It may fuel sectarian bigotry, but Old Firm rivalry is the lifeblood of Glasgow’s very identity according to the regulars who drink at the fans’ favourite pubs, finds Peter Ross
‘Listen,” says big Robert Marshall, “if Glasgow didn’t have Rangers and Celtic it wouldn’t be Glasgow.” He pauses, looks round the bar, searching for just the right phrase to sum up how pitiful the city would be without the Old Firm. Finally, he has it. “It’d be Edinburgh… without the castle.”
Marshall, a burly man in his fifties with hands the size of most folk’s heads is landlord – or as he prefers it, custodian – of the Louden Tavern, the Glaswegian hostelry associated most closely with Rangers. The story of the Old Firm and the rivalry between the two teams, though complex, can in a sense be reduced down to this: it is a tale of two pubs – the Louden and its Celtic-minded counterpart, Bairds Bar, which is run by Tommy Carberry.
Drinking in these temples to drouth and hunger for footballing glory are the devout fans whose identities are bound up with the team they love and the team they despise. Marshall and Carberry have been pals for years and have a long-standing arrangement that, depending on which team wins the championship, the losing landlord delivers a case of champagne to the other’s pub. This year, of course, it will be Marshall’s turn to buy the fizz.
When Celtic and Rangers meet at Ibrox today it will be their 398th contest and could, if the unthinkable were to happen and Rangers were to cease to exist, be the second last ever, or at least for a while. Should a liquidated Rangers attempt to reform as a new club, they might have to start from the third division, meaning it might be at least three years before they once again played Celtic.
For many, especially those involved in policing the city on Old Firm days, or medics weary of ripped flesh, or the wives and girlfriends who have learned to fear this fixture because the wrong result is often taken out on them, this will be no loss. For fans on both sides of the divide, however, and regardless of how much glee Celtic supporters take in the present troubles of their rivals, the end of this contest would be a sort of bereavement.
“Let’s be honest,” says Marshall, “Rangers going into administration was like your older brother dying. Seriously, there were people in here who wouldn’t have acted as bad if anybody in their family had died.”
Sitting in a corner booth, nursing a Diet Irn-Bru, wee Andy McInnes covers his bald head with his hands and groans. “It’s dreadful! I cannae sleep, cannae eat. Appetite’s away. My diabetes has went through the roof. I’m in shock. I don’t know where I would be if we went into liquidation.”
McInnes is 59 and has been a staunch Rangers fan all his life. He belongs to the generation who, as boys, were taken to Ibrox Park by fathers and uncles, and who would spend the games scavenging discarded beer bottles, mindful that they could get halfpenny return on the empties. Now, he’d give his last penny if it would help save the club. For McInnes, Rangers means the world. He used to stay in Bridgeton, and would close his curtains when Celtic were playing at home so the polluting glare of the floodlights wouldn’t get into his living room. For many in the Louden, Celtic are literally unspeakable; one regular, now dead, would never even say the name, referring instead to “that other mob”.
There are three branches of the Louden Tavern in Glasgow. This one, the newest, on Copland Road, is very near to Ibrox. Outside the colossal red-brick stadium, the sun is beginning to set, the statue of John Greig becoming a mournful silhouette in the dusk. But in the windowless Louden, the time of day is never quite certain. The place is decorated in Rangers colours throughout; even the soap in the gents is blue. Above the gantry, the Rangers fans’ mantra, We Are The People – taken from Psalm 95 – is painted in red. On the walls are framed photos of players past and present. None are named. It is a Louden tradition that punters discuss and argue about the identity of each. There is a strong sense of this place shaping successive generations of Rangers faithful. One man tells me that if the club did go under then he’d head straight for the Erskine bridge and chuck himself off. Another says he would flit to Florida, by which he does not mean Mount Florida.
If Rangers – and therefore the rivalry with Celtic – did cease to exist then Glasgow would lose something meaningful. There are, of course, aspects of the clash – the violence, the bigotry – which are repugnant and shameful. But it would be dishonest to deny that the opportunity it affords citizens to define themselves tribally, by which I mean culturally and not necessarily along religious lines, is important and possibly even beneficial.
Football is not just about skills on a pitch, it is an opportunity to say who you are and, by extension, who you are not; it offers a feeling of belonging, community and family tradition in a city which increasingly lacks these things. For Rangers fans, support for the team can be an expression of cultural identity; defined for me in the Louden as being to do with Britishness, Unionism, the Kirk, and to a lesser extent the Monarchy. Similarly, the pride in Irish roots that so many people in Scotland feel is, arguably, intensified and given its fullest expression by following Celtic, a club formed in 1888 by an Irish monk in order to help alleviate poverty among the mostly Catholic immigrant population of Glasgow’s east end.
Bairds on the Gallowgate, right next to the Barrowland Ballroom, is a shrine to Celtic. Behind the bar is a replica of the European Cup and a reproduction of Da Vinci’s Madonna Of The Yarnwinder in which the infant Jesus is wearing a Hoops scarf. Elsewhere are portraits of those other sainted figures, Jock Stein and JFK. The jukebox plays Motown and The Pogues. A sign on one wall forbids bigoted chanting on pain of being barred. A few of the Friday afternoon punters are wearing black plastic bowler hats, supposed to represent the taxman currently vexing Rangers. Sitting at the bar is Jimmy Murray, 77, a retired jack-of-all-trades with splendid white whiskers. Asked what Celtic means to him, he places a hand on his chest. “The heart,” he says. “It means the heart to us.”
Talk to the punters here and they’ll tell you about being taken to Parkhead as children, lifted over the barriers by fathers, and how they went on to take their own kids and maybe even grandkids. There is a strong sense of family life within the wider Celtic family. It’s about blood and faith. You are born into it and you die in it.
Tommy Carberry, a plain-speaking man in his sixties, has been landlord here for almost 25 years. Bairds began as a general football pub, but the photos of Rangers players kept getting stolen from the walls, so Carberry decided to bow to the inevitable and dedicate the pub to Celtic, which, being a lifelong fan of Irish Catholic descent, like so many people in the area, he was happy to do. Whenever there is an Old Firm match, Bairds is jumping. What, for the landlord, are those derbies like to watch? “It’s like taking a line of coke every five minutes,” he says, “and I was a drug addict for 20 years. See the adrenaline if Celtic score? You’re gone. The mind’s away.”
One needn’t spend long in Bairds to get a taste of the poison which has infected the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers for so many years. Eddie, a gaunt 44-year-old, rolls up a sleeve of his leather jacket to show a jagged scar on his left arm. Around five years ago, he was attacked in his home by Rangers casuals and hospitalised for three days. He doesn’t really think of it as a sectarian attack – “To me it’s no’ religion with these people, it’s lack of religion.”
There is unquestionably a dark side to the Old Firm. But the Rangers and Celtic phenomenon is also, I’d say, an important part of Glasgow’s sense of itself as a working-class city.
The aggressive language and rough humour used between rival sets of fans, while not to everyone’s taste, is an intrinsic part of west of Scotland culture. This is not to condone actual sectarian abuse, but we should be careful not to confuse this with the sort of robust banter one might hear in the shipyard, building site or pub.
There is little support, in either Bairds or the Louden, for the new act which seeks to outlaw offensive songs. No one seems clear on what they are allowed to sing, there is much heated discussion of whether a Rangers song about paedophiles is more or less offensive than a Celtic song about the IRA, and the consensus seems to be that the singing will go on regardless.
That’s the thing about Rangers and Celtic fandom – it endures and is passed from generation to generation like a folk melody. What strikes me is how much the two sets of supporters have in common. In their passion and pride, their sense of history and lack of compromise, in their agony and ecstasy, they are very similar. “Celtic are my life,” they say. “Rangers mean everything to me.”
Can you imagine Glasgow without this? Losing the Old Firm would be like losing connection to the electricity supply – it can be dangerous, even deadly, but it gives this city so much of its energy, its spark and its buzz.