Scotland’s biggest game returns

It was only a matter of time before it happened, but when Celtic and Rangers were drawn together for the semi-finals of the League Cup it set up what legions of fans from each team and indeed neutrals across Scotland and the world wanted – another Old Firm derby.

It is without a doubt Scotland’s biggest footballing (and cultural) rivalry, and there are very few clashes in world football that could compare either.  There is well over a century of history between them, and never has there been such a long gap between their meetings apart from when war broke out twice in the early 20th century.  The tumultuous times at Rangers since 2012 have created a completely new atmosphere around the game, and one that adds an entirely new dimension to what was already a multi-faceted and fierce rivalry.  This will all come to a head on Sunday and that brings equal amounts of excitement and trepidation.

The last Old Firm derby to take place was on the 29th of April 2012, with Celtic running out 3-0 winners.  The league was already sewn up at that point, and the “dispirited” Rangers side suffering the indignity of seeing the club the play for collapsing financially around them it’s no wonder that the result was so emphatic.  The intensity of the occasion was lost somewhat with the imbalance between the teams, but certainly would not have been had the faint prospect of Rangers’ liquidation been taken seriously.  The end of an era where both sides traded the title quite frequently, starting after Martin O’Neill took over at Celtic and ended Rangers’ nine-in-a-row streak, had definitely ended.

Only a few players have survived at either club to bring the past battle experience into the fray on Sunday, but neither team’s players will be in any doubt how much this game means.  Part of the immense hatred between the fans of both clubs now incorporates the idea that many Celtic fans profess that this Rangers side are an entirely new club, and this will be the first meeting between the sides.  Of course, this flies in the face of what Rangers fans think, believing their team to be a continuation of the same club that has won more league titles than Celtic.  What may appear to be a petty squabble and a wind-up actually required legal clarification in the end, with Lord Nimmo Smith coming to the conclusion that indeed Rangers is the same club that they have always been, albeit under a new (and immeasurably more volatile) ownership.

The debate over Rangers’ historical status is just a new point-of-difference between the fans of Scotland’s two biggest clubs, and is largely a phantom subject that masks the more sinister and dangerous themes behind the contest.  Celtic fans don’t really believe Rangers not to have existed, just as Rangers fans won’t really care on Sunday that their team has undergone a harrowing re-alignment.  Both sets of fans want an opportunity to indulge in the old customs of the Old Firm; with a game that is full of blood and thunder, passionate support from the terraces and the delivery of bragging rights to one half of the city until next time.  These customs are borne of the teams’ endless battles for the title of Scottish champions and, of course, the pernicious and troubling sectarianism that still plagues the support of both clubs and, in turn, the football-mad city they inhabit.

I sincerely hope that I’m wrong, but the chances of there being violence in Glasgow on Sunday are extremely high.  The stakes involved in terms of the competition and the match itself are so high that there is bound to be a small minority of idiots that will go too far.  There are so many ingredients that add to the toxic pot that has been bubbling since last time: the venue (the neutral Hampden Park) that will allow masses of each club’s support to attend; the kick-off time of 1.30pm that gives fans ample time to get drunk; the inevitability that one team will walk away winners and the other losers and the likelihood of on-the-pitch drama that will incite and enrage supporters in the stands.  We’re all aware of how these sorts of Old Firm games can go.  The 1980 Scottish Cup final still haunts football in Scotland with the outrageous rioting by both sets of supporters after the game leading to the ban of alcohol within grounds and the tightening of restrictions on fan behaviour across the country.

No matter what result comes out of the game on Sunday, one set of supporters will be despondent.  On purely footballing terms, Celtic should win the game comfortably; Rangers are not up to scratch of Premiership teams and shouldn’t be able to compete with the country’s best side.  Anything other than a comfortable Celtic win will leave the green support bemused, as this is as good an opportunity as they will ever have to twist the knife in their rivals’ back.  However, if Rangers are soundly beaten as could be expected, then their support will be angry as the game will reflect in no uncertain terms the massive gulf between the two teams that were once so evenly matched.  The middle-ground between these two extremes is equally as worrying, as the potential of the match being settled in extra-time or penalties and subject to dubious refereeing decisions could provide enough of a spark to light the powder keg.  For me I think it will be a close game, with the tense and terse occasion providing a levelling effect between the teams, but I think Celtic will run out winners in the end but by a margin that is somewhat more conservative than some of their fans will be hoping for.

Despite all the worries about the game, if it can go off without much of a hitch then it will prove its status as Scotland’s biggest match and something that our national game has missed.  It’s no co-incidence that the League Cup was sponsored at the last minute by QTS after the draw was made.  No other match-up could provide nearly as much intrigue or excitement to fans here in Scotland and worldwide.  As great as it has been to see other teams competing at the top end of the Premiership in recent years, the battle for the title has been largely an introspective one between Celtic and the calendar: trying to win the league as early as possible.  Matches like these create the atmosphere that makes football the glorious sport that it is, and although the streaks of evil in both supports threaten to taint it I believe that the Old Firm clash is Scottish football’s most attractive fixture and shows the true depth to our game in the way that nothing else can.

Incidentally, something that has gone missing in the reports of journalists so far in the run up to this momentous game, is that Sunday’s will be the 400th meeting between Rangers and Celtic.  The clubs are only 15 wins apart from each other on the all-time score, edging it 159-144 with 96 draws.  This goes to show how this is one of football’s biggest rivalries even just in terms of on-the-park action.  Let’s hope that on Sunday the Old Firm give Scotland a reason to be proud of it.

The game on Sunday kicks-off at 1.30pm and is live on BBC 1 Scotland.

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