Leaving the Old Firm in Scotland: Celtic and Rangers
Few things in football match the intensity and thrill of a derby, when neighbours are at each other’s throats and loyalties of families are divided. The magic of the Merseyside derby from last week was captivating, as both Liverpool and Everton dished out tasty tackles even though their managers were disciples of the finer, continental style of football. The derby, it seems, cannot be suppressed: it’s a rivalry far more intimate than others. Titles can be lost, but the derby cannot.
Cardiff City’s promotion to the Premier League reignited another flaming battle, coming just over 101 years after the first South Wales derby between the club and Swansea. Surprisingly, this was the first tie between the two Welsh clubs in the top flight.
The English Premier League’s delightful marketing campaign would survive even without its pre and post-match gimmicks, as the histories between the teams on show are an advert for the game few other leagues can match in terms of intensity and number. Be it West Ham United and Millwall, Newcastle United and Sunderland, or Arsenal and Tottenham, the football is never disappointing. More importantly, the influx of foreign players has not diluted the traditions: Manchester City’s Spanish imports are aware how valuable a victory over the red half of Manchester is to the supporters.
In such a setting, wouldn’t the greatest – as argued in some quarters – derby of them all add another rip-roaring contest to the enviable repertoire of the English Premier League? Surely, the league’s administrators would not have to spend any money at all to attract crowds for a match-up between the two most successful Scottish clubs? The clubs, after all, hold the British record for the highest attendance for a league match. The Scottish Cup final of 1969 saw an even bigger crowd, with 132,870 managing to fit themselves into the stadium.
Celtic and Rangers, between them, have won 97 Scottish League championships, 68 Scottish Cups and 41 Scottish League Cups. The two have played each other close to 400 times, with less than a fourth of them ending as draws. No boring stalemates, then.
As an Old Firm tie has not been possible since Rangers’ demotion at the end of the 2011-12 season after their liquidation and subsequent reincarnation, one could be forgiven for thinking that the rivalry may have lost an edge. After all, supporters thrive on the knowledge that they would be meeting their arch-enemies in the coming future. However, there has been no mellowing of the mood. Earlier this year in April, a crowd of 6,000 fans watched the under-17s – yes, the under-17s – of the two Glasgow clubs play each other. The meeting of the kids did not lighten the mood though, as the youngsters got an early taste of what the Old Firm really meant. Playing at Patrick Thistle, flares and smoke bombs were in full show, reducing visibility to dangerous levels. Seats were torn out of their place.
And this was before the match had started.
A couple of minutes after kick-off, a local fire brigade was on the scene as a precautionary measure. But a hose cannot douse the poisonous taunting.
The inclusion of clubs from Wales into the English football season was a result of the late formation of the Welsh football league. Founded in 1904 as the Rhymney Valley League, it went on to be named as the Glamorgan League in 1909, until it finally assumed the mantle of the Welsh Football League in 1912. Cardiff City were founded in 1899, while Swansea City came into being in 1912.
The Scottish Football League, on the other hand, was formed in 1890, with the Scottish Football Association responsible for organising football in Scotland since 1873. With the formation of the Scottish Football Association in 1873, friendlies and cup ties like the Glasgow Cup would be staged. The formation of the Football League in England in 1888 attracted several players from Scotland due to the higher salaries on offer. This in turn forced Scottish clubs to form their own league, leading to the creation of the Scottish Football League in 1890, with Rangers and Celtic being part of the founding members.
All in all, the initiation of Welsh clubs into the English Football League was due to the lack of a formal structure in Wales. Scotland, on the other hand, did not face the similar paucity of footballing administration.
That said, more than a hundred years down the line, does a case exist for the Scottish powerhouses to play under the aegis of the English Football League?
The strongest argument in favour of Rangers and Celtic joining the English Football League is the financial clout they can offer. Both their stadia, The Ibrox and Celtic Park, can seat more than 50,000 people each, with the latter closer to 60,000. If two clubs, with the fanatical support that they have, were to join the English league, attendances at home and away games for the current English clubs would rise dramatically, leading to an increase in the revenue streams.
“Could you imagine the income generation Rangers and Celtic would create in the Conference? Every Conference stadium would be full. And then to work through the leagues over the next three or four years would refresh English football because this staleness that is affecting Scottish football is prevalent here,” Charles Green, former chief executive of Rangers, was quoted as having said in March this year.
But apart from strengthening of revenue streams, little seems to support the inclusion of the Scottish clubs in English football.
The Glaswegian clubs’ enmity is entrenched in deeply held religious beliefs, and a rivalry based on sectarianism would not be healthy for any league, especially the English, which finds itself in the middle of rising racist abuse after having nearly eradicated the widespread hooliganism of the 1970s and 1980s.
Founded in 1872, Rangers predominantly attracted the Scottish Protestants. Celtic, on the other hand, was founded in 1887 by an Irish Catholic monk, with the aim of funding a charity to reduce the poverty within Glasgow’s large Irish community, and being a symbolic support to the suffering immigrants. Rangers, on the other hand, were the team supported by Scotland’s Protestant majority. Until 1989, the club had a policy of not signing Catholic players.
Current Celtic manager Neil Lennon Lennon, a Catholic from Lurgan, Northern Ireland, has had to endure violence and threats since joining Celtic in 2000 as a player.
In September 2008, Lennon was knocked unconscious after being assaulted in Glasgow, with a Celtic spokesman saying that Lennon had been the target of sectarian abuse. The attack on Lennon came hours after Celtic lost their league match against rivals Rangers. The two perpetrators, sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, were Rangers supporters.
In January 2011, bullets addressed to Lennon were intercepted at a mail sorting office in Glasgow. Later that year in March, Lennon and two high-profile Celtic fans were sent parcel bombs. If it needed to be added, Lennon was forced into international retirement in 2002 after receiving death threats.
Even if the haze of hate surrounding the Old Firm tensions was to be side-stepped, the little matter of English-Scottish rivalry would still have to be considered. While Scottish managers and footballers have left an indelible print on English football, the nature of the fierce rivalry between the two nations has been immense. A Scotland team featuring the likes of Denis Law and Jim Baxter beat World Cup winners England 3-2 in 1967 at Wembley, leading to the Scottish media calling their team as the best in the world for a day. The annual fixture between the two nations was abandoned in 1989.
An added spice to the England-Scotland rivalry has been the case for Scottish independence.
Earlier this month, on the 14th, the Scottish Independence Referendum Bill was passed by the Scottish parliament. On September 18, 2014, the Scottish government will hold a referendum of Scotland’s voting public on whether Scotland should be an independent country and separate itself from the United Kingdom. With uncertainty over the future status of the nation itself, little can be done about football clubs.
Finally, the removal of Celtic and Rangers could sound the death knell for football in Scotland. With Scottish domestic football not commanding much money in terms of broadcasting rights, the clubs’ reliance on gate receipts is accentuated. Were Rangers and Celtic to become a part of English football, attendance for other clubs would plummet. Rangers, for example, have been able to attract thousands of fans to their matches in the Scottish League One, even though they lead the table by nine points over Dunfermline, having played a game less.
Should Rangers and Celtic join English football, the strengthening of revenues would only lead to the purchase of higher quality players by the two clubs, who would inevitably be non-Scottish. As a result, the national team would suffer even more.
Their presence in Scottish football might have created a two-horse race over the years, but the Old Firm remains an attraction that cannot be matched, even though they remain separated by divisions. While their inclusion in the English Premier League may sound as a proposal worth savouring, far-reaching consequences have to be accounted for before such a move is executed.