x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The appeal of the Old Firm

Glasgow's divisions are never more evident than when Rangers and Celtic meet, Robert Philip look back at the troubled history of Old Firm matches.

Paul Gascoigne, in blue, is one of the many great players to grace the famous Old Firm derby.
Paul Gascoigne, in blue, is one of the many great players to grace the famous Old Firm derby.

I am proud to be a Glaswegian. Consider my city's great sporting heroes: Sir Alex Ferguson; the iconic Benny Lynch, world flyweight champion of the 1930s; Sir Thomas Lipton, tea-maker and the most famous loser in the history of the America's Cup; baseball legend Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants, who struck the home run known as "The Shot Heard Round the World". To this mix, add three British Prime Ministers: Gordon Brown, a son of Govan like Sir Alex, plus Andrew Bonar Law and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Designer and architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh; the rock stars Mark Knopfler and Jack Bruce; music legends Lonnie Donegan and Lulu; actors David McCallum, the Man from Uncle and Robert Carlyle, the man from Trainspotting...comedians Billy Connolly and Stanley Baxter. Football, yachting, singing, movie-making, laughter-making, Glaswegians have woven the richest of tapestries.

Meaning dear, green place, Glasgow may not be the verdant valley of bygone days but we can still boast 80 parks within the city boundary and Kelvingrove Park's recently refurbished art gallery and museum, the most popular museum in Britain outside London). Voted the coolest city in Britain by the readers of Conde Nast Traveller magazine because of its myriad restaurants, bars, clubs and shops, we are also within an hour's drive of the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

So why is it that wherever Glaswegians roam - from Thailand to Turkey, from Sydney to Stockholm, from New York to New Orleans - the first question posed is: "Rangers or Celtic?" On being snootily informed that I support the Great Glasgow Alternative - or Partick Thistle Nil as Billy Connolly insists on calling my beloved Jags' - my inquisitor's immediate response is always : "Yes, but who do you really support?"

Rangers or Celtic? Blue or green? Protestant or Roman Catholic? While the outcome of tomorrow's 383rd Old Firm encounter - a bitter rivalry that dates back to the clubs' first meeting in 1888 - leaves me wildly indifferent, it is a confrontation that traditionally divides the city. For 121 years, the Old Firm have produced great and controversial games full of excitement, drama and raw emotion. They have also served up games we wish we could forget for the violence that frequently spills on to the streets after the full-time whistle.

Among the sectarian hatred, vile songs and chants, the grim loss of life that has previously accompanied this sporting contest, it is easy to forget the wondrous players to have graced this encounter in blue and green. "Wee" Willie Henderson and "Jinky" Jimmy Johnstone, the twin 5ft 4ins wizards of the dribble on the right touchline who could leave full-backs reeling with their twists, turns and assorted sorcery. Henderson made 426 appearances for Rangers between 1960-72, but as manager Willie Waddell noted: "It's frightening to think how good he really might have been if he'd been able to see."

Johnstone, who died of Motor Neurone Disease at the age of 61 in 2006, left a treasure chest of golden memories. His greatest display, however, was reserved for the Bernabeu when, following their 1967 European Cup triumph in Portugal, the Lisbon Lions were invited to provide the opposition for Alfredo di Stefano's testimonial game for Real Madrid - who had never been beaten by a foreign side in the Bernabeu.

With Johnstone at his most mesmerising, Celtic won 1-0 to the accompanying "Oles" of the 125,000 spectators every time he left a defender spinning. At the post-match banquet Di Stefano asked for a photograph to be taken of him and his three long-time cohorts, Ferenc Puskas, Francisco Gento and Jose Santamaria, flanking Johnstone in the middle of the quintet. To list all the Old Firm greats could be an endless task: Brian Laudrup and Henrik Larsson, who brought a touch of Scandinavian sophistication to Ibrox and Parkhead; goalkeepers Andy Goram (known simply as The Goalie) and John Thomson, who lost his life on Sept 5 1931 after suffering brain damage in an accidental collision with Rangers' centre-forward Sam English; centre-halves George Young, the colossus at the heart of the Rangers' defence from 1941-57, and Billy "Caesar" McNeill, captain of the Lisbon Lions; the magical Davie Cooper and the whimsical John "Yogi" Hughes; John Greig and Danny McGrain; Ally McCoist and Kenny Dalglish; Paul Gascoigne.

Then there was the late "Slim" Jim Baxter who, just like George Best, was more rock star than footballer, with a beauty queen on each arm. He burned the candle at both ends then torched the bit in the middle; he never trained or practised, he scarcely won a tackle in his entire career, his right foot was only there for symmetry, he never headed the ball, he stood 5ft 11ins but weighed only 9st 12lbs, and he moved at nothing faster than regal elegance. A swivel of those narrow hips, however, a dip of a slender shoulder and entire defences would leap out of his way like shell-shocked passengers abandoning a sinking ship.

He scored twice on his first appearance for Scotland against England at Wembley in 1963 and played keepy-uppy underneath the twin towers four years later when he toyed with Sir Alf Ramsey's world champions. No marvel was beyond his power. Wonderful players all, but, sadly, my abiding image of the Old Firm derby remains the events of Jan 2 1971 when the traditional "Ne'erday Game" appeared to be petering out in a tame 0-0 draw.

Perhaps it was due the lack of tension on the pitch, but the police had reported only two arrests inside Ibrox Stadium amid an unusually good-natured atmosphere on the terraces where 80,047 had gathered. As a young trainee reporter on The Sunday Post, I was on hand at 4.45pm when the hotline telephone - to be used only in the event of a major news story as the first edition deadline drew near - rang. A rumour was sweeping the Ibrox pressbox of a serious incident. What followed was the stuff of nightmares.

Stairway 13, a wooden staircase lined by metal crush-barriers - a notoriously fearsome exit which looked like the north face of the Eiger when viewed from below - had collapsed under the weight of bodies attempting to leave Ibrox at the end of the match. Unconfirmed reports suggested six people had died. The final figure was 66 dead and 145 injured. Thirty-seven years on no one really knows what happened that frosty afternoon. Initially, the blame was placed on the vast numbers of Rangers fans who swept down the staircase after Johnstone had given Celtic a 1-0 lead in the 89th minute.

When Colin Stein equalised in injury-time, so the immediate theory of the day had it, those same supporters turned back and rushed up the stairway to join the celebrations at the same moment the main body of fans started piling downwards. The official investigation would later dismiss this scenario without offering an alternative. Whatever the cause, no one who lived through those desperate hours has ever been able to erase the horrific images: the line of dead bodies laid out under blankets along the touchline behind one of the goals.

The mangled mass of twisted metal barriers, the mound of shoes (hundreds escaped death because of the fashion for slip-on shoes), the constant wail of ambulance, police and fire-brigade sirens which could be heard across the entire city, the grief on the faces of families and loved ones who arrived at Ibrox as news of the disaster spread in the forlorn hope of being reunited with those who had failed to return home.

The youngest victim was eight, the oldest 43. Five teenagers from the same street in Markinch, Fife, were among those who perished. One eyewitness recalled the sight of a survivor climbing over the dead in a bright red shirt, "only it wasn't a shirt at all; his whole chest had been ripped open". Sandy Jardine, Rangers' full-back, still shivers at the memory. "The mood in the dressing room was pretty buoyant because we'd snatched a draw. Then someone came running in saying there had been a 'wee problem'; there had been an accident and we had to get dressed and leave quickly," he says.

"That was when they started bringing the injured into the dressing room. The thing that sticks in my mind was the black faces of the injured. I think they were black and their eyes bulging because they couldn't get a breath in the crush." The Rangers' manager Willie Waddell decreed that such a disaster could never be allowed to happen again and Stairway 13 was demolished and a magnificent new Ibrox - the first of Britain's "super stadiums" - was raised in memory of the 66 victims.

No Old Firm game comes without its religious bigotry, though few of the fans have ever been inside a church of either persuasion. The Rev Ronald Ferguson, Church of Scotland minister turned writer, lived under the shadow of Ibrox while preaching in Glasgow for eight years. "I actively encouraged my two sons to support Cowdenbeath rather than Rangers. I find the religious bigotry and arrogance associated with the Old Firm disgusting," he says.

"Bigotry really angers me. To sing vile songs in the name of religion is appalling. It's anti-human; the whole Rangers-Celtic, Protestant-Catholic thing is evil. It's racist and I hate it. It diminishes Scottish life. It stunts people. "When we lived near Ibrox I resented people assuming I approved of all that stuff just because I was a Church of Scotland minister. "The Rangers-Celtic bigotry is actively dangerous to people's lives and neither club can hide inside its hospitality suites.

"I think you're under an obligation to protest about the racism. I feel quite disquieted when I see people laugh it off for it can't be laughed off. To many, the big clubs have become a substitute for the church. The 'hymn sheets' are handed round and everyone has his or her own favourite chant or song. "The connection may not be immediately obvious but it's interesting to compare the mood swings among huge crowds.

"So just as the multitude called for Barabbas to be released, a football crowd can turn into a lynch-mob against its own players. The cruelty is unbelievable." And so, come tomorrow night if anyone asks me "Who won?", my reply will be 'Who cares?" rphilip@thenational.ae