Bosnia with a ball
When I was a boy it’s fair to say that like most of my pals I was a bit obsessed by football. I would play football for hours on those long summer days on the red ash pitch which sat under one of the huge tower blocks they built at the top of Roystonhill. If we were less energetic we’d play ‘kerby’ a game which involved two players standing on opposite side of the road and trying to hit the kerbstone on the other side with a football. We’d talk football, read about it in the papers or Shoot magazine, watch it on TV, play games like Subbuteo, make up teams with those footballer cards you could buy and best of all we could walk the mile or so to Celtic Park when the Bhoys were in action. These were of course days when there was no internet, no way to see the goals from a given game if you missed it on TV. Looking back, most working class kids then didn’t have the choices youngsters today have about what to do with their leisure time and perhaps that’s why so many of us were obsessed with the ‘fitbaw.’
I read a huge book then borrowed from the long gone Townhead Library called ‘A history of British football.’ As usual English football took up 95% of the book with football in the other nations of these islands stuck in a small section at back. The section on Scottish football began with the words… ‘It is tempting to say the history of Scottish football has been the history of three great clubs (Queen’s Park, Celtic and Rangers) and a century of battles with England. That patronising tone and lack of any real knowledge about Scottish football still exists today as organisations like Sky TV regularly discuss Scottish teams while showing the wrong crest on the screen.
Queens Park of course were Celtic’s main protagonists in the club’s infancy and still sit third in the list of all time Scottish cup winners with 10 wins. Amazing to think a team of amateurs who last won the cup in 1900 are still ahead of Hearts (8 wins) and Aberdeen (7 wins) but the book I read all those years ago was correct about the dominance of Celtic and Rangers who have between then won 103 of 122 championships contested. It’s the way of it in smaller countries that a few teams dominate and this can be seen in countries Norway, Sweden, Denmark, etc. Indeed in Portugal the big three (Benfica, Porto & Sporting) have won 82 of 84 titles contested with Boavista and Belenenses having one title each.
The dominance of the big two in Scottish football may not be popular with long suffering fans of other clubs who watched them win trophies and take their best players away from them but it meant that the games between Celtic and Rangers often defined the season. I’ve seen so many of these matches over the years and experienced all the triumphs and disasters that come from being a committed fan. The exhilaration of watching Celtic seal the league against Rangers in that incredible 4-2 match in May 1979 will live with me all my days. We trooped back home singing all the way after that game, hoarse and utterly exhausted but also delighted. There were cup final wins, high scoring victories and of course days when it went wrong and you were on a downer for a week.
The fixture seemed to dwarf all the other games played in Scotland and indeed the attendance at a Celtic-Rangers games was often more than the rest of the league combined. History has also added layers of identity to both clubs which has added an edge to their rivalry which often drifts into outright hostility. I’ve had some hair-raising experiences attending derby games in Glasgow over the years and been on buses which have had the window ‘tanned,’ saw disorder on a major scale on a few occasions but overall the games, for all the ferocity of the rivalry have been played in front of noisy but well controlled fans.
It’s always interesting to see the reaction of an outsider to the fixture as they can view it with fresh eyes. In the 1990s, I took an American to Celtic Park to watch the derby match. It was his first ‘soccer’ match and he spent much of the time looking around the stadium at the crowd. I asked him what he thought of it when it was over and he shook his head and said, ‘It was like Bosnia with a ball.’ On another occasion I travelled up from England with a friend and we stood in the old Celtic end watching Billy Stark score the winning goal against Souness’ Rangers. He was blown away by the atmosphere and the non-stop racket and said he’d never experienced anything like it.
It can be an utterly captivating spectacle and remains the one Scottish match people abroad will sit and watch. I spoke recently to a Swiss chap who said he never misses the game on Swiss TV as it has an edge you don’t get in most other games. It remains the top selling point for Scottish football when it negotiates TV deals with the satellite companies who are keen to show it. The collapse and subsequent humiliation of liquidation which occurred at Ibrox in 2012 meant the fixture vanished from the calendar for a few years as the new Rangers made their way through the lower leagues. Many Celtic fans said they didn’t miss it but I think for some it was the unpleasant face of the match they didn’t miss. Today most Celtic fans avoid the term ‘Old Firm’ for the valid reason that that tag died with the old Rangers but there is no doubting that fans of both sides now scan the fixture list to see when they will be facing off again. For all its tribalism, occasional madness and vitriol, it is the real deal; a derby match with all the intensity and passion required to make it a game which stands out above the bread and butter of domestic football.
I’ll be there today screaming at the referee, singing myself hoarse and celebrating Celtic’s goals as if I’d just won the Euro-Millions. I may be a lot older than the lad who used to play ‘Kerby’ on those summer days of long ago but I’ll still be shouting the same thing I did all those years ago when I see those green and white hoops run onto the field: ‘C’mon Celtic intae this mob!’
Enjoy the game and bring the passion and thunder and we’ll drive the Bhoys to victory. HH