Aidan Smith: This Old Firm needs to happen

The colour and intensity of the Old Firm rivalry over the years has made for a compelling spectacle. Picture: Robert Perry

The colour and intensity of the Old Firm rivalry over the years has made for a compelling spectacle. Picture: Robert Perry

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Thrilling or horrible, this Old Firm game has to be done, writes Aidan Smith

I WAS allowed bubblegum. I was allowed guns, toy ones. I got to wear my hair a little longer, though not quite to the Beatle moptop proportions I desired. The short-breeks-only edict was relaxed when snow blocked the doorways. I got to upgrade my football boots from Winfield – Woolworths’ own with their plasticky red stripe – to Adidas when the laughter wouldn’t stop. But as for being allowed to see the Old Firm when they thundered into town – forget it.

For a long time – well, it seemed long in an “Are we there yet?” way – I strongly suspected I had the most sheltered childhood in the whole of Scotland. This was absolutely confirmed the day Psycho became the talk of the playground. “Did you see that barrie fillum last night?” I of course hadn’t. The other boys could have been lying when they boasted about having witnessed one half of the Old Firm at Easter Road or the other half at Tynecastle. But there seemed to be too much detail in their critiques of Alfred Hitchcock for them to be faking it. “And the knife went right through the shower-curtain and the blood was running doon the plughole.” So there was me: No Celtic, no Rangers, no Anthony Perkins in a dress. Properly deprived.

I got to see all three a bit later on and, unsurprisingly, none was as scary as in my frustrated imaginings. In any case, my parents hadn’t, I don’t think, been trying to protect me from something diabolical about the Old Firm, simply the size of the crowds at their matches. And, once I was in those crowds, I didn’t want to go back to games against Morton or Arbroath – no offence meant, I could have chosen anyone to illustrate this point – where it was so quiet you could hear a pie drop.

Here was all the noise, intensity, drama, swaying and drinking of proper, grown-up football. Crates of 24 India Pale Ales or Double Diamonds or indeed both were heaved on to the terraces and, during one Christmas Day game, cans were handed round, gifts from Govan in return for Hibernian providing Rangers with room at the inn. Your correspondent was permitted a few sips, his first under-age, and I couldn’t wait to tell the lads in the playground about that.

But it’s taken me half a century to be able to boast: “I’m going to an Old Firm derby. Celtic v Rangers. Celtic and Rangers. In the same stadium.” Many of you will have done this already, many will have done it many times. I could, if I allowed myself, feel like I’m epicly denied in my crummy Winfields all over again, but next Sunday will change everything.

There are many reasons why I haven’t seen an Old Firm derby before and there are no reasons. Yes, I don’t have loyalty to either team. Yes, the games got nastier and stayed that way. But, when it comes to the Scottish football experience, I like to think of myself as a collector and a completist. Thrilling or horrible, this has to be done.

Given the choice, I’d have preferred my first to have been right after both teams were on top of the world – Celtic winning their European prize, Rangers just missing out on theirs in the space of six incredible days – and maybe this would have been a Glasgow Cup final at the start of the following season, a kind of junior starter-kit Old Firm derby on a warm summer’s night with a few reserves included and just the 40,000 roaring zealots.

But beggars can’t be choosers and neither can wimps, so my debut will be in wintertime with the national sport struggling to grab the public by the oversized imitation sheepskin collars, as it did in bygone days. Not so much from the bucket-list, perhaps, as a match to see before one of these two kicks the bucket.

Remember when the draw for the League Cup semi-finals produced this plum? Hurray! Oor fitba is saved! But the plum looked forced, like it had been produced in a sweaty lab. Too much was expected right away. How could this one game possibly reinvigorate the whole game? And what if something went wrong on the day? Three months, though, is a long time in Rangers’ misbegotten existence.

Since the draw, they’ve lost not one but two managers, lost their best young player, lost some fans, lost to Hibs 4-0, lost a different semi-final to Alloa Athletic.

They’re in poorer shape now, especially to be playing their internecine nearest-and-dearest. And Aberdeen and Dundee United have decided to make a go of challenging Celtic in the league so there no longer seems quite the desperate need for Scott Brown and Lee McCulloch to ride over the hillside and free Scottish football from its crushing uneventfulness. Instead they can simply turn up at Hampden and play a match.

This is a good thing. The other scenario would have put far too much pressure on the tie. Of course something could still go wrong, but I’m hoping it’s a complete and utter belter, with as little idiocy and bile as is possible in the circumstances – and if that sounds like a very big-jessie, Edinburgh, middle-class, may-the-best-team-win thing to say then that’s precisely where I’m coming from.

The Old Firm derby is how we got here. Four of them were wanted and four, at the very least every season, was what reconstruction and the Premier Division brought, 40 years ago this summer. Everyone else complained that the smaller, repetitive top division was boring but they were told we couldn’t go back, especially once Sky came along and paid lots of money to relay the fixture to exiled fans in Toronto and Willawong and others intrigued by the hype about this being the greatest derby anywhere. It seemed unstoppable – the fury, the controversies, the grim aftermaths, the questions in parliament – and then suddenly it did stop.

Celtic and Rangers weren’t playing each other at all. But the world didn’t end.

The three-year pause is almost over and I think I’m just about ready for this game. The last time I saw Psycho was in a gallery where the movie was slowed right down so it unspooled over 24 hours – a wacky idea from the artist Douglas Gordon (a Partick Thistle fan, so what do you expect?). Something tells me next Sunday will have fewer longueurs.

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