Whose grass-roots are the greener?

Those of a Hibernian persuasion are all too aware that history is against them. They recently celebrated the 99th anniversary of their most recent Scottish Cup win - Glasgow wags say that next year will be the centenary.

If Hibs players and fans are seeking inspiration, they could do worse than turn to their club’s long history, not least in their role as innovators. They were the first Scottish club to play in the European Cup, for instance, and first to arrange shirt sponsors.

There is also much history linking Celtic and Hibs, and the Edinburgh team are senior partners in developing the Irish influence on Scottish football. But the argument about who stole who and what from whom has yet to be resolved, finally.

Sitting last week in the fine new Scottish Football Museum which is largely his creation, director Ged O’Brien effortlessly recalls early spats between Hibs and Celtic, and makes important points about that interconnection with Ireland. Born in north Cork, but raised in Southampton, he is an expert on such diverse subjects as Venetian art and American architecture, but football has always been "the most important thing" in his life.

Hence his permanent move to Glasgow 13 years ago after years of travelling north to watch matches. Next week sees the opening of the museum at Hampden, the culmination of his crusade to build a facility that he says will entertain and educate, and explain a significant influence on the world game. "Scotland invented the running and passing game that underpins all modern football, so in a real sense we can say that Scots invented football."

O’Brien reels off the countries where Scottish coaches taught the populace to play - Brazil and most of central Europe, apparently - and shows off the world’s oldest surviving trophy, a ticket for the first international match and a display featuring the first world champions - Renton FC from Dunbartonshire. Long since defunct, Renton beat West Bromwich Albion, champions of England, to claim the title in 1888.

But other, perhaps sinister, events of that year still rankle in Sunny Leith, because that was when Glasgow Celtic came into existence, largely by poaching the best players from Hibs, Renton and other teams.

O’Brien ventures: "If I was a Hibs fan, which I’m not, and I had a long memory, I would be saying that we were responsible for the birth of you Celtic guys, given that you stole most of our team, especially when we were only trying to help you by coming over to play at Cowlairs, and isn’t it a shame that Brother Walfrid [the Celtic founder] didn’t mind his own business?

"Then, in the early 1890s, the Celtic board was split, and some of them went off temporarily to form Glasgow Hibernian. Guess which Edinburgh club they got their players from?

"Funnily enough, there had been attempts to persuade Hibs to move to Glasgow prior to Celtic starting. Had things not gone differently, it might well have been Glasgow Hibernian which won the 1967 European Cup."

In football, as in the country generally, the Irish sometimes had it rough in Victorian Scotland, the fledgling Scottish Football Association refusing to allow Hibs to join because they were "only for Scotchmen". O’Brien recalls: "But Hearts had already clocked that there was money to be made in playing Hibs, so they got them into the Edinburgh FA, and that made it a fait accompli that Hibs would join the SFA."

O’Brien suggests that it should be a matter of pride to their fans that the first Irish club in Scotland were Hibernian of Edinburgh, and they certainly had one of the Emerald Isle’s notable figures among early supporters - socialist leader James Connolly. "If he heard that Hibs had lost, he was absolutely sick for the weekend," adds O’Brien.

Connolly was the son of Irish immigrants, and the influx meant that there were enough Irish people in Edinburgh to create Hibs in 1875. "The team was sectarian - you had to be a church-going Catholic to play," O’Brien confirms. "But sectarian in those days obviously meant something completely different. Journalists wrote that what Dundee needed was a sectarian team, like its brothers in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and they used the term like they were talking about niche markets - clubs that satisfied the need for a local populace in the cities which would not support the existing teams because of their associations. It was only after the First World War, when sectarianism really got going, that the term took on a different, darker meaning.

"Hibs had already thrown off sectarianism as far back as 1893, when anybody was allowed to join the club. But they kept their culture, though they have gone through periods of questioning exactly what they stood for. For instance, when the harp was removed from the club crest in the 1950s."

O’Brien contends that the duality of the two clubs has led to much soul-seaching in recent years, and he feels that Hibs are happier with their culture. "For some years now, Celtic and Hibs fans have been asking themselves, ‘Can we have an Irish tradition without being accused of being IRA sympathisers and anti-Scottish?’

"I’ve seen the new Hibs crest [the harp was re-introduced last year] and it looks to me as though they are comfortable with all the strands of their tradition - it has Leith, Edinburgh and Ireland in it.

"In a sense, Hibs are in front of Celtic because they have largely come to terms with their dual identity. I don’t think the same is yet true with Celtic."

O’Brien stresses: "The subject of the Irish influence on Scottish football is one that is close to my heart as it gives an important insight into the culture of Scotland, and that is what the museum is for - our job is to explain the history of Scotland through the history of football. And the most important point is that there is still so much to know.

"The history of Celtic and Hibs and their relations is a case in point - the definitive history of the many links between the two sides has not yet been written. Hopefully, working with other historians, we can help to put that right, especially by getting the story of the fans. After all, it is the fans who made, and who make, both Hibs and Celtic what they are."