Old Firm handwringing is nothing new

The wailing and gnashing of teeth prompted by last night’s Old Firm derby is as predictable as it is facile.

Politicians, police and the football authorities have once again been falling over themselves to express their outrage, and of course grab a few headlines of their own. Calls for the fixture to be outlawed are guaranteed to generate column inches, but it’s difficult to imagine how Old Firm clashes could be banned without bringing the whole of Scottish football to its knees. And demands for matches to be played behind closed doors are baffling – surely such action is designed to punish bad behaviour by fans, not unruly players and club officials?

Given the hype that precedes each match, the mock outrage that follows “controversial” Old Firm games is just a tad hypocritical. Many of the people holding their head in their hands and weeping about “Scotland’s shame” are guilty of creating the frenzy in the first place. For instance, it’s only a couple of weeks since a national newspaper ran a front page headline over a story about a nothing spat between two players, that screamed “The Old Firm: It’s War!”.

And do we not need a little perspective here? Were the events of last night actually that bad? A couple of hard tackles, an argument between El Hadji Diouf and Neil Lennon and a skirmish at full time involving Lennon and Ally McCoist. Today’s reaction might suggest otherwise, but no punches were thrown and no-one was hurt.

It was an important football match – tensions were high and tempers frayed. The scenes were not particularly edifying, but we see the same thing every week at football grounds up and down the country, in fact all over the globe. Surely nowhere else in the world do the actions of a few players and coaches merit weeks of national soul-searching. Are we so insecure as Scots that we genuinely believe what happens on a football pitch somehow defines us as a nation?

Of course, for seasoned Old Firm watchers such handwringing is nothing new.  As long ago as the 1940s there were demands for the fixture to be banned. As I wrote in my book, Follow Follow: Classic Rangers Old Firm Clashes:

Encounters between the two clubs in the 1940s were fraught affairs, marred by trouble on and off the field, rampant paranoia and accusations that the standard of football was at an all-time low.
Newspaper match reports focused as much on sectarian singing, missile throwing, complaints about biased refereeing and the misbehaviour of players as they did on the actual football. In fact, reading accounts of Old Firm clashes from that time, it’s remarkably easy to imagine the words being applied to matches of the modern era.
This damning paragraph from a Glasgow Herald match report in 1947, highlighting the supposed drop in standards, could have been written at any time in the subsequent 60 years: “Rarely has a greater travesty of a sporting function been perpetrated on a football public that is by no means unused to Rangers and Celtic in opposition destroying the good name of the game.”

 Over the next couple of years, there were numerous disputed goals and penalty claims on both sides, culminating in crowd trouble among the visiting fans at Ibrox during a League Cup tie in August 1949. Two weeks later, there was controversy again, with a disputed foul leading to a late Rangers goal. Celtic players threatened to walk off in protest and dozens of police officers were deployed around the pitch and on the Parkhead slopes to keep the peace.

“The latest incident prompted the Herald, probably Scotland’s most respected newspaper at the time, to publish the startling headline: “Celtic v Rangers matches should be stopped.” The article said no further derbies should be allowed that season, a view – the writer claimed – that was shared by Celtic, if “referees who can completely control play and players are not available to handle such games.”

 Of course, banning Old Firm games was never a realistic option then, any more than it is now and just 11 days later, a quirk of the fixture list meant that the rivals would meet again at Ibrox, . It was a muted affair by Old Firm standards, unsurprisingly perhaps, given recent events. Both teams seemed to be so worried about igniting trouble among spectators, that they appeared not to be approaching the game in quite as full-blooded manner as they normally would. This left some observers feeling a little short-changed.

In the wake of the trouble at the earlier games, the Picture Post had sent one of its writers from London to dispatch a report from the front line, but he left disappointed. “Not a banner has floated on bloodstained air. Not a bottle. Not a battle,” the author wrote. Likewise, for all its previous hand wringing and navel-gazing, the Herald was scathing about this watered down version of the Old Firm. “A Rangers v Celtic match used to be the greatest club game in the world,” the paper stated, “now it is an anaemic, lustreless fixture – just another fixture.”

 And this is the Old Firm paradox. For all the words written in condemnation of the fixture and everything that surrounds it, the match remains the most important on the Scottish football calendar. All those who make a living out of covering the game rely on the controversy generated by meetings between the two clubs, however distasteful they may claim they find it. Games that pass without incident are dismissed as anodyne; without the baggage, they are “just another fixture.”