First Blood – Rangers 3 Celtic 1, February 18th 1893

It is a day that normally merits little more than a footnote in the long history of the Old Firm. But February 18th, 1893, is actually one of the most significant in the Rangers story. It was on that date that Rangers recorded their first ever competitive win against Celtic – no less than five years after the two teams first met.
To mark the anniversary, here is an edited chapter from my book Follow, Follow: Classic Rangers Old Firm Clashes which focuses on that momentous first win for the Light Blues 118 years ago.
The rivalry between Rangers and Celtic today is so strong and so deep-rooted that it’s difficult to imagine that the clubs have ever been anything other than the bitterest of enemies.

So, as the two juggernauts prepare for yet another head-on clash this weekend, it may come as something of a shock to modern day followers of the Old Firm, that in the early years of their existence they were actually best friends.

Indeed, when Rangers beat Celtic in the final of the Glasgow Cup  in 1893, the losers were full of praise for their conquerors. During the post-match banquet at a Glasgow hotel the two clubs swore loyalty to one another while Celtic president John Glass agreed that there was no other team Celtic would rather have seen win the competition than Rangers.

Rangers secretary William Wilton with the Glasgow Cup

Newspaper reports at the time recorded the “fine spirit of kinship” that prevailed between the two. The Scottish Referee sports paper highlighted “interchanges of mutual good behaviour” and praised the teams for not resorting to “rough play”. The paper declared: “Not a regrettable incident occurred on the field to mar the reputation of any player or spoil the harmony which characterised the play.”Such reports of mutual respect and appreciation are a far cry from the headlines we see after most Glasgow derby matches these days. Cynics might be inclined to suggest that Celtic could afford to be magnanimous in defeat on this occasion. Although they had been in existence for 16 years longer than Celtic, Rangers were in many ways the plucky underdogs of the Glasgow football scene.After a successful first decade, the 1880s had been a difficult time for the club. The Glasgow Cup victory in 1893 was the first time they had ever won the prestigious trophy and it was their first cup win of any kind since they lifted the Glasgow Charity Cup 14 years earlier. Even more significantly, the 3-1 victory marked Rangers’ first ever win over Celtic in a competitive match.

Celtic had hit the ground running since their formation in 1888. The club was set up by the Marist priest Brother Walfrid with the laudable aim of providing assistance to poor Roman Catholics in Glasgow’s east end. With the backing of wealthy businessmen, Celtic were able to poach players from other Scottish teams, most notably Edinburgh-based Hibernian. The tactic may have been morally questionable, but it had the desired effect, allowing Celtic to quickly establish themselves as a major force in the game.

In contrast to Celtic’s instant affluence, Rangers had been formed in 1872 by a handful of young football enthusiasts, all under the age of 18, with little more than a leather ball to their name. Given their poverty of resources, their early success was remarkable. Within five years the fledgling club had seen several of its players represent the national team, had moved into its first ground at Kinning Park on Glasgow’s south side and reached the final of the Scottish Cup. But after winning their first major trophy, the Charity Cup, in 1879, the next decade proved to be a struggle for the Light Blues.

Despite the lack of on-field success, Rangers had grown to be one of the most popular clubs in the country and in 1887 moved to a new, bigger ground at Ibrox. The inaugural Scottish League championship was jointly won with Dumbarton in 1891, and although it would be another seven years before they would be champions again, there were signs that good times were on the horizon.

John McPherson, Rangers' star striker

Gradually Rangers were assembling a line-up that would be capable of competing for the major silverware every season. Kilmarnock-born John McPherson was undoubtedly the star of the team, an inside forward who would serve the club as a player for 12 years before becoming a director. He has been described as the greatest player of the club’s first 50 years, one early history of the club saying of him: “He delighted in dribbling up to a defender, feinting and swerving round him, before delivering his shot.”

Although both teams were fighting it out for the league title, Celtic went into the final as strong favourites, with some pundits confidently predicting a walkover. They had some justification; Celtic had won seven of the 10 previous encounters between the teams, with the other three being drawn. The Scottish Referee analysed the strengths and weaknesses of both teams and concluded that, despite having a stronger half-back line (Bob Marshall, Hugh McCreadie and David Mitchell), Rangers were generally weaker and would have to rely on the condition of the pitch to restrict Celtic’s “parlour passing”.

The predictions of a one-sided final appeared to have an impact on the attendance. With inclement weather forecast and controversy raging in the press over the cost of admission to football games, it seemed that the anticipated lack of competition persuaded many fans to stay away. It was a lower than expected crowd of 10,000 that gathered for the match at Third Lanark’s ground Cathkin Park, on what turned out to be a mild February afternoon. But what the spectators lacked in numbers they made up for in enthusiasm. As the Scottish Referee recorded: “Enthusiasm prevailed, especially among the Ibrox contingent, who seemed imbued with exhilarating feelings of confidence in the ability of the Light Blues to win.” And if newspaper reports are to believed, those who stayed at home missed “a hard and at times brilliant” game.

With the clock approaching 3.30pm, Celtic appeared first from the pavilion, headed by their captain James Kelly. A minute later, the Light Blues’ skipper Mitchell led his team onto the field. Both sets of players were given a hearty welcome, according to the Glasgow Herald, although the Scottish Referee indicated that the reception for Rangers was rather more vociferous. It had been so long since Rangers had last won a cup competition, it was no surprise that their followers were excited at the prospect of picking up some silverware.

The anticipated bad weather hadn’t materialised, so as Neilly Kerr kicked off the match for Rangers exactly on the half-hour, it was Celtic who had reason to be happier with the conditions. Although the pitch was a little softer than they would have liked, the Herald opined that the playing surface was probably the best of any club in the city. In theory the conditions should have been ideal for Celtic’s passing game, but Rangers’ half-backs refused to allow the opposition forwards any time or space to indulge themselves, paralysing the Celtic attacks with their dogged defence. Marshall in particular was singled out by Scottish Referee for his “strong, legitimate blocking and tackling”.

In attack, Rangers were “cool, clever and confident” and once they won the ball ensured that they wasted no time in getting it into the danger areas. The contrast in styles was stark. While Celtic apparently wanted to paint pretty pictures, Rangers adopted a far more pragmatic approach. Get the ball, move it forward quickly and test the goalkeeper. That’s not to say that they resorted to some sort of prototype Route One approach; the Herald reported how fans cheered their “capital passing” and were treated to the best play the Rangers had produced all season.

John Barker, Rangers goalscorer

It was a combination of powerful tackling and speedy passing that saw the Light Blues gradually impose their will on the final and after a string of near-misses, it was no surprise when they took the lead after half an hour through a long-range shot from John Barker. Two more goals were added in the second half by Kerr and McPherson as Rangers continued to dominate the game. It was only in the very final moments that Celtic were finally able to breach the resolute Rangers defence, but McMahon’s strike was no more than a consolation, and the final whistle brought scenes of celebration for those in blue.

Fans piled onto the Cathkin pitch to hail their heroes, carrying the players shoulder high in triumph. The celebrations didn’t stop there, as the Scottish Referee reported. “On the road back to the city, car, brake, cab and other vehicles were eagerly seized upon by enthusiastic Ibroxonians, hundreds of them sported the colours and frantically waved the favourite ‘blue’ to and fro in the evening breeze.”

While the supporters enjoyed their evening, the trophy was presented to Rangers officials at a post-match dinner attended by both clubs at the Alexandra Hotel in Glasgow. Before the banjo band of the Minerva Club began their after dinner entertainment, Bailie John Ure Primrose, a Glasgow councillor, urged City Fathers to encourage the development of the game of football. 

The Scottish Referee was fulsome in its praise of Rangers victory, enthusing over their “daring, dashing, play”. In an editorial after the match, the paper wrote: “Perseverance has had its reward and no-one will grudge the Rangers nor will a solitary voice seek to diminish or detract from the play by which this signal triumph was achieved. Pluckily the club has fought against and borne with the knocks of misfortune these 14 years and now that those who defend its honour on the field and those who loyally follow its fortunes round the ropes both rejoice in all the glory that a cup brings in its train, none will deny them enjoying to the fullest measure the fruits of victory. The fact that it was thoroughly deserved adds an additional spice of interest and pleasure to the win.”

The Glasgow Cup victory was something of a coming of age for Rangers on the field. The club’s players and supporters had in the past been characterised as having a supreme confidence in their own team’s abilities, that sometimes appeared misplaced. Now with this triumph, they had something tangible to back up their self-belief. At last they had bettered Celtic and, by lifting the Glasgow Cup, were now, officially, the best team in the city

Rangers team: Haddow, Hay, Drummond, Marshall, A. McCreadie, Mitchell, H. McCreadie, Davie, Kerr, Barker, J. McPherson.

Rangers goals: Barker, Kerr, McPherson

Follow Iain Duff on Twitter: @iainduff

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