Decline and fall of the Old Firm

What went wrong for the Bhoys and the Blues?

Sasa Papac (L) and David Wier of Rangers tackle Georgios Samaras (C) of Celtic
Sasa Papac (L) and David Wier of Rangers tackle Georgios Samaras (C) of Celtic. Credit: Getty Images

What went wrong for the Bhoys and the Blues?

Celtic: a Biography in Nine Lives
Kevin McCarra
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £16.99

Probably nowhere in Europe is as football-mad as Glasgow. In a city of 600,000 people, two clubs - the historically Catholic Celtic and the historically Protestant Rangers - each draw average crowds of nearly 50,000. The national stadium, Hampden, can take another 52,000. "It is a piece of territory drenched in football, and there is an intensity at odds with the fact that the prizes at stake are minor in the eyes of the world at large," writes Kevin McCarra in this diligent yet disappointing book.

The "Old Firm" derby between Celtic and Rangers remains the most bitter event in British sport. It generates death threats, murders and chants for and against the IRA. This is peculiar, 14 years after the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, even longer after the death of God in Scotland and soon after both clubs have ditched their international ambitions. (Rangers are currently in administration, following a long debt binge.) The Old Firm rivalry lives on, even as the backdrop to it transforms. Football in Glasgow is a curious social phenomenon that reveals some uncomfortable truths about Scotland.

McCarra is a fine journalist and a knowledgeable Celtic fan but his book is frustrating. Eager not to produce another hate-filled Old Firm document, he rarely discusses Rangers and underplays the rivalry. A craftsman of daily newspaper articles, he seems overwhelmed by the task of structuring a book and this one at times seems to have no organisation at all. The banal moralising grates, too: "Players have the opportunity now to become vastly richer than those who watch them. The risk is that they live only in the opulent but enclosed society of football itself."

Still, he gets across Celtic's basic story. Like most of today's big European clubs - Manchester United, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, for instance - Celtic was created by poor, rootless, 19th-century migrants trying to build community institutions for themselves in an alien industrial city.

The club's founder, the Marist Brother Walfrid, intended Celtic to provide charity for the Irish Catholics who had fled the famine for Glasgow. The neighbourhood around Celtic's stadium was then spectacularly poor. It isn't much better now. Local male life expectancy in 2006 was 53.9 years, nearly 30 years lower than in the nearby town of Lenzie and over ten years lower than in Iraq.

Whereas Rangers for decades until 1989 refused to sign Catholic players, Celtic never discriminated against Protestants. Nonetheless, the club became a rallying point for Glas­wegian Catholics and for the Scots-Irish diaspora around the world. This is partly because Scottish Catholics for a long time had it hard. As Michael Kelly, scion of one of the club's old ruling families, recalls of the 1960s:

We had just come through an era in which Catholics were quite severely discriminated against. [Some large engineering firms] wouldn't employ Catholics . . . The Conservative Party, or Unionist Party as it called itself in Scotland, was very anti-Catholic . . . A lot of accountancy and law firms simply wouldn't start Catholics as apprentices.

Even in the 1990s, a Protestant Glaswegian insurer told me that he thought Catholics should shroud their identities - for instance, by giving their children non-religious names - so as to avoid persistent job discrimination.

Some Celtic fans took their embrace of Irish Catholic identity to extremes. At an Old Firm game in 1993, I stood amid Celtic fans who chanted in praise of the IRA: "Ooh, aah, up the Ra, say ooh, aah, up the Ra!" That day, the IRA blew up two children in Warrington. McCarra says similar chants are still heard today, even though the IRA is now no more violent than the Liberal Democrats.

In the past 15 years, both clubs have tried to stamp out bigotry, largely for pragmatic reasons. The IRA guff puts off sponsors and when the market in foreign footballers opened up in the 1990s, the old prohibition on signing Catholics became irksome for Rangers. Many of the foreign players who have since come to Glasgow must have struggled to remember whether they were playing for the Protestant team or the Catholic one.

Moreover, the social background to the rivalry has transformed. Glasgow has ceased to be a particularly sectarian or Christian city. The bishop of Motherwell once mournfully told me that the Celtic fans shouting supposedly Catholic chants never showed up at mass. Not only do these fans have Protestant friends and colleagues; nowadays, many have Protestant wives or parents. I met one Celtic fan who, after his son was born, had raced to the town hall to name his son after the entire Celtic team (the subs wouldn't fit on the birth certificate). It sounds like a standard Glaswegian pub anecdote, except that this man's wife was a Protestant and a Rangers fan. (He said she had kicked the sitting room door off its hinges when she found out.) In other words, his feelings for Celtic's footballing past had outlived any sectarian sentiment.

What seems to have happened is that the sectarian chanting around the Old Firm has become mere decoration. It harks back to the two clubs' traditions and spices up today's rivalry. Even the death threats sent to Celtic's Northern Irish Catholic manager, Neil Lennon, are best understood as symbolic re-enactments of the sectarian past. The fans' songs for and against the IRA have become, above all, football songs. You see the same trend in stadiums across Europe: football chants are ceasing to be the echo of political or regional or religious passions. Rather, football clubs have become causes in themselves.

Empty as the sectarian rhetoric around the Old Firm has become, it must still irk Scottish nationalists. In 2014, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence. But two of the country's biggest social movements - Celtic fans with their Irish tricolours, Rangers with their Union Jacks - are mostly cold to the Scottish cause. A glance at the Old Firm helps explain why, according to the pollsters, Scots will vote against independence.

The faux-sectarian huffing and puffing in the stands presumably distracts fans from how Rangers and Celtic are now merely not very good Scottish teams. As McCarra explains, once television income became the key determinant of success for European clubs, the Old Firm teams, with their small local TV market, were doomed. Both clubs tried joining the English Premier League but were rebuffed. In the years before the recession they tried to compete through debt-spending and each reached a European final. However, as the flirtation of Rangers with bankruptcy illustrates, the strategy was unsustainable.

In football terms, the rivalry between the teams has become a parochial squabble - McCarra calls it "an ever more severe struggle that holds ever less interest for anyone outside the west of Scotland". He notes "a danger that the Old Firm rivalry may become the sole context in which each club exists". That makes the sectarian decoration all the more necessary.

Simon Kuper is a Financial Times columnist and author of "The Football Men" (Simon & Schuster, £16.99)