For those with no time for the Old Firm rivalry, or who think it’s outlived its usefulness as Scotland marches towards some modern destiny, Kenny McDowall’s remark about this revival of the fixture even getting them talking on Pluto must have raised a few smirks.
The Rangers caretaker boss was trying to make a point about the fixture’s universal appeal – quite literally – but wasn’t Pluto downgraded a few years ago? Hasn’t it lost full Solar System status? Isn’t it in fact what the boffins call a “dwarf planet”?
On the streets beforehand, yes, you wondered if it was a dwarf game. Not much bustle, not many folk at all. Just a group striding determinedly, dressed head to toe in black. These turned out to be Celtic fans although in their attire – epicly silly for a Sunday morning in Glasgow – they looked more like David Walliams’ favourite street-dance troupe from Britain’s Got Talent.
But inside the ground, 45 minutes before kick-off, the place only one-fifth full, the racket was unholy, thunderous and – the best bit – effortlessly capable of drowning out the screeching rock soundtrack that’s always too loud at the national stadium, doubtless to enhance the atmosphere lacking in so many games there, but not this one.
The noise built and built and wouldn’t stop. Rule Britannia was answered with The Fields of Athenry, “Super Rangers” was answered with “You’re not Rangers anymore”, “We are the people” with an odd duh-duh-duh chant involving the waving of robotic arms. By kick-off the din was cranked up to 11. The Celtic end hoisted a banner denoting Rangers’ official demise in 2012: “At the going down of the hun and in the morning, we will remember them.” Well, whoever the folk at the other end were purporting to represent, they then got even louder.
What everyone tells you about this fixture, those of us who’ve never played in it and never will, is that the noise starts and never really stops – and it’s true. At all times a song was being sung – raucously, defiantly and often with firecracker or smokebomb accompaniment. These people had really missed each other these past two years, nine months, and however many days. And surely the cacophony could be heard on Pluto.
You wondered if one half would ever quieten down and then Celtic scored. Leigh Griffiths, who always enjoyed Hampden semis when at Hibernian, netted with a smart header. He celebrated with a Ronaldo-esque pose in front of the Rangers end and, realising what he’d just done, sprinted back to the halfway line, like the schoolboy who’d rung the bell of the Big Hoose for a laugh.
The Gers constituency didn’t like that and when play resumed they were indeed silenced. But the hiatus lasted all of, oh, 14 seconds. “Follow, follow” was the retort, followed by the one set to the tune of Lee Marvin’s Wandering Star. But unfortunately for them, Griffiths’ goal was followed by another from the thumping left boot of Kris Commons.
The green hordes milked the moment, sang a ditty about Craig White, did the Poznan, and then chorused to the other end: “Always look on the bright side of life.” At that point you wondered what the score would be. From a Rangers perspective, you feared what it could be. Maybe the police, visiting Lennoxtown and Murray Park to caution the players about their general behaviour, had a wee word about not rubbing it in and stopping at a decisive number.
Half-time should have brought a chance for everyone to catch their breath. There was a penalty shootout contest, one team in blue and the other in green, and each kicker was roundly booed. Even though they were doing it for charity. Even though many of them were old and round and bald. In Old Firm games there is simply no let-up; you must never give the other lot an inch.
Celtic began the second half looking for a third goal to kill the tie and the scorers of their first two went the closest, Commons with another left-footer and Griffiths from a free-kick. Rangers battled away without really managing to carve open a proper chance. A goal for them would have re-ignited the contest but it seemed beyond them.
Celtic tried to toy with their opponents, but really they weren’t playing well enough to be doing that, and the shocker of a pitch, with what appeared to be giant molehills sprouting up all over it, made fancy tricks difficult. Under no pressure on the halfway line, Celtic’s Nir Bitton had managed to hoof the ball right out of the stadium.
The game wound down, but the chants simply wound up. Surely both songbooks had been thoroughly exhausted? Oh no. “You only sing in the chapel,” the Rangers end jeered. “You’re only here to see the Rangers.” Then came one the polis wouldn’t have liked: “Jimmy Savile – he’s one of your own.” The Rangers fans had a delirium about them now. They’re not always present to see the Rangers, not this season with the club torn apart by the post-liquidation scramble for control, but they were there yesterday all right. With an international, if not interstellar, audience looking in, no one was rushing home to beat the traffic. The Celtic lot stayed too – to acclaim a victory but also because their internecine nearest-and-dearest were staying.
There are some who’re sick fed up with this fixture or have never much cared for it and they’d have quite liked this reunion to have been played on Pluto – probably with Celtic fans being whooshed off to Jupiter to watch on giant screens and the Rangers supporters linked up to the action on Mars. But for better or worse the Old Firm game is a tradition and yesterday it re-established itself in Scottish life.
Wild predictions about the number of goals and the number of red cards proved to be just that. Right at the end two of the players considered most at risk of not lasting the full 90 minutes, Scott Brown and Ian Black, had a full and frank exchange of views and everyone else gathered round to hold the jackets. But this was pantomime, like much of what had gone before.
Now, can we please get on with the rest of the football season?