The derby which disappeared

Damiano Benzoni

“In full throat, they sing in praise of our slaughter: we’re up to our knees in Fenian blood”. This is how Franklin Foer, in his book How Football Explains the World, describes the Old Firm, the Glasgow derby between Celtic and Rangers. A derby which between 1996 and 2003, according to figures reported by Foer, caused eight deaths and scores of assaults. A derby that now seems destined to vanish as Rangers were not admitted to the next season of the Scottish Premier League on charges of debts totalling 94 million € towards Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The club had gone into administration on February 14th, with a ten-point penalty and the exclusion from next season’s European competitions, and liquidation started on June 14th. Rangers tried in vain to apply for the new SPL season with a new society, but the other clubs voted against: with ten votes out of twelve, the abstention of Kilmarnock meant the only vote in favour of such move was the vote of the Glaswegian protestants themselves. The new club will have to apply to the lower leagues, and may be forced to start from the fourth rung of the Scottish championship.

It’s a huge blow for a team which, since its foundation in 1872, had put into the shelves of the Ibrox Stadium fifty-four Scottish league titles (including a nine in a row from 1988-89 to 1996-97 started under the reign of Graeme Souness), thirty-three Scottish Cups, twenty-seven League Cups and a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, won in its centenary year by beating Dinamo Moscow 3-2 at the Camp Nou in Barcelona, with a goal by Colin Stein and a brace by Willie Johnston. Rangers had beat Torino in the quarter finals and Bayern Munich in the semis. Among the people who donned the blue jersey of Rangers stand Gennaro Gattuso, Claudio Caniggia, Brian Laudrup, Terry Butcher, Paul Gascoigne, Stéphane Guivarc’h, the de Boer brothers, Tore André Flo, Andrej Kančel’skis and a gallery of Scottish legends such as Graeme Souness, Willie Johnston, Jim Baxter, Gordon Durie, Duncan Ferguson, Andy Goran and Colin Hendry.

Photo: Andrea Varacalli

The top event of any season for Rangers has always been the Old Firm, the derby of Glasgow, a grotesque footballing parallel of the sectarian divisions between the Catholics and the Protestants of the city. Celtic was born in 1888 in the Irish Catholic immigrants’ community, marginalised and disadvantage as compared to the Protestant Scottish majority. Only in 1989 would Rangers sign their first Catholic player, Maurice Johnstone, a move which was to ignite protests by their supporters. Ranger fans burnt their scarves, their season tickets and the photos of Graeme Souness who, as a coach, had opposed sectarianism in the club more than anyone had done previously. In 1991 Souness, after preaching Rangers had a choice between “sectarianism and success”, had to surrender and give in his job: “Bigotry never sat easily on my shoulders, but bigotry will always be at Ibrox”.

The Old Firm is possibly the only derby to have strong relevance also abroad, as the Northern Irish capital Belfast lies only 150 kms across the sea from Glasgow and from its match, an easy excuse for juxtaposing Irish Catholics and Protestant loyalists. Thousands of supporters cross the Irish sea every year to attend the derby and one year and a half ago – after a Celtic win at Ibrox – the Royal Mail intercepted three envelopes which contained bullets and were destined to the three Northern Irish people of the green and white club, coach Neil Lennon and the players Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn. Lennon had already endured aggressions and threats: in 2008 he was hospitalised after being assaulted by Ranger fans, while six years earlier he had received death threats a few days be1fore a match of the Northern Irish national team, just as he was about to become the first Catholic captain. Lennon didn’t play that match, and never wore the national team jersey again.

The exclusion of Rangers from the top flight of the Scottish league is a huge blow not only for the Blues, but for the whole Scottish league and even for their rivals Celtic. The two Glaswegian teams have set up a duopoly which dominates the Scottish Premier League with only few exceptions: out of 115 Scottish league titles, 97 were sewn on the rivals’ jerseys. The last success of another team dates back to Aberdeen’s 1984-85 win. The two teams were even able to share first and second place regularly since 1995, with the only exception of the second place gained by Hearts of Midlothian in 2005-06. Even this year, although Rangers had to face a ten-point deduction because of its financial situation, they were able to gain second place with an eleven-point advantage on the third team, Motherwell.

Kevin McKenna of the Observer dubbed the Scottish league “the most uncompetitive league in world football”: what interest will next year league have? What effect will the exclusion of Rangers have on Celtic’s incomes, as the hoops no longer have credible rivals and as the major fixture of the year no longer exists? The “Old Firm” partly represents the interdependence of the two clubs, whose support mainly depends on ethnical and sectarian identification and on negative reference to each other. The only option to keep at a competitive level might be the one suggested last March by Sunday People, which suggested that the green and white management was into secret talks to enter League One, the third tier of the English championship. A decision which might alienate for good the sectarian fraction of their supporters, but might also be a mile-stone in the history of the club and the only chance not to lose their place in the football that counts.

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