days of the year for some of the country’s police forces – does that mean we should cancel Christmas? And the incompetence of Danny Dyer’s documentary-making skills is surely more attributable to the East End of London than what Glasgow has ever done.

I have no doubts that the Old Firm will, one day, be back. Back to the matchday tension. Back to “Follow Follow” or “The Celtic Song” being blared by the tannoy as the teams make their way onto the pitch. Back to last-minute goals that win or lose title races.

The sad reality is, though, that for now we must hope Rangers see out their current turmoil. Backed by all sorts of dodgy types, subsisting on Mike Ashley and Newcastle United’s reserves and trailing Hearts by double figures in the second-tier of Scottish football, it will take a good few seasons yet for Rangers to become anything like the credible force that went to the 2008 Europa League final. As such, the only times we will see both of Glasgow’s footballing behemoths face each other will be in cup matches, and that is if we are lucky.

Until then, we shall await the return of the greatest show on earth.

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