Rangers enjoyed a period of dominance in the 20 years that followed the Second World War, with managers Struth and then Symon overseeing Treble successes. And, writes Stephen Halliday, it was all seen by huge crowds
The extraordinary pulling power of the Old Firm reached a zenith on 2 January 1939 when 118,567 spectators packed into Ibrox to watch Rangers beat Celtic 2-1 in what proved to be the final league meeting of the clubs before the Second World War.
It remains the all-time record attendance for a league fixture in British football. With the professional game allowed to continue on an unofficial basis throughout the duration of global hostilities, the popularity of clashes between the Glasgow giants was undiminished.
In the 1944-45 season, for example, a combined tally of almost 230,000 punters witnessed four matches between the pair in league and cups. In good times or bad, the Old Firm remained big business.
The balance of power between them, firmly in Rangers’ favour for much of the 1920s and 1930s under Bill Struth’s redoubtable management, had shown signs of evening out as they shared the last four league titles before the outbreak of war.
But when peacetime football returned in 1946, it marked the start of a 20-year period when the Ibrox men’s star was again very much in the ascendancy.
Those two decades, prior to Jock Stein’s seismic arrival as manager at Celtic Park in 1965, were generally a lean period for those of a green-and-white persuasion.
Nonetheless, they also encompassed some of Celtic’s most fondly treasured moments, none more so than the astonishing 7-1 defeat of Rangers in the League Cup final of 1957 – an occasion still celebrated in song as Hampden In The Sun.
As ignominious as that was for a generation of Rangers supporters, many of them also bore witness to two of the greatest teams in the history of both their own club and Scottish football.
The first post-war side at Ibrox became renowned for its “Iron Curtain” defence, the reference plucked at the time from Winston Churchill’s famous speech about Soviet expansion in post-war Europe.
Goalkeeper Bobby Brown, full-backs George Young and Jock Shaw, wing halves Ian McColl and Sammy Cox and centre-half Willie Woodburn epitomised the steely competitiveness of a team which, complemented by the attacking flair of winger Willie Waddell and centre forward Willie Thornton, landed Scotland’s first-ever domestic “treble” when they won the league title, Scottish Cup and recently inaugurated League Cup in 1948-49.
It was an era in which Hibs supplanted Celtic as the biggest threat to Rangers’ dominance. For a few years at least, the contests between the Easter Road club’s “Famous Five” forward line with that “Iron Curtain” back line were the biggest story in Scottish football.
In what was boom time as far as attendances were concerned all over the country, there was a gradual break-up of that Rangers team under an ageing and ailing Struth as the 1950s also saw Hearts and Aberdeen win titles and emerge as challengers for overall pre-eminence.
For Celtic, the 1953-54 season provided them with another oasis of joy in their largely barren period. In a portent of the influence he would later bring them as manager, Stein led by example as a player when he captained Jimmy McGrory’s side to a league and cup double.
It was the only championship success Celtic were able to celebrate in those 20 years following the war, while Rangers racked up ten title wins in the same period.
Scot Symon was the man who oversaw six of those successes after replacing Struth as manager in 1954 and building the second of those truly outstanding teams Rangers supporters were able to savour.
A former Rangers player, Symon forged his managerial reputation at East Fife where he won both promotion and the League Cup for the Methil club. After a brief spell in charge of Preston North End, leading them to the FA Cup final, his already eyecatching CV was added to impressively back at Ibrox.
In addition to those six league titles, Rangers won five Scottish Cups and four League Cups under Symon who also guided them to the 1961 and 1967 European Cup Winners’ Cup finals. A potent attacking side, with the goal- scoring prowess of Jimmy Millar, Ralph Brand and Davie Wilson orchestrated by the peerless midfield artistry of Jim Baxter, they reached their high point in 1963-64 when the domestic treble was annexed by Rangers for a second time.
Old Firm fixtures could often be painful occasions for Celtic supporters during this period, such as the New Year’s Day meeting of 1963 in a which a 4-0 win for Rangers at Ibrox accurately summed up the considerable gulf between the teams.
From that 7-1 League Cup final mauling of their old rivals in 1957, Celtic endured seven years without a major trophy. It was not a time without shafts of light for their support, such as the emergence of legends-in-the-making Billy McNeill and Jimmy Johnstone in an occasionally exhilarating side which was good enough to reach the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1964. But Celtic were also lagging behind Rangers off the field. Several senior players grumbled about the lack of proper coaching and the undue influence of chairman Robert Kelly in team selection.
In terms of recruitment, Celtic were unwilling to match Rangers who paid out then sizeable fees to secure top-quality players like Baxter, Millar and Ian McMillan.
While the crowds continued to roll up in huge numbers for Old Firm games – more than 90,000 witnessing the 1964-65 League Cup final won 2-1 by Rangers – the competitive gap between the clubs had seldom seemed so wide.
That was about to be turned on its head in dramatic fashion, however, with the appointment of Stein as Celtic manager in March 1965. A new era had dawned and the pendulum of Old Firm power would swing with unprecedented force to the east end of Glasgow.