Aidan Smith: Bitterness not what we need before Old Firm semi

Walter Smith  the nine-in-a-row icon has stirred the pot with comments on Rangers demotion to the lower leagues, which will dismay the rest of Scottish football Photographs: SNS Group
Walter Smith  the nine-in-a-row icon has stirred the pot with comments on Rangers demotion to the lower leagues, which will dismay the rest of Scottish football Photographs: SNS Group
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Looking back over the files at previous Old Firm Scottish Cup semi-finals – not many until that hectic three-in-six-seasons splurge in the 1990s which must have made those who thought the rituals of the draw were a load of cube, oblong and hexagonal-shaped balls – I was struck by the remarks of Hugh McIlvanney. The doyen of Scottish sporting scribes was reporting on the 1960 semi, itself only the third of that century, and what an underwhelming affair it sounded.

A replay was required which Rangers would win, but hopes that the original tie could produce a stirring contest were dashed. The fans didn’t seem to mind, though, which perturbed McIlvanney.

“It is an uncomfortable thought,” he wrote, “that the match was exciting merely because of the identity of the participants.”

He went on make comparisons with other sports, pointing out that such a basic return for investment at the turnstiles would not be tolerated elsewhere. “Not every sport permits names or close competition to obscure low standards,” he added. “Track enthusiasts would be unlikely to cheer Herb Elliott and Ron Delany as they went stride for stride towards the tape at the end of a ten-minute mile.”

So where are we today? Awaiting a match which will be exciting merely because of the identity of the participants. Nothing has changed, only that Hampden has been cut in half by a giant egg slicer, the players’ shirts will be tighter, the boots will resemble slippers, tattoos will no longer be the preserve of sailors in the crowd who are home on shore leave, and at least one of the participants will be sporting some kind of hairpiece.

This is Celtic v Rangers, only more so. It’s the fixture that’s going to save Scottish football. Those four seasons when they didn’t play each other? Write them off, tell yourself you were asleep the whole way through – or were frozen in mid-movement like on The Magic Boomerang, a forgotten Australian children’s telly drama about a boy who used his bendy stick to ensnare outback rustlers and keep the world safe.

Welcome, then, to the first Old Firm game of the rest of your lives. With even more dubiously-collated excitement and, most probably, added bitterness.

But does it really have to be so grudgeful? I was disappointed that Walter Smith said, under the headline “We will always be bitter”, that Rangers won’t forget being made to start again in the bottom division.

The sense of grievance will never go away, he stressed. “The ill-feeling will always be there at Rangers. There will be a bitterness in the ranks… how can they forget what happened to them? You can’t forget it. There was no necessity for Rangers to be put down to the Third Division … it was wrong.”

Shouldn’t one of the leading figures in Scottish football adopt a more statesmanlike approach? I know he was probably asked the question as a Rangers man, the “nine-in-a-row icon”, but he is also a former manager of the national team. How does saying that the bitterness stays – and that it should remain – help the game when Rangers return to the top flight?

Even if he thinks the bitterness is justified, and he obviously does, then publicly at least a quieter, moderate, more hopeful tone would have been welcome. More collegiate for the greater good – less angry and defiant. A bit of humility instead of a flash of temper. What happened is in the past – move on.

Smith’s words will not sway the hardcore who presumably have already decided that bitterness is the way forward – but they might influence the waverers. And how are the words going down with the rest of Scottish football? Badly, I suspect. The rest don’t expect Rangers to come over all touchy-feely and sensitively Californian, but they’re dispirited by the prospect of the club roaring back with an attitude that you’d term sulky and very possibly worse than that.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t there Rangers supporters at the time of the demotion who were prepared to sup their Bovril laced with the necessary medicine? They didn’t like the punishment but if they had to start again at Elgin City and East Stirling, so be it. They would rebuild and reclaim their rightful place. This would be preferable to a lesser sentence keeping them more prominent and a target of continued abuse. Fans at other clubs were pleasantly surprised by this.

But Smith’s comments are an echo of the – that word again – bitterness of the summer of 2012, and not a faint one either. They suggest the reassimilation of Rangers back into the Premiership won’t be easy; indeed they almost invite it not to be. His aggressive stance speaks of the old Rangers arrogance which was responsible for getting them into trouble in the first place.

It’s hardly helpful going into this semi-final. You worry it might be inflammatory and hope it won’t be inciteful. The world, as the TV companies like to say, will be watching. The police have issued their customary warnings insisting on good behaviour. The tie is enough of a powderkeg without Scotland’s senior Bon Jovi fan getting a wee bit too excited and grouchy.

The tie? Well, obviously I am going to be touchy-feely and sensitively Californian and hope that it’s a cracking match played in the right spirit, the reinstatement of a famous rivalry with evidence of harsh lessons having been learned – and, most importantly, an indicator that better times might lie ahead and not just for the Old Firm with their four-powderkegs-per-season about to begin again.

Back in 1960, the Scotsman gave just 12 stout paragraphs of preview to both semis, with Celtic and Rangers having to battle for words with Kilmarnock and Clyde in what was a more equal place. Yet McIlvanney acknowledged that the Old Firm rivalry was “the keenest in world sport”.

If the coverage in advance of this lunchtime is any guide, the rivalry has gone up 12,000 notches. Everyone – ex-players, legends, those with names which are anagrams of “Old Firm” – has spoken. One or two of them should know better.