First things first: I’m neutral (or a neutral, if you prefer to characterise not supporting either side of the Old Firm as a state of being). I have no religion, no relevant cultural attachments and no regular spot at the bar of a Rangers or Celtic pub. If you cut me, I bleed the red of Manchester United’s flag.
But the Old Firm derby was always my favourite football match.
Well, I say ‘football match’, but it’s not really a football match at all, is it? It’s something far more glorious and far more terrible; something far more thrilling and far more gruelling.
My partner and I moved into our new flat this weekend. It’s round the corner from Hampden Park, where Celtic played Rangers on Sunday afternoon, so the traditional Old Firm sirens and songs were our soundtrack. And it was glorious, and terrible, and thrilling, and gruelling. A football match, but at the same time something else entirely. But it didn’t feel like it used to.
The myth of Sisyphus
I think Albert Camus must have just moved from one top-floor flat to another when he ruminated on Sisyphus, pitiful Sisyphus, condemned for all eternity to roll a boulder up a hill and push it down again, and then roll it up again, over and over
As Camus notes in The Myth of Sisyphus, the fascination of the story lies in that moment after he lets the boulder go. What does he think about as he trudges back downhill to start again?
Our old flat is on the second floor; it’s 32 steps up from the front door. Our worldly belongings were carried down those 32 steps. It took a lot of trips.
The new flat is on the third floor, and it’s 63 steps up from the front door. Our worldly belongings were carried up those 63 steps, along with nineteen Ikea boxes, all heavier than you could ever believe furniture could possibly be. It took a lot of trips.
I’m not really built for manual labour; there’s a reason I stuck in at school. Lifting heavy things isn’t something I relish. Alas my partner and I have no manservants so we kept our feet apart, bent our knees, gritted our teeth and carried all of my belongings from one flat to another in about five minutes, and then all of her belongings from one flat to another over the course of two painful weekends.
The routine was like this: my partner lugged our stuff from the back of our hired van into the close, and I carried it up the 63 steps to our flat, where I was supposed to place the bags carefully on the floor. In reality, my wobbly arms generally released what I was carrying with all of the elegance and control of a man throwing down an armful of half-dead eels. The routine was like clockwork, but only if you imagine a really knackered clock.
The moments after I let down my load and limped, wheezing, back downstairs – they’re the moments Camus found so intriguing in the Sisyphus myth; the moments of respite, or (for Camus) of insight, of self-knowledge. Of absurdity.
So what did I think about when I made my way back downstairs to confront another pile of bags that were too heavy for me? I thought about Glasgow Rangers.
Rangers fans pushing boulders up a hill
In this recent Observer piece, Graham Spiers painted a quietly moving portrait of the plight of Rangers fans these days.
I won’t rehearse the club’s travails in detail; other people are better informed to do so than me, and it’s been done to death. What interests me is the psychology of the fans.
Spiers tells us about supporters buses that once were packed, but which now can’t coax enough paying customers to remain a viable concern. He tells us about lifelong season ticket holders sneaking off at half time and deciding never to go back. He presents decent, dignified Rangers fans who can’t take it any more.
It’s interesting to me that they lasted as long as they did. The last great club to fall on such hard times was Manchester City, and their support held up through the ignominy of relegation to the third tier. But in those days City were a bit of a comedy club, so the fans had the necessary sense of perspective and gallows humour to cope. The demotion of Rangers to the bottom of the Scottish league system was something quite different.
The immediate reaction to their punishment (or whatever word you prefer) was typically Rangers: defiance, bullish pride, scorn, and a sense that they’d have their vengeance on other football teams one day (even though the other teams were entirely blameless, and actually the victims of Rangers’s financial doping). A club that asserts ‘we are the people’, that proclaims itself ‘simply the best’, and that seemed to be belting out a triumphalist ‘champio-nees’ for the duration of my childhood – that’s not the sort of club you’d expect to be humble and sorry. You would have been surprised if the fans had shrugged their shoulders and accepted what was coming.
As Spiers notes, the red brickwork of Ibrox Stadium seemed to resonate with the very essence of the club – glorious, steadfast, unbreakable. So when McCoist said “we don’t do walking away” he captured and shaped the mood of the Rangers fans. It was a great line. I even saw two wheelchair users wearing the “we don’t do walking away” t-shirts. If that was any other club you’d assume it was a joke, but with Rangers fans you never can be sure.
The fury of the supporters, not always accurately directed, sustained them through the first winter in the fourth tier. I imagine there will be Rangers fans for whom that season was the most fun they’d had watching Rangers in years – massive wins, trips to new places, a sense of defiant adventure. We’ll show them.
The second season out of the SPL must have been tougher for them, but the support seemed to hold up through the second winter. The Ibrox boardroom manoeuvres were quite confusing, so it was possible to just focus on the football, such as it was.
This season has been a season too far, though. By all accounts the standard of football has been woeful, the boardroom politics have become more transparently venal, and it has been very cold in Glasgow. There’s only so much a guy can take. And so the supporters clubs are folding or merging, the buses aren’t running on time and McCoist has chucked it.
Just imagine preparing the players to play against Alloa or whoever, week after week, when you, McCoist, nearly reached the Champions League final in 1992. Imagine your twentieth cold shower of the season in crumbling away dressing rooms when you, Lee McCullough, have played for Scotland. Imagine pulling on your overcoat in the middle of winter, enduring the squash on the subway and the young fans doing the bouncy, then trudging through the turnstiles to watch that, over and over, when you saw the Cup Winners Cup victory in 1972.
And then imagine the fan who sneaked out at half-time after a lifetime of diehard support. Imagine what went through his mind. Was it sadness? Anger? Or perhaps a moment of elation, liberation, relief, playfulness? Just think of the possibilities opening up in that man’s mind when he realised that, unlike Sisyphus, he doesn’t need to go back next week; when he realised he could walk away.
It was against this backdrop that Rangers were drawn against Celtic in the semi-final of the League Cup, for the first Old Firm game since they were cast into hell.
For a beleaguered Rangers fan, would this be a moment of release, like Sisyphus watching the boulder roll out of sight? Or was the prospect of a game against Celtic more like Sisyphus feeling his boulder get twice as heavy?
I can’t drive. My partner can, but we don’t have a car. This is usually fine, but when we prepared to move flat we needed access to a vehicle.
We’ve hired cars and vans on the odd occasion in the past, from a well-known vehicle rental firm. They have so many vehicles in the forecourt it doesn’t even occur to you or the assistant behind the desk to ask about availability. If you want a van you can have a van. What size do you want? It’s yours, for as long as you need it.
Well this week we rang up to book a van for the weekend and they didn’t have any.
After a bit of phoning around we did eventually secure what we needed, but the initial van shortage was a bit of a surprise.
I didn’t give this another thought until the explanation suddenly revealed itself on Old Firm day.
We were up early to drive to our old flat, pack up our remaining belongings and bring them to the southside. At about 8:30am we passed the Hydro, where there were only two other vehicles on the road: two police vans (or meat wagons, if you will) running through some routines. At 8:30am!
On our way back to our new flat, at about 10:15am, we passed a group of Celtic fans outside the International Bar along from Hampden. They were wasted.
I don’t mean that they were drinking. It’s not often that one drinks at 10:15am, but it is possible. No, they were already totally pished. And I don’t think they had been up all night and remained drunk; you can tell when someone’s done an all-nighter. They had managed to get themselves properly steaming by 10:15am. That’s an impressive logistical feat. They must have set their alarms to pull that one off.
We were then busy for a while, lugging heavy bags up the 63 steps to…well, I suppose I’ve covered that already. But as time went on, the soundtrack grew from the street below. Isolated battle cries gave way to coordinated chanting by massive groups of men, strutting towards Hampden with arms stretched out to the side for whatever reason. An unexplained explosion shook the flat at one point. Things were building.
Our TV isn’t set up yet, and my partner wasn’t interested, so I had arranged to walk over to my parents’ house to watch the match with my dad. I’d pass Hampden en route, so I was braced for impact with the Old Firm.
It was quite a walk. Cathcart Road must have been next to the Rangers end because I didn’t see a single Celtic fan anywhere. Instead, I saw nineteen (nineteen!) police vans, two police motorbikes, one CCTV van filming everyone, two police cars and, overhead, a police helicopter. And as if that wasn’t enough, I was passed by two hired vans from the same vehicle hire place that had struggled to serve us earlier in the week – and they were full of cops.
So that’s what happened to all the hire vans. Police Scotland didn’t have enough vehicles to go round all of the on-duty cops they needed in the Hampden area. No doubt some of the Rangers fans whose supporters buses were no longer running had also thought to book ahead.
Other sights caught my eye. A carrier bag containing a used carry-out was tied to the gate of a nursery, while another was tied to the gate of a graveyard. Round the corner, Rangers scarves were for sale, draped over the fence of Mount Florida Primary School. One of them bore the legend “William of Orange”. A football scarf.
Youth, death, learning, yearning. Drinking. Scottish football.
And there were so many buses! Hired coaches lined Queens Drive (I’d never really noticed the name before) in the low winter sun as far as my eye could see. In each coach sat a driver, reading the paper and eating crisps.What were they thinking?
By the time I was passing Hampden it was about five minutes until kick-off. The noise was huge. People talk about the Hampden roar, and how there isn’t one anymore, but that was seriously loud.
There were still quite a number of Rangers fans making their way to the stadium at this stage. They were certainly going to be late. Some sprinted anxiously between the gridlocked cars, blaming each other for their tardiness, but mostly the fans just walked, chests out, refusing to be hurried. It was all very Rangers.
There were security guards outside the Old Smiddy pub, ushering people away from the door. The Smiddy was my local when I was growing up. It’s a Celtic pub, I suppose, but more than anything it’s a decent, normal, local pub. There were plenty of Rangers fans in the local area and they watched the Old Firm matches alongside their Celtic-supporting neighbours without any hassle. There was never any need for stewards on the door. But on Sunday there were stewards on the door.
Then a bin lorry rolled past me as I approached my parents’ house. Work; civic work. And rubbish. My mum ran out of the house to ask them for bin bags. They gave her two massive rolls of them. They weren’t watching the game, no, but who did my mum want to win? She wasn’t getting into that.
It wasn’t much of a game in the end. I had expected Rangers to nullify the imbalance in skill by turning the game into a battle, but they didn’t do that. I don’t really know what their plan was in the first half, actually. Celtic scored twice without breaking sweat, missed another few chances, and then closed the match out after half-time. Celtic’s centre-backs won every header, Scott Brown won every tackle, and it went the way you would imagine a game between teams in different leagues would.
I wonder what it was like for the fans. For me, as a neutral, it was a curiously bloodless experience. The game was billed as the thrilling return of the Old Firm fixture after a three year wait, but it didn’t really feel like that.
If you’ve grown up in Glasgow, you know what the Old Firm is about, and you know what to do on Old Firm day. It’s part of my culture too. For example, my partner and I returned our hired van to the rental company a couple of hours before kick-off, and Charlie suggested going for a pint. I vetoed the plan straight away, because we don’t know the pubs in our area yet, and it was Old Firm day. I didn’t even have to think about it.
After a moment or two I realised how weird my reaction was. I still had the Old Firm day muscle memory, but it seemed like something strange, rather than something natural and eternal. Why can’t we go for a pint in our new neighbourhood? Isn’t that a bizarre thing?
I had also forgotten about the chants, because you simply don’t hear them anymore. And this is my abiding impression of the return of the Old Firm fixture – I actually don’t think anyone had noticed it had gone away.
You used to hear Rangers and Celtic chants all the time. I’ll never forget a nightbus journey home from town one weekend that was soundtracked by two Celtic fans singing a song about Nacho Novo. Novo was a Spanish striker who, like so many of Rangers’ foreign signings over the years, identified utterly with the shirt, the fans and the club. (There’s an intriguing story to be told about how so many elegant European footballers found their spiritual homes at Ibrox.) Novo wasn’t very tall, had a slightly chippy vibe, ran himself ragged every week and had a singular skin tone that looked for all the world like he’d spent too long in a sunbed. After a while you forgot he wasn’t actually from Govan. Needless to say, the Celtic fans despised him.
I won’t reprint the lyrics to that nightbus ditty, but it was so wildly extreme that the reaction of the mixed bus (it must have been a mixed bus) was one of disbelieving laughter
And disbelieving laughter was my reaction the first time I heard the Famine Song when it was added to the Rangers songbook a few seasons ago. For the blissfuly unaware, it concludes with the lines “the famine’s over, why don’t they go home?” One assumes that ‘they’ are Scottish people with an Irish migration family history. People like, well, me. And, well, most people in Glasgow. And, presumably, a sizeable proportion of the Rangers supporters themselves.
I don’t know if it’s the whole Sloop John B thing, but the Famine Song doesn’t annoy me in the way, say, the Billy Boys does, or the Sash. It’s so ridiculous you can’t really take it seriously. I mentioned earlier that you can never be sure when the Ibrox crowd are joking, but surely they aren’t actually serious about this one. To me, the Famine Song is as close as the Old Firm are ever going to get to self-awareness and self-parody.
The longer Sunday’s game went on, with Simply the Best and Rule Britannia resonating around the stadium while the scoreboard read “Celtic 2:0 Rangers”, it felt quite different from the guilty pleasures of Old Firm games in the past.
I think the explanation is quite simple: Rangers and Celtic fans pretty much forgot about each other for two and a half years.
There has been a shift at Celtic Park to distance the club from Rangers and the Old Firm identity: “no more guilt by association” as a recent banner put it. Celtic fans protest their outrage on social media whenever journalists mention (as they did on Sunday) ‘Old Firm sectarian chanting’. The argument is that the Catholic population were the victims of sectarianism while the Protestant population were its enforcers, so the equivalence is false. Similarly, the Parkhead consensus is that Celtic fans sing rebel songs, political songs, songs of self-defence, whereas Rangers fans sing the songs of the oppressor.
Clearly, Glasgow is a very different city today compared to the bad old days of proper sectarian division, so the Celtic songs are equally anachronistic (even if the above argument was once certainly fair enough). I remember sectarianism being prevalent when I was growing up, and is simply isn’t anymore. And over the last few years I had completely forgotten all about it.
All of which meant it must have been, frankly, a bit of an effort for both sets of fans to get themselves going again for another Old Firm match. No wonder that guy had to set his alarm to start drinking early. Even the cops had to phone round the rental firms for some extra wheels. And as with my decision to avoid the pub at lunchtime, the Old Firm muscle memory was still there among the crowd, and the old songs got another airing, but it didn’t really seem like they meant it the way they once did.
It’s as if the Celtic fans have been so bored by their last two forgetable titles that they’ve simply lost the ability to get excited about football. The emotions proper to a visit to Celtic Park are no longer the nostalgic, romantic outpourings of seasons gone by, but rather a more reserved, objective irritation about tactics and, y’know, football stuff. Meanwhile Rangers fans have found themselves confronted by a much greater foe than Celtic, in the shape of global capitalism and debts that won’t go away. As the supporters have belatedly turned their ire on the true architects of their club’s downfall, it’s as if they’ve gained a perspective of what really matters. And if, as is surely the case, both sets of fans now have friends, lovers and family members from the other side of what was once a divide, it’s difficult to sustain any genuine morbo.
Where mutual antipathy once bound the two clubs together in what seemed to be an unbreakable embrace, all it took was a couple of years in different divisions for Rangers and Celtic to forget about each other, find other and better things to worry about, and move on.
If the inescapable, low-level growl of the clubs’ rivalry used to feel like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up a hill, the Old Firm matches themselves were the thrilling, temporary release of the boulder careering out of sight.
But Sunday’s match felt different. It felt like an ending, rather than a new beginning. It felt a bit like Sisyphus being released from his punishment, and going off to do something else.