More years than I care to remember, my old man took my hand as we headed to Celtic Park to watch Celtic play Rangers. The London Road had that curious arrangement where fans of Celtic walked on the north side of the road and those of Rangers on the south. The songs and insults being traded across the road added to the excitement of going to one of my first big matches. A stout line of Policemen (It was all men then) kept the belligerents apart fairly successfully. Two things struck me that day long ago; I saw a man cross from the Rangers side to the Celtic side before fetching a covert Celtic scarf from his pocket. He shouted at his friend across the street who was wearing a Rangers scarf, 'Get ye in the pub after the game,' before adding with a smile, 'hope get fucked by the way!' His friend laughed and walked on towards the stadium.
The second thing I recall from that day was that as my old man and I reached the old railway bridge which used to stand near where the Celtic ticket office is today, a brown beer bottle flew through the air like kamikaze pigeon and slammed into the road just a few yards from us. There was a shout of anger from the Celtic fans and the ever-alert Police were quick to avert any escalation in the situation. My old man shook his head and used a phrase I heard him use on a few occasions in his life; 'We don't like them son, but they bloody hate us.' His views on Scottish society were born out of growing up in the 1950's when prejudice was an everyday fact of life.
I've learned in the many years since that match that there are indeed many in our land who hate Celtic and all they stand for but also that there are decent supporters at all clubs who just want to watch the football without indulging in any form of hatred. The two pals who supported rival clubs probably did meet up for a pint after the game (which Celtic won) and the bottle thrower was literally one among thousands. The media hype, often using metaphors such as 'battle' or 'clash' doesn't help and modern social media of course allows idiots to spout drivel from behind the wall of anonymity.
it comes to pass that Celtic are heading to this Sunday for an SPFL fixture. It's been almost two seasons since the Rangers made it to the top flight of Scottish football after wallowing in the lower leagues like a six-foot teenager kept back in Primary school. Their arrival in the top flight coincided with Brendan Rodgers arrival at Celtic and it's fair to say the Celtic manager has had the upper hand in matches between the two clubs. Indeed, the sequence of results between the clubs has been; 5-1, 1-0 2-1, 1-1, 2-0, 5-1, 2-0 & 0-0. That sequence is cause for celebration for Celtic supporters who enjoy nothing more than beating the side. Rodgers generally gets his tactics right for these games and the players, knowing what it means to the fans, raise their game accordingly. I hope the sequence goes on for years to come but in football games can turn on the vagaries of referees, the mistakes of key players or the habit teams have of simply not performing on certain days.
Having watched Celtic for many years, it's clear that they have never been so far ahead on and off the field. Financially the club is in a very healthy place and despite a horrendous run of injuries, continue to dominate on the field. There was and remains a distinct feeling that Karma paid an overdue visit to Edmiston Drive in 2012. Former Vice Chairman, Donald Findlay, said after Rangers fall, 'I suppose we did Lord it a bit.' That was putting it mildly, we had a club fuelled by cheap loans and tax avoidance schemes buying in big players to dominate Scottish football. We also had a support well versed in triumphalism never missing a chance to rub Celtic's nose in the dirt. It's not unexpected then that many among the Celtic support have revelled in their troubles over the past six years. Such is the nature of football rivalry the world over and more so with a rivalry as deep seated and on occasion as bitter as that to be found in Glasgow.
The Glasgow Derby brings out the best in some and the worst in others. The noise, colour and passion is unsurpassed in British football but most of us who are veterans of these games have also witnessed the more unsavoury and visceral feelings they bring to the surface in some. We can hope that Sunday passes off reasonably peacefully but alas history tells us that once opened, the Pandora's box of idiots can't be easily resealed.
Whatever happens on the field on Sunday, Celtic supporters should avoid at all costs developing that unhealthy sense of entitlement and expectation which leads to the sort of arrogance and hubris we saw from Rangers followers in the 1990s. Pride goes before a fall and I'm sure Rodgers will drum it into his team that every game brings its own challenges and every game must be won through guts and endeavour. Just as the players need to turn up and fight for every ball, so too the fans need to back them and be patient in those periods of the game when things go wrong.
Football is a cyclical game, Celtic are currently dominating the derby fixture but some time, some place they may well lose one and when that happens, a sense of perspective is required. I hope Celtic win and win well on Sunday but as every Celtic side I've watched since my childhood watching Dalglish and McGrain play has learned, you need to turn up, man up to the physicality you'll undoubtedly find there and play your game. I'm confident Brendan will motivate the team to do just that and his Captain will drive the team on.
It was said that Rangers players cheered when the Scottish Cup draw paired them with the Champions. Celtic Boss Rodgers who has kept a low profile this week as the press talked up Rangers' chances in the match said in that controlled manner... 'You need to be careful what you wish for.' He knows what is required on Sunday and he'll send out a team to emphasise the superiority of the Champions.
I hope those of you heading for have a great time. Get home safely afterwards and bring three points with you. HH