Deeper than Hate: What makes “Old Firm” the craziest rivalry in the world

May 3, 2023

Sports are often an escape from everyday life. Each night hundreds of millions of people retire to their phones, their computers, and their televisions to watch incredible athletes perform using their god-given talents. Rivalries, whether they are geopolitical or just territorial, are where some of sports’ most intense moments come to light. In America, great rivalries usually concern themselves within the scope of iron sharpening iron. The best teams/athletes consistently competing against each other – think Lakers V. Celtics or Ali V. Foreman – makes a great rivalry.  In our state alone, Clemson vs South Carolina captivates the state every November, regardless of if the people watching actually attended either university. For the association football fans of Glasgow, Scotland, “Old Firm”, the traditional derby played at least four times a year between Rangers F.C. and Celtic F.C, is no escape from reality. The rivalry between these two clubs extends beyond just the average city rivalry. It involves over 125 years of history, spectator violence rarely eclipsed by other rivalries, the ever continuing divide between Irish nationalists and British loyalists, and at its heart, of course, some of the best football ever seen. This is what makes Old Firm the most heated rivalry on earth. 

The Religion and Politics 

Sectarian clashes between Protestants and Catholics have become unfortunate everyday occurrences in the British Isles. Whether it’s on the streets of Belfast or Glasgow or in the halls of the Stormont and Parliament, religion has divided these islands for hundreds of years. The Troubles in Northern Ireland and its continued legacy haven’t exactly cooled sectarian matters in Glasgow, which beside Belfast is possibly the most divided city in the United Kingdom along religious lines. 

In Glasgow, football and sectarianism have always been linked. Prior to the establishment of Celtic F.C, Rangers were the biggest club in Glasgow, backed by Protestants and filled with a roster of Protestants. Celtic and their Irish Catholic supporters disrupted that, and the early days of Old Firm were the stages for the political cathercist held by supporters of both sides. Typically, Celtic supporters are Catholic, have Irish ancestry, left-wing, are pro-Irish unification, and are staunchly anti-British and of course anti-protestant. Rangers supporters are likely Scottish or English, Loyalist, conservative, against the Pope and the greater Roman Catholic Church, and Protestant. These guidelines aren’t just for football matches, but are applied to workplace relationships, neighborhoods, and schools. As the various conflicts between Ireland and the United Kingdom have played out, the vitrial between Celtic and Rangers has only grown. 

The continuation of the Irish reunification movement throughout the 20th and 21st centuries have added so much fuel to the fire that is Old Firm. The Troubles in Ireland foresaw a radicalization of both supporting factions in the rivalry. Celtic fans became notorious for singing the praises of the Provisional IRA and other terrorist groups involved in the Troubles. Famously, Celtic fans loved to sing the song “Come Out ‘Ye Black and Tans,” a rebel song written during the Irish war of independence that became a popular anthem for Irish nationalists during the Troubles. Similarly, Rangers waved the banners of the Ulster Defense Association and other loyalist militant groups during matches against Celtic. 

Religious animosity has bred the conditions for the most heinous chants of this rivalry. Celtic supporters usually sing songs celebrating the deaths of Margeret Thatcher and the queen, and the brutalities of British imperialism during matches. Rangers fans chant about the Catholic Church child abuses, how terrible the Pope is, and the famines in Ireland. Indeed it would seem nothing is off limits to the most fervent supporters of this rivalry. However, some fans would chalk this up to “a little bit of banter.” 

The Football

Great rivalries are made even better if both teams dominate their respective sports. Think Ohio State-Michigan or the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn as two examples. Old Firm is the perfect rivalry because both teams are the best teams in the Scottish Premiership year in and year out. The results speak for themselves.

Between the two clubs, Celtic and Rangers have won a combined 107 Scottish League championships. Since the 1985-1986 season one of the two teams have won the title all but one year. This includes when Celtic were the only side of the rivalry in the Premiership after Rangers suffered financial troubles in 2012. Even after being relegated all the way to the fourth division of the Scottish football pyramid, Rangers clawed back and won the league in the 2020-2021 season, breaking Celtic’s streak of nine straight titles. 

Celtic and Rangers have enjoyed a fair amount of European competition success as well. Celtic became the first British team to win what we know today as the UEFA Champions League, winning the European Cup in 1966-1967. That means Celtic won the Champions League before Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Nottingham Forest, and of course Rangers. Rangers have been in a fair share of European competitions. They have finished Runners-Up four times in major competitions, most recently falling short to the La Liga club Sevilla in the Europa League final in 2020. 

Fans of the English Premier League complain about the dominance of “the Big Six”clubs. Those clubs are Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea. Beside the 1994-1995 and 2015-2016 seasons, five of those six clubs have won the Premier League every single year (sorry Tottenham). In Scottish football, the Big Two rivalry of Celtic and Ranger decides everything. Scottish league titles, Scottish cup winners, and eventual European competitors. Every Old Firm match matters. The same can’t be said for every rivalry. 

The Violence and The Unity

For about 30 years in the United Kingdom, football transformed from a family-friendly event to a place where working-class men emotionally purged themselves for 90 minutes at a time. It was something akin to David Fincher’s film Fight Club. Groups of men brawled in dark alleys and in the streets outside of matches until the cops broke them up and everybody went home. Hooliganism and fan violence were the common practice of the day. In a rivalry like Old Firm, the first fight for young supporters was seen as a coronating event into the respective fanbases of both clubs. 

Violence during Old Firm weekends has always been a problem. In 2009, according to Bleacher Report, “Following the Co-operative Insurance Cup Final at Hampden Park on Sunday, domestic violence rose by 88 percent to 231 cases. There were also four attempted murders and a total of 160 assaults and 118 breaches of the peace.” Violence on the pitch is common too. In an April 2011 match, three Rangers players were sent off with red cards and 13 yellow cards were given out amongst the players. In 1987, a scrum amongst the players on the pitch resulted in a full blown riot during the match. Knife violence is common after Old Firm matches, as stabbing incidents are reported after almost every match. However, the darkest day in Old Firm history was the killing of Mark Scott in October, 1995.

Walking home after an enthralling Celtic victory, Mark Scott, then only 15 years old, along with a couple of friends, were discussing the victory amongst themselves. They weren’t making any offensive gestures towards Rangers fans or singing about the Queen. Scott was approached by a hooded man who slit his throat for simply wearing a Celtic scarf. Jason Campbell, a 21 year old Rangers supporter, was the hooded man. According to The Guardian, Campbell “had links to Protestant paramilitary groups” and has since been released from prison for the killing of young Mark Scott. Thankfully, Mark Scott’s legacy extends beyond the scope of that one night. His legacy may be the turning point to end sectarian violence at Old Firm once and for all.

Cara Henderson was a classmate of Mark Scott’s when they were younger. In 2000, in Scott’s memory, she established Nil By Mouth, an advocacy group that looks to end the sectarian violence that took Mark Scott’s life. Nil By Mouth has instituted anti-hate programs in schools for the youth of Glasgow and greater Scotland. Nil By Mouth wasn’t the only anti-sectarian group to start during this time. In 1996, months after Mark Scott’s death, Celtic F.C sponsored the organization Bhoys Against Bigotry in hopes of promoting messages of peace and sportsmanship at future Old Firm games. While the violence has seen flashpoints, it isn’t as institutionalized as it was previously. Another important step towards ending sectarian violence at Old Firm was the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act of 2012. Passed by the Scottish Parliament, this made chants deemed bigoted illegally and increased police presence at each Old Firm derby to enforce the law. While many of the most passionate supporters of both clubs hated the rule, many of the “Old Firm casuals” welcomed the new law, seeing it as a way to return the match back to football rather than continue with violence. 

The Importance of Old Firm

Old Firm has lots of issues. The bigotry surrounding the match may never disappear. In 2021, Rangers fans marched through the heart of Glasgow chanting “the famine is over, why don’t you go home” after a 1-0 win over Celtic. Old Firm is always going to be a frenzy, no matter what geopolitical changes occur or what legislation says. Celtic fans will continue to throw out offensive remarks about the Queen, and Rangers fans will respond in kind with digs at the Pope. Scottish football will never reach the level that England, Germany, Spain, or France has. However, Scotland has Old Firm, the most impactful and important club fixture in the world, at least four times a year. No other football league on earth can rival that.

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