On St. Valentine’s Day, Glasgow Rangers FC entered administration with the once great club owing somewhere in the region of £75 million to £100 million. This weekend their Old Firm rivals, Celtic, were given their first real chance to revel in the demise of their greatest enemy. Sad to say, they did not disappoint.
Rangers capped off the worst week in the clubs 140 year history by losing 1-0 at home to Kilmarnock. The ignominy of such a desperate defeat really put the icing on the cake of what has been a trialling week to put it mildly.
As the Gers week was coming to an end, Celtic and their fans travelled to Edinburgh to take on, another of Scotland’s great clubs, Hibernian, full in the knowledge that three points would all but guarantee another SPL title now that Rangers have been docked 10 points for entering administration.
The Bhoys hammered Pat Fenlon’s relegation threatened side 5-0 to move Celtic 17 points clear at the top of the Scottish Premier League.
Celtic’s fans, perhaps, given their history together, understandably, took great glee in expressing some schadenfreude at Rangers expense.
Banners were hung from all corners of Easter Road celebrating the demise of Rangers title hunt this year and perhaps their demise altogether.
One banner, stretching across over 50 seats read “We’re having a party as R*NG£RS die,” while others were simply emblazoned with “HMRC” across Irish tricolours and as sponsors of fake Celtic jerseys that surfed the jubilant crowd.
Why Celtic fans would use an asterix instead of the ‘a’ in Rangers is beyond me, perhaps they could not bring themselves to write their rivals name. However, given that the rivalry between the two teams is so entrenched in sectarian hatred towards each other it is somewhat ironic to see “Her Royal Majesty’s Revenue and Customs” written across Irish flags given the history shared by the clubs.
To say that there is hatred between the supporters of Celtic and Rangers would be something of an understatement in every meaning of the word. They don’t hate each other, they despise each other. While they are a great many rivalries in the world of sport it is hard to imagine so entrenched in venomous bile towards the other.
Since their formations, Rangers and Celtic, in 1872 and 1887 respectively, have battled for the hearts and minds of supporters both near and far from Glasgow. Rightly or wrongly both clubs have become symbols to their respective following. Rangers, the Gers, have come to represent the Protestant community while Celtic has come to represent the Roman-Catholic community.
Ironically, neither side is especially associated with Scotland as far as flags and banners are concerned as Celtic’s fans have taken to waving Irish flags of green, white and orange, a symbol of republicanism and the IRA during “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland while Rangers fans have taken to waving the Union Jack flag, which is also a symbol of Unionists and the diametric opposites of “republicans” in Northern Ireland.
There are, of course, historic reasons for the split between the two sets of fans and clubs.
Northern Irish Protestants of today are direct descendants of Scots who settled in Northern Ireland in the early 1600’s when King James VI organized the “Plantation of Ulster” whereby his Scottish supporters were rewarded with land in the province which had been taken from taken from Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell. This action, in turn, led to the “Flight of the Earls” and another seminal moment in Irish history.
With, the previously uncontrolled land of Ulster now firmly in the hands of English and Scottish immigrants they set about creating farms and villages and trying to convert Gaelic speaking Catholics to Protestantism.
However, the gulf in language, as neither group spoke the others tongue, resulted in this conversion being an unmitigated disaster.
From there, it comes as no surprise to find that war broke out quite frequently during the mid 1600’s with both sides committing atrocities upon the other.
By 1653, following a rebellion known as “The War of the Three Kingdoms” there were no catholic land owners left in an Ulster where 80 percent of the population was indigenous Catholics.
In the late 1600’s Scotland suffered a famine whereby thousands of people then fled to Ulster. This mass migration lasted for over 25 years and by 1720 the catholic population of Ulster was now in the minority.
Relations between the two groups improved somewhat over the next 140 years with people now openly calling themselves Irish-Scots or vice versa and in general Ulster was quite prosperous when compared with the rest of Ireland.
All that was to change with the Irish Famine between 1845 and 1849.
The main crop in Ireland at the time, potato, failed and as blight, bad weather, impossible living conditions, landowners shipping good food out of the country and a Whig government that seemed indifferent to the suffering the population of the country was faced with two choices; stay and take your chances with dying or leave and take your chances with living.
People left the country in droves and settled right across the world. 500,000 travelled to Britain with huge communities sprouting up almost overnight in cities like Liverpool, Manchester, London, Birmingham and Glasgow. Over one million people fled to America alone with one in seven dying on the “coffin ships” on the voyage over. In the end, the famine accounted for an estimated 800,000 lives with another 1.5 million people emigrating alone. Thus, in the space of just four years, Ireland’s population dropped from an estimated eight million to 6.5 million and has been dropping ever since.
The problem with Britain, when the emigrants arrived was that it was just entering a period of recession and all of a sudden there was a mass of people who were literally willing to work for food alone never mind reduced wages.
As many Irish people took jobs all over the country, but especially in Glasgow where a distrust of the Irish populace existed from recent history in Ireland and in Scotland with the Reformation, there was an obvious division between the indigenous and the immigrants or the Protestants and the Catholics if you like.
40 years later and with the divide in Glasgow between the two groups visible Rangers and Celtic were born.
Celtic, created as a charitable organisation by Brother Waifrid to improve morale amongst Catholics, immediately became a way for Irish-Scot’s to express their Rashness whereas Rangers, under the stewardship of John Ure Primrose, in the early 1900’s, immediately became the voice for overt anti-Catholic institutions.
In short, the two clubs became important symbols to two very different sections of society that had been in one kind of conflict or another with each other for over 300 years.
Derek Johnstone, ex-Rangers player and Rangers commentator was slightly less subtle when describing the difference between the supporters.”It’s all about bigotry,” he said. “If you are a Roman Catholic then the only team to follow is Celtic and, of course, if you are a Protestant it is Rangers…”
To further emphasize this point, ex-Celtic player Peter Grant basically mirrored Johnstone’s controversial views when he said “there’s definitely Celtic areas and there’s Rangers areas. There’s pubs you’d go into and pubs you wouldn’t go into and that’s both as supporters and players. There’s definitely that divide and there’s an acceptance there.”
Most sports clubs are lucky if they have a rivalry that goes back 20, 50 or even 100 years but Celtic’s and Rangers differences go back almost 400.
Since the two clubs were formed in the last decade of the 1800’s they have played each other an amazing 397 times. They have become a cornerstone in the tourism industry, never mind the sporting world, where they have helped contribute almost £1 billion to the Scottish economy in the last 20 years alone.
The relationship shared by the two clubs is almost unique in world sport as not only are they are heavily reliant on each other but the entire Scottish footballing family is also supported by the big two.
Take the SPL for example, at present Rangers owe around £75 million to £100 million depending upon which report you read and Dunfermline AFC some £80,000.
£80,000 is not a small amount of money but when a club issues a statement saying they are worried they will not receive the said sum you have to stand up and take account of what an impact Rangers going out of business would have on the league as a whole.
This immediately makes you understand that the wider impact of Rangers ceasing to exist will have severe ramification for all in Scotland’s football family.
The SPL is, at the moment, a 12 team league with each team playing each other a possible four times. I say a possible four times because the SPL employs a strange fixture system whereby each team plays each other three times, resulting in 33 matches. The league is then split in two, a top six and bottom six, and the teams in each side play five games, one against each other, to bring the game total to 38.
The main reasoning, as far as I can see it, is so that each team from the remaining ten gets to play Rangers and Celtic at least six times a season and thus guarantee a sell out crowd each time.
Ground wise, the capacity of teams in the SPL ranges from 7,500 with Inverness to 22,000 at Aberdeen. Celtic guarantee 60,000 each week at Celtic Park with Rangers pulling in 50,000 at Ibrox. The two Glasgow teams are easily the giants of the domestic game with all other teams sharing a symbiotic relationship with them.
Their closest relationship, however, is with each other.
No, Celtic do not need Rangers to succeed as their Chief Executive recently said, but they do need their rivals, to survive, to push them to greater glories because without Rangers in the league there is simply no other team to compete with.
No one else can match Celtic in terms of wages, structure or support, only Rangers.
Without them the league is in dire straits. Celtic, who only recorded a profit of £180,000 last year, in a league with Rangers, has already gone on record to say they are financially sound but if their profits are so low one shudders at the rest of the SPL.
In a 2009/10 report by Price Waterhouse Cooper, only two teams in the SPL were operating on a positive financial footing, Falkirk and Hamilton.
This speaks volumes about the levels of debt in the SPL and how losing Rangers could be catastrophic. To further exemplify this recent revelations that the SPL TV may become null and void if Rangers are relegated have really thrown the cat amongst the pigeons.
This would have a double whammy effect on every team in the SPL, Celtic included, regardless of their statements that the club is on a financial sound footing. If Rangers are relegated, as some now expect, and are found guilty of “financial doping” then every team in the SPL will lose out on playing the giants three times a season and with it at least three full houses.
Then on top of that each club will lose out of television revenue which will also cause them to curtail further spending in a league that is already struggling to escape debt despite being one of the most watched in Europe.
Celtic’s fans may not like to hear this but they are joined at the hip with Rangers, and they both share an umbilical with the rest of the league.
Each clubs immediate survival is not in question but should Rangers cease to exist or cease to offer competition then every clubs footballing future comes under scrutiny, Celtic’s included.
Without their rival, Celtic will never compete at the highest level in Europe again and they will drift further off the pace as far as European competition is concerned. Without Rangers, Celtic will canter to almost every SPL title without fail and they won’t even need to sign top class players to do so. Without Rangers, Celtic will have no derbies and Glasgow will have no football tourism worth speaking about.
They will be able to achieve this by marginally spending more than their chief rivals who could turn out to be Hearts or the last team to win a Scottish League title, other than Rangers or Celtic, Aberdeen. The Dons were the last club to challenge the elite in Scotland when they won the title in 1985. Since then every title has gone to Glasgow without a challenge such is the gulf in finances between them and the rest.
The time has come for Celtic and Rangers rivalry to begin anew. One based of football rather than sectarianism.
As Rangers future hangs in the balance, each set of fans and members of each club must ask themselves; would we have achieved as much without our rivals?
Would Celtic have won the European Cup in 1967 without Rangers pushing them all the way to the league title?
Would Rangers celebrate the “nine in a row” without Celtic?
Would either team be able to enjoy the pleasures one can only understand after a derby win over your greatest rival without them?
It is here and now that fans have to recognise that what happened in the past is gone. Time has moved on. Life, through a strange particular quirk of faith, has given them the opportunity to support a team with a back history that would make for epic reading never mind viewing.
To put it simply, Celtic need Rangers as much as Rangers need Celtic.
But when all that is said and done the fans of each support eleven men who chase a bag of air around a field.
Life is too short to take sport too seriously. It can be a valuable symbol. It can inspire whole nations, but it is not worth fighting over.