Tom English: Old Firm guilty of massaging numbers

TO suggest that Celtic and Rangers are more alike than many of their supporters would ever care to imagine is to subject yourself to a social media fatwa – but it’s the truth.

The Old Firm need each other whether they care to accept it or not. Different colours, but same kind of obsession, same focus on what “the other lot” are up to even though the gulf between them has never been greater. Three divisions and a world of achievement separates them and yet the two sets of fans bang on about each other just as much now as they ever did when they were locking horns for championships and cups. All the time you hear how “they” are “irrelevant” to “us”, but the reality tells you different. Their mutual fixation is unaltered despite so much change in the world they are currently living in.

Yesterday’s release of the official attendance figures for both clubs as given to Strathclyde Police – as opposed to a product of the imagination of the Old Firm’s respective press departments – was instructive in that it illustrated the one-upmanship that exists between them.

Both are guilty of massaging their numbers and totting up many thousands of phantom fans in their bottom line. They couldn’t be seen to be admitting that their figures were down so they included all season ticket holders even if they didn’t attend games and blocked their ears to the derision of those who long suspected that their recorded numbers were bunkum.

We’ll get to Celtic, for these statistics, obtained through the Freedom Of Information Act, say more about what’s been happening at Parkhead.

We’ll start with Rangers, though. All season long we have marvelled at the phenomenal crowds that have piled into Ibrox. Charles Green has trumpeted the show of support to the high heavens as was his right. In the Third Division, Rangers were packing them in. It didn’t matter which part-time opposition they were up against, they still turned up in giant waves and won great praise for it, not just in Scotland, but in England with certain parts of Europe taking notice, too.

Turns out that the numbers have been tweaked somewhat. In their 11 home games from the beginning of the season to the end of January, Rangers’ officially recorded a combined attendance of 515,250 when in fact it was 407,909, a difference of 107,341. So the average number of people going through the doors per game was not 46,841 but 37,083. These are the statistics that Rangers have given to the police, so you have to accept that this is the true position. The Strathclyde force need the real number so they can focus on what is required to guarantee crowd safety.

The giant difference in what was stated and what appears to be real is not good for Green but we have to apply context here.

Given the dross that Rangers have been serving up to their supporters this season then an average crowd of more than 37,000 can be seen as a hell of an achievement. Watching Rangers has been a joyless grind for the fans, the wonder being not so much that their actual attendances are lower than previously stated but that they aren’t lower still. The quality of the player on show and the brand of football the team has delivered has not warranted such a following.

Which brings us to Celtic and, really, the heart of the story. Celtic’s official crowd figures have been the source of much comedy this season, their certified numbers telling you one thing and the naked eye telling you quite another. In their first 13 home league games this season Celtic said that a total of 597,391 attended Parkhead when the amount given to the police was 437,990, a difference of 159,401. In other words, Celtic told police that their average SPL crowd was not the 45,953 that has been recorded but 33,692. The extras were season ticket holders who never attended on the given days.

So why include them?

Because they always do? Because other clubs do, too? Because to record the actual figure opens up the debate about what impact Rangers’ absence from the SPL is having on the club and that’s not a place that anybody at Celtic Park wants to go? Of course, there are mitigating, non-Rangers, circumstances in the sharp fall in the home crowds at Parkhead, their heroics in the Champions League being the principal one. Their exploits in Europe brought the fans out in enormous numbers, at home and abroad. Having shelled out to go to Moscow, Lisbon, Barcelona and Turin it’s understandable if these same punters didn’t have the time or the money for days out watching Dundee, Motherwell, Kilmarnock and St Mirren. That human factor has to be considered.

Celtic fans may put the falling home crowds solely down to some kind of European hangover, but it’s infinitely more likely that the crowds are dwindling because they have no challenger in the SPL, nobody to worry about, nobody to pursue or be pursued by. They don’t have what Rangers gave them. A reason to turn up every week.

The Champions League camouflaged things for Celtic, it gave them something bigger and better than the bearpit of the Old Firm to think about, it shunted the ramifications of Rangers’ loss to the margins. But it’s now back centre-stage. Celtic fans will tell you that Rangers got what they deserved when they had to begin again in the Third Division but what they won’t say is that Celtic miss them, but they do and these figures from Strathclyde Police tell you so.

It has been said that powerful men should “keep their friends close and their enemies closer”.

Right now, the enemies are too far apart for their own good.