Celtic Vs. Rangers: A Complete History of the Old Firm
From the foundation of the Scottish Football League in 1890 to the end of the 2011/2012 season, only two football clubs had enjoyed an unbroken spell in Scotland's top division. Those football clubs happen to be the two powerhouses of Scottish football—Celtic and Rangers. They are the most successful football clubs you'll find anywhere in the world. As of 2018, they have won a combined 103 League titles, 71 Scottish Cups and 44 Scottish League Cups. The unbroken spell, however, was broken in 2012 when Rangers' old operating company was liquidated, thus resulting in the club being demoted to the Third Division, but more on that later.
The Old Firm rivalry actually predates league football, with the first meeting occurring on the 28th May 1888 when the newly formed Celtic defeated Rangers 5-2 at their new Parkhead ground. Since then, at the time of writing, they have met 413 times, with Rangers holding a narrow lead of 159 wins to Celtic's 155 with 99 draws. Incidentally, the term Old Firm may originate from the aforementioned inaugural match where commentators described the two teams as 'old, firm friends,' or from a satirical cartoon published in 1904 showing an elderly man holding up a sandwich board reading, 'Patronise the Old Firm'. This was intended to highlight the mutual financial benefits of regular meetings between the two clubs.
The ability of these two teams to attract top players and remain not only relatively even with each other but head and shoulders above everyone else has ensured that their on-pitch battles have always remained compelling. The two teams' close proximity within the city of Glasgow has also helped to maintain the appeal of a rivalry that is now 130 years old. Celtic are still based in the Parkhead area, in the east end of Glasgow. They play their matches in the footballing cathedral that is Celtic Park. With a capacity of 60,000, it is the largest football stadium in Scotland and the third-largest in the UK behind Wembley and Old Trafford. Rangers, meanwhile, are based across the River Clyde in the west side of Glasgow. They play at Ibrox, the third-largest stadium in Scotland with a capacity of 51,082.
In order to understand why the Old Firm is such a fierce rivalry, it's necessary to take an in-depth look at both teams and examine why this fixture attracts so much intrigue from the outside and hatred from the inside.
First, let's look at Celtic, or the Bhoys as they are nicknamed. The club was formed on the 6th of November 1887 in St Mary's Church Hall by Marist Brother Walfrid as a means for raising much-needed funds for local Catholic parishes. The late 19th century had seen Glasgow's population swell with the arrival of countless Irish immigrants all fleeing from the ravages of the Potato Famine that had devastated their homeland. These families were mostly poor and had come to Scotland in search of a better future, and whilst they had left their homeland, they brought their Catholic beliefs with them. However, Scotland was a strongly Protestant country and right from the beginning the immigrant Irish were marginalised and heavily discriminated against. Football was one of the few ways that poverty-stricken families could escape the rigours of daily life and continue to express their own national identity through the support of their team, Celtic.
Celtic gave the Irish community a chance to integrate themselves into wider Scottish society. Although Celtic's early success may have complicated things somewhat, especially given the fact that the Bhoys success often came at the expense of traditionally Scottish teams. In just six years, from 1887 to 1893, Celtic had won the League Championship four times. In the first decade of the 20th century, they won six successive championships. In the years between 1965 and 1974, they won nine league titles in a row. As of the end of 2017-2018 season, Celtic have 49 League titles, 38 Scottish Cups and 17 Scottish League Cups. They are also to date the only Scottish club to win the European Cup (Champions League). This was in 1967 where they famously defeated Inter Milan 2-1 in Lisbon.
In 1872, 16 years before the formation of Celtic, Rangers (also known as the Gers) were founded by four young Scotsman in the south-western side of Glasgow. Unlike Celtic though, Rangers had to be a little more patient in terms of success. For the first two decades of their existence, Rangers wallowed in relative obscurity. However, the formation of the Scottish League in 1890 and the forthcoming decade would see the club secure their first two league championships and three Scottish Cups.
However, as promising as these early victories were, the main factor that catapulted Rangers into the club they would become, was the presence of close neighbours, Celtic. The Bhoys were the team of the Irish community and Scottish football fans needed a team to latch onto, a true rival to the upstart immigrants, and the timing of Rangers' improvement and their location made them the ideal choice for Scottish fans. Rangers naturally embraced this position and quickly reaped the rewards of a burgeoning fan base. As of the end of the 2017-2018 season Rangers have won a world record 54 League titles, 33 Scottish Cups and 27 Scottish League Cups. Like Celtic, they have a European trophy in their cabinet, albeit the now-defunct European Cup Winners Cup, which they won in 1972 by beating Dynamo Moscow 3-2 in Barcelona.
A Political Rivalry
Celtic's foundation as a Catholic charity, instantly forged them into a unifying force for the Irish community in Glasgow. Consequently Celtic became not only a symbol of sporting pride but political pride too. The club became associated with popular political movements of the time, such as revolution against British rule in Ireland and the restoration of Irish Home Rule. Even after 130 years, little has changed, Celtic still act as a symbol of Irish nationalism, and nowhere is this better demonstrated than at Celtic's home games where traditionally a giant Irish tricolour is unfurled. The club crest (a shamrock) and the team colours (green and white) are all undeniably Irish, and this at times has caused the club to be viewed with disdain by supporters of other Scottish clubs, including, of course, Rangers. This total embrace of Irish culture has undoubtedly been a positive force in terms of providing Celtic fans with an opportunity to explore and express love for their Irish heritage but has done little to endear them to the wider Scottish community.
Rangers, on the other hand, started out life as a nonpolitical entity. Indeed, the name was selected on the basis of one of the founding fathers, Moses McNeil reading a book on English Rugby and in turn reading about a team called Swindon Rangers. However, everything changed in 1888 when the club elected a man by the name of John Ure-Primrose as their club patron. He would later become the club's chairman. More importantly though, Primrose, a prominent Scottish politician was anti-Irish and anti-Catholic and deliberately forged Rangers' future identity as one that was directly opposite to Celtic. Rangers stood for Unionism, or in other words the united British Isles with Ireland under direct rule from London. This identity became so deeply ingrained within the collective minds of the Rangers board that, in the years leading up to the Great War, the decision was made to refrain from signing any Catholic players regardless of ability. This unwritten policy would only be broken in 1989 when Graeme Souness signed Maurice Johnston, a Catholic and ex Celtic player. Primrose was also responsible for linking the club directly with the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organisation that champions British Unionism and Ulster Loyalism.
Today, the fans are still largely associated with the Orange Order, and songs related to the Orange Order can still be heard at Ibrox today, especially in matches against Celtic. In 2003, in an amazing move Rangers actually commissioned an orange away kit, and unsurprisingly it became one of their highest selling shirts of all time. Likewise, Celtic fans are still associated with Irish Nationalism and are perceived to have links with organisations such as Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and songs can still be heard at Celtic Park, that praises the actions of both organisations.
Football by its very nature is a tense and highly passionate game, but when you add the deep political and religious divisions that characterise the Old Firm then violence usually follows. Additionally, the long term success of both clubs has meant that many of their meetings have carried with it an extra onus for victory, whether it be a League title or Cup final on the line. Supporters of both sides have become infamous for their singing of numerous sectarian chants at matches and violence is all too common, with reports of violent attacks increasing by an average of nine-fold across Scotland whenever the Old Firm play each other. Moreover, during the 2010-2011 season, it was revealed that the cost of policing the 7 meetings between the two clubs was in excess of £2 million.
Sometimes the increase in violence can spill over into murder. In 1995 a young man called Mark Scott was brutally murdered just for walking past the wrong pub in the aftermath of an Old Firm match. In the 2001 League Cup semi-final, a Rangers fan was stabbed by a Celtic fan and later died of his wounds. In the 1980 Scottish Cup Final, the aftermath saw a pitched battle on the field between Celtic and Rangers fans. In one horrifying incident, a young fan was knocked to the ground, and when he tried to rise, he was struck on the head with a meat cleaver. Even referees aren’t safe, as was demonstrated in a now-infamous clash in 1999 when official Hugh Dallas was struck with a coin from the crowd. His injuries were severe enough for him to have to leave the game.
Both clubs have been fined heavily down the years for the behaviour of the fans. Celtic, in particular, attracted widespread criticism recently from the wider media when a section of their fans deliberately disrupted the two-minute silence observed every 11th November to commemorate all those who lost their lives in both World Wars.
It can be easy just to associate this rivalry with violence, but there have been some truly iconic footballing moments to savor. Older Celtic fans will be able to recall their biggest ever victory over Rangers, a 7-1 victory in the 1957 League Cup Final at Hampden Park. In the 1965/1966 season Celtic, under the great Jock Stein was storming towards the first of 9 successive titles and in doing so inflicted a 5-1 defeat on Rangers. Just a few years later in 1969, Rangers would once again lose heavily in a Cup Final, this time the Scottish Cup Final where Celtic recorded a 4-0 win and had the added satisfaction of beating a young Alex Ferguson, who was in the Rangers squad that day.
Rangers though have also had their moments of glory against Celtic. A 3-2 win in front of a meagre 122,000 fans in the 1973 Scottish Cup Final brought the Gers their first domestic trophy in 7 years; the club had won the European Cup Winners Cup the year before. Moving forward to August 1988, Rangers recorded their biggest win over Celtic in 28 years, defeating their rivals 5-1 and would go on to win their first League title for 9 years and indeed, would win the next 9 League titles available. At the end of the 1998-1999 season, the two teams met in a match that would decide the fate of the League title. Rangers would win 3-0 and record their 100th league victory over Celtic and seal the 10th title in 11 years. In Martin O’Neill’s first Old Firm match as Celtic manager in 2000 the Bhoys recorded a 6-2 victory over Rangers and would go on to win the treble, their first for over 30 years and in the following season, Rangers would famously deny Celtic another treble by winning a thrilling Scottish Cup Final 3-2 with Dane Peter Lovenkrands scoring the winner in extra time.
The Old Firm Today
The 21st century has certainly seen no let-up in the enduring appeal and notoriety that the rivalry attracts. Right up until the end of the 2011-2012 season the two teams consistently went toe to toe with each other for the League title and both cup competitions. However, years of financial losses and unpaid tax debt resulted in Rangers being sold off by long-standing chairman David Murray to businessman Craig Whyte for £1 on the promise that Whyte would clear the tax debt. Whyte however, turned out to be a con man, failing to disclose that he had actually been banned from being a company director 7 years before. Moreover, he not only failed to pay off the debt but neglected to keep up with current tax payments, thus increasing the debt and further increased it by using borrowed money to invest into the club. Once all of these events had come to light, the club had no choice but to enter administration in February 2012. As a result, they were docked 10 points, effectively ending their title challenge for that season.
However, this was just the beginning of their problems. Rangers attempted to exit administration via a Company Voluntary Arrangement, but the move was blocked by HM Revenue and Customs, and the club was left with no alternative to entering a liquidation process. In order to survive as a football club, all of Rangers’ assets had to be sold to a new company called Sevco Scotland run by Englishman Charles Green who quickly changed the name to The Rangers Football Club Ltd.
This transfer of assets from the liquidated company to the new allowed Rangers to preserve their history, but their fellow Scottish Premier League clubs blocked the new company’s move to adopt the league membership of the old company. As a result, Charles Green had to apply to the Scottish Football League for membership and this was accepted. The SFL placed Rangers in the Third Division, meaning they would be separated from their Old Firm rivals for the first time in their history.
Rangers would ultimately work their way back, winning promotion at the first attempt from the Third and Second Divisions respectively and winning promotion from the Championship at the second attempt in 2016, but the intervening years had resulted in the formation of a sizable gap between the two clubs. Rangers have yet to beat Celtic since returning to the Premiership and have had to endure some embarrassing results including their heaviest home defeat, a 5-1 loss at Ibrox in April 2017, and most recently a 4-0 defeat in the Scottish Cup semi-final and a 5-0 defeat in the League at the end of the 2017/2018 at Celtic Park.
Celtic, on the other hand, were left to carry on in a Scottish Premier League that was a somewhat poorer place without its iconic rivalry. They coasted to title wins in each of the 4 seasons Rangers were away, and have in fact now won 7 titles in a row, including achieving a historic unbeaten season in 2016/2017 and 2 successive trebles. However, prior to the appointment of Brendan Rodgers in 2016 Celtic’s performances both in the domestic cup competitions and on the European stage were less than satisfactory, and the club continues to struggle in Europe now. The rivalry may be restored but the days of the two clubs standing on an equal footing again and going head to head for trophies are still a long way away. As I write this though, there are signs that maybe Rangers are finally moving in the right direction. The appointment of England and Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard as manager was a coup not only for Rangers but for Scottish football, and so far he has made a cracking start to his managerial reign.
Whatever happens, the Old Firm rivalry will continue to have universal appeal among football fans in general and there is no doubt that despite the dip in quality on the pitch and the off-pitch troubles that Rangers have had, this is still the fiercest football rivalry in Britain and one of the fiercest in all of world football.
© 2018 James Kenny