Aidan Smith: Old Firm pitch row is a portent of what’s to come

Even rose-tinted spectacles can't mask the intensity of the Celtic-Rangers rivalry in the 1970s

Even rose-tinted spectacles can't mask the intensity of the Celtic-Rangers rivalry in the 1970s

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OK pop-pickers, here’s your starter question this week: who remembers the Leyton Buzzards? They were a pub-rock band who grabbed on to the spittle-covered PVC coat-tails of punk, and give yourself a bonus point if you can recall their only chart hit. I’ve been whistling the dreadful Saturday Night (Beneath the Plastic Palm Trees) these past few days and it’s all the fault of Ronny Deila and Mark Warburton.

The Old Firm managers have been engaged in a “war of words”, according to one of the tabloids, with another red-top getting closer to the nub of the issue with “pitch battle”. Ronny doesn’t mind artificial surfaces: in fact he can visualise Saturday afternoons on the plastic pitch at Celtic Park. He says opponents of synthetic are “old-fashioned”, which Warbs, a non-believer, has taken personally, accusing the Norwegian of showing him a lack of respect.

Now it’s tempting to mention Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal at this juncture. That is, to say that the row over plastic pitches is quite far removed from what those intellectual big beasts used to argue about. Maybe that’s a bit unfair – no disrespect intended, Mark – because the coaches have yet to become involved in direct competition in an Old Firm encounter and so everything about this is slightly artificial. But it’s a portent of what’s to come, and not exactly a thrilling one.

Are you ready for the rest of your life? Are you engaged with the debate? If the Old Firm fake grass row doesn’t do it for you, don’t worry: there will be another one involving Scottish football’s big beasts very soon, followed right away by another. This is how it used to be, this is how it will be again. The Old Firm Sturm und Drang, for as long as we still want to watch football.

In years to come those four seasons when Celtic and Rangers weren’t in the same league will fascinate historians and bamboozle sociologists: what on earth did Scotland do for fun? What, you mean it organised itself to the extent of being able to discuss the country’s political destiny and then hold a referendum on the matter? How could that even be possible?

You might be thinking: hang on, aren’t plastic pitches an issue in themselves? Why does it need the Old Firm’s involvement to merit the back-page splash treatment? To you I would say: wake up and smell the Bovril. This is how our world used to turn, and will turn again. Everything, but everything, is ultimately viewed through the Celtic and Rangers prism. The Old Firm take a debate and give it a serious upgrade. If the debate about plastic, borrowing from the surfaces’ grading system, was previously a 3G, then Ronny and Warbs have just rolled out the 10G version.

Consider these words: “Without Celtic or Rangers, Scottish football would sink to the level of Ireland – part-time players playing for part-time clubs before part-time spectators. We are the people who can draw crowds. Without Celtic and Rangers, Scottish football would be nothing.”

Who said them? The bit that goes “We are the people” might suggest someone of a Rangers persuasion, but in fact it was Jock Stein, in a German documentary made in 1974 called The Big Clubs which has been doing the social media rounds. Watch it on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=19j95pGNzI8) – it’s compelling stuff.

We re-encounter Stein and Willie Waddell at the apogee of Old Firm supremacy. Just a few years after both clubs had conquered Europe, these big men fill the screen with their big pronouncements. “Rangers and Celtic are big clubs,” declares Waddell, “not because they get big crowds but because they think big. Our legislators think big, I reckon I think big and I hope my players think big.” Across the city of “two Goliaths”, Stein boasts of both halves of the Old Firm daring to take on European opposition on the same night, Celtic against Ujpest Dozsa and Rangers versus “a Spanish team”, and attracting a total audience of 150,000. No other town claiming to be football-obsessed, not Rome or Madrid or any in Germany, would be so bold, he asserts.

The problems of sectarianism and hooliganism are highlighted without being tackled head-on. Presumably the German director didn’t think it was his place to do this, or maybe access would have been denied him if he’d dug too deep.

Therefore Waddell talks unchallenged of how after a bad defeat, the supporter might go home and give his wife a “bashing about”. Still, the film is a fascinating social document, moving from slum-clearance playgrounds to the underlit dancefloor of the Rangers social club where Anita Harris warbles for the well-heeled of Ibrox – then back to the streets of the big, bad city engaged in a suffocatingly intense romance with its big, bad football teams.

Jimmy Reid, trade unionist, wonders if it’s all too much. Football on its own isn’t enough for “a fully satisfied life”, he says. In fact, an over-dependence on football is “the hallmark of a society which has proven itself inadequate”.

The documentary ends with Waddell at his manager’s desk saying he hopes Rangers never change. Maybe he’s old-fashioned, he says, and suddenly he has to deal with something new-fangled – a buzzing intercom. “Be quiet!” he barks at the machine, then: “Now, where was I?” Now, where were we? Ah yes, the Old Firm, the rivalry, the domination of everything – it’s all returning and unless there’s a repeat of the epic mismanagement which did for Rangers it won’t be going away. I say again: are you ready for the rest of your life?

Since 2012 Scotland has been living through its first recorded under-dependence on the Old Firm. Despite fears to the contrary – and that Stein warning of 42 years ago – the country didn’t slip into the North Sea and life as we know it didn’t end. Some other teams got themselves noticed, a couple of them lifted the Scottish Cup – and I guess we carried on being as inadequate as before, still thirled to football.

I’ve enjoyed this interregnum, it’s been a moment in history. Normal service, though, is about to resume and we await the resumption of the big melodrama which definitely won’t be plastic.

Respect? That’s Mark Warburton’s buzzword. He’s always talking about it, how he doesn’t want to disrespect the opposition who somehow never get named. It would be nice if there was some proper acknowledgement – from both halves of the Old Firm – of the clubs who minded the crazy joke shop during the hiatus.

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