The Old Firm: Scotland’s Claim to Football Fame

Since the founding of the Scottish Football League in 1890, only two of the original eleven teams have avoided relegation from the top division. Those two powerhouse sides are Celtic and Rangers, two of the most successful and decorated teams in the history of worldwide club football. Together they have combined to win 94 League Championships and 66 Scottish Cups. Both clubs are valued by Forbes.com as among the 25 most valuable football teams in the world.[1]

The Celtic-Rangers rivalry actually predates the founding of the Scottish Football League. They met for the first time on May 28, 1888 in the first game that Celtic ever played as an organized club.[2] Celtic won that inaugural match 5-2, and the teams have since gone on to meet 382 more times, with Rangers holding a slim lead in the series, 153-137-93.[3] The ability of the two teams to attract top notch talent and remain relatively even with one another – as well as head an shoulders above the rest of the Scottish League – has made this century-old rivalry consistently compelling on the pitch.  Adding fuel to the fire of the enmity between the two sides is the fact that both are based in Glasgow.  Celtic call Glasgow’s Parkhead district home.  Located in the East End of the city, Celtic Park is the largest football stadium in Scotland, boasting a seating capacity of over 60,000 [4](and a record attendance of 92,000).  Rangers hail from the opposite end of the city and play in the slightly smaller Ibrox Stadium – capacity 51,082.[5]

Celtic

Celtic (also referred to as the Bhoys, the Hoops, and the Celts) were formed on November 6, 1887 in Saint Mary’s Church Hall as a fundraising organ for Catholic parishes in the area.[6] At the time, Ireland was in the grips of the devastating Potato Famine and many Irish families were immigrating to Scotland in search of a better life.  These families were almost uniformly poor and their religious beliefs reflected the demographics of their home country: majority Catholic.  Scotland was a primarily Protestant country and as a result of preexisting religious prejudices, tended to marginalize the immigrant Irish.[7] Glasgow was the most popular destination for Irish immigrants during this decade, but even there, “anti-Irish and anti-Catholic discrimination pervaded all facets of life.”[8] Football provided an escape from this harsh reality and a way for immigrants to express their own national identity, especially when it involved supporting Celtic – a team composed (at first) solely of Irish-Catholics.

Celtic also served as a way for Irish expatriates to integrate into Scottish society, a laudable goal complicated by the immediate success of the club at the expense of the traditionally Scottish teams. In their inaugural season, the side finished as runner up for the Scottish Cup and won their first Cup only three years later.[9] From 1892-93 (just their fifth year of existence) to 1897-98, Celtic won the Scottish League Championship four times.[10] Overall, Celtic have won 42 Scottish League Championships (including 9 in a row from 1966 to 1974), 34 Scottish Cups, and 14 Scottish League Cups.  Celtic (with Aberdeen) also hold the record for the highest attendance for a club match anywhere in Europe – a 1937 Scottish Cup final won by Celtic and seen in person by 146,433 spectators.[11]

Rangers

In 1872, four young Scotsmen founded Rangers[12] (known also as the Gers, the Teddy Bears, and the Light Blues) as a club for the southwestern side of Glasgow.  Unlike Celtic though, Rangers did not experience success right off the bat; in fact, the side labored in relative obscurity for the first two decades of its existence.  However, the 1890s marked a dramatic upturn in the fortunes of Rangers, seeing them capture two league championships and three Scottish Cups along with numerous runner-up finishes in those competitions.  As promising as these victories were, without the presence of a widely unpopular team like Celtic, the Rangers would not have been able to take up “a pre-eminent role in defending national prestige” as they did through their intense rivalry with the hated Catholics.[13] Scottish football fans needed a team to latch on to, a worthy rival for Celtic that they could support and that would hopefully defeat the upstart immigrants.  The timing of Rangers’ improved play along with their geographic proximity to Celtic thrust the club into that role as a foil for the Bhoys.  Rangers embraced their position opposite Celtic and reaped the rewards in the form of a burgeoning fan base.  They have set a world record for domestic league titles, with 52 Scottish League Championships (once even matching Celtic’s feat of capturing 9 consecutively), 33 Scottish Cups, and 25 Scottish League Cups.

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Politics

From its start as a Catholic charity and its growth into the primary unifying institution for the Scotch-Irish community in Glasgow, Celtic shouldered a political role as well as a sporting one.  The politics of Celtic were associated with Irish Home Rule politics and revolutionaries[14] as these groups represented the views of most of the displaced Irish living in Glasgow.  One of the most famous examples of Irish pride exhibited through Celtic football can be seen by “the traditional flying of the Irish national flag at Celtic Park.”[15] Celtic team symbols and gear also prominently bear Irish emblems such as the shamrock, much to the chagrin of many Scots (especially Rangers supporters) who feel this practice to be in poor taste for a Scottish team.  Such an embrace of Irish culture provides many Celtic supporters an outlet for an expression of their heritage but does little to endear them to the rest of their adopted country.

In 1888, Rangers waded into the political fray as well, departing from its apolitical beginnings by electing John Ure-Primrose as the club’s patron.[16] Ure-Primrose, who later became chairman of Rangers, was an anti-Irish, anti-Catholic[17] politician; he “helped identify the club purposefully with the unionist case against Irish Home Rule,”[18] in direct opposition to the political leanings of Celtic.  This identity became so ingrained in the culture of Rangers that the team did not field any Catholic players of note until the signing of Maurice Johnson in 1989 – over one hundred years after Ure-Primrose’s association with the club began.  Ure-Primrose also was responsible for linking his club with the Orange Order,[19] an unabashedly anti-Catholic[20] organization dedicated to a united Britain.[21] Even today, Rangers supporters are still associated with the Orange Order, as evidenced “in a common repertoire of songs, tunes, and emblems”; in 2003, the club actually introduced an orange kit, which went on to become one of the best selling uniforms in Rangers history.[22]

The Rivalry

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The depth of the nationalist and religious differences between supporters of the two sides of this rivalry, has created an often toxic environment of dislike between Celtic and Rangers when added to the general passions and hot-headedness that surround the game of football (particularly in the United Kingdom).  The long-term success of both sides has also meant that the stakes for Old Firm matches are especially high; League and Cup titles are often on the line and victory for one club can come only at the expense of the other.  Fans on both sides have become notorious for sectarian, intolerant chants and songs at matches.  It is not a rare occasion to see violent behavior exhibited by supporters before, during, or after matches between these two teams.  One infamous incident led to the death of a young Glasgow boy named Mark Scott, who was killed simply for walking past the wrong pub the night after an Old Firm game in 1995.[23] In 2001, a semifinal match of a minor domestic Cup resulted in the stabbing and subsequent hospitalization of a Rangers supporter; in all, police reported 41 arrests made during the period in and around the game.[24]

Much of the criticism of fans has been directed towards Rangers supporters in particular.  Notorious for songs such as “The Billy Boys” – in which the singers take delight in steeping themselves in “fenian” (a term used to refer to Irishmen or Catholics in general) blood …

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and chants of “F*** the Pope” (shouted below following a rendition of another famous Rangers song, “The Sash”) …

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Rangers supporters have brought fines for poor fan behavior down upon their team.  But Celtic crowds are no less guilty of boorish behavior.  Celtic fans have drawn fines for pro-IRA chants and for disrupting ceremonies meant to honor veterans of “English” wars – here World War I:

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Ultimately, both sides can be equally guilty of rampant intolerance, as seen by the vitriole on this comments page of a popular Old Firm YouTube clip.

But not all products of the intensity of the Old Firm rivalry have been negative or violent.  Matches between Celtic and Rangers have produced some of the best football moments in the game’s history. The 1957 League Cup final saw Celtic pull a massive upset over a heavily favored Rangers squad and come away with a resounding 7-1 victory.  Rangers clinched the 1999 Scottish FA title with an equally epic 3-0 victory over their rivals which doubled as their 100th league victory over the Hoops.[25] On a more unifying note, both clubs have also joined together in recent years to work against the effects of sectarianism not only in the sporting realm, but in everyday Glasgow life. Celtic began “Bhoys Against Bigotry” in 1996[26] and Rangers followed suit in 2003 with “Pride Over Prejudice” (since renamed “Follow With Pride”).[27] These programs work in conjunction with the Scottish Parliament to curb bigotry within the ranks of the clubs’ supporters, with the hope that the positive effects will spill over into the wider Glasgow and Scottish communities. Though there remains much work to be done, these programs have won acclaim throughout the European sporting community and inspire hope for an eventual end to sectarian discrimination in Scottish sports and daily life.


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[1] “Soccer Team Valuations.” Forbes.com. 8 April 2009. http://www.forbes.com/lists/2009/34/soccer-values-09_Soccer-Team-Valuations_Rank.html.
[2]Murray, Bill. The Old Firm: Sectarianism, Sport and Society in Scotland. Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1984. p. 10.
[3]Old Firm: A Classic Rivalry. Rangers, 2009. 9 October 2009. http://www.rangers.premiumtv.co.uk/page/oldfirm/0,,5,00.html.
[4]“Great British Stadiums.”  ents24.com.  9 January 2009.  http://www.ents24.com/web/news/Great_British_Stadiums_00096443.html.
[5]Ibid.
[6]“Brief History.” CelticFC.net. 2008.  http://www.celticfc.net/home/about/briefHistory.aspx
[7] Walker, Graham and Alan Bairner. “Popular Culture in Scotland and Ireland, 1800-2000: Sport, Politics, and Religion.” Ireland and Scotland: Culture and Society, 1700-2000. Eds. Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan. Portland: Four Courts Press, 2005. p. 239.
[8] Winstanley, Katharine L. “Scottish Football and Northern Ireland: The Role of Sport in Communal Identification and Ethnonational Conflict.” Diss. McMaster University, 2009. p. 11.
[9] Murray. The Old Firm. p. 20
[10] Ibid.
[11]“Brief History.”
[12]“The Founding Fathers.” Rangers. http://www.rangers.premiumtv.co.uk/articles/the-founding-fathers-20090227_2255467_1570943
[13] Bradley, Joseph M.  Sport, Culture, Politics and Scottish Society: Irish Immigrants and the Gaelic Athletic Association.  Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd., 1998. p. 37
[14] Walker, “Popular Culture in Scotland and Ireland.” p. 239
[15] Bradley, Joseph M. “Sport and the Contestation of Cultural and Ethnic Identities in Scottish Society.” Sporting Nationalisms: Identity, Ethnicity, Immigration, and Assimilation. London: Frank Cass, 1998. p. 133
[16] Winstanley, “Scottish Football.”  p. 13
[17] Winstanley, “Scottish Football.”  p. 13
[18] Walker, “Popular Culture in Scotland and Ireland.”  p. 239
[19] Winstanley 13
[20] Murray.  The Old Firm.  p. 79
[21] Bairner, Alan.  Sport, Nationalism, and Globalization.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.  p. 23
[22] Bradley, Joseph M.  “Orangeism in Scotland: Unionism, Politics, Identity, and Football.”  Eire-Ireland 39.1&2 (2004): 237-261.
[23] Spiers, Graham. “The Old Firm Derby is an Experience to Behold – Until the Bigotry Starts.” The Times (London, England). Oct. 5, 2009: 4.
[24]“Man Stabbed After Old Firm Clash.” BBC News Online. 8 February 2001. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/uk_news/scotland/1161021.stm
[25]“Celtic vs. Rangers: Old Firm’s Enduring Appeal.” Fifa.com. 2009. http://www.fifa.com/classicfootball/stories/classicderby/news/newsid=1023776.html
[26]“Bigotry Puzzle for Old Firm.” BBC News. 11 October 2001. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/1593970.stm
[27]“Follow with Pride.” Rangers. http://www.rangers.premiumtv.co.uk/page/followwithpride/0,,5,00.html

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