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For many Celtic fans the persistent coupling of the club with the side from Ibrox is a cause of much frustration and regret. The fact that the media will often view and report a Rangers problem as an “Old Firm problem” understandably rankles. Indeed the “Old Firm” label itself is something which frequently provokes the ire of supporters who believe Celtic should do everything in their power to distance themselves from their city rivals.
But, like it or not, even these fans can’t deny the fact that this most intense of football rivalries has been and remains an integral ingredient of supporting the Bhoys.
Today, rightly or wrongly, both clubs are still viewed by many as being representative of two specific communities within Scotland, Celtic the club of those from Irish and Catholic origins and Rangers representing the Protestant community and Unionism. Such a view is an extremely simplified take on matters but it is a perception based on a degree of historical truth.
Celtic’s Irish and Catholic heritage is unquestionably organic and rooted in the very foundation of the club. The club was born from the need of Glasgow’s Irish Catholic community so naturally its fan base would originate from that same pocket of society. However, the fact the club was born within one community didn’t mean it was closed to people from other backgrounds and despite early internal pressure to be an “all Catholic” Club, from its earliest days Celtic recruited players and attracted support from all walks of life.
In contrast to this Rangers’ links with Protestantism and unionism were developed through choice. Indeed some might argue that Rangers did not become a Protestant club but rather an anti-Catholic one.
The Rangers Football Club founded in 1872 had no religious or political links. They were created for the love of football alone and it didn’t take too long for the team to taste success. With the formation of Celtic both club’s initially enjoyed a keen but sporting rivalry. In the boardroom relationships were cordial with both club’s recognising that some local competition was good for business.
Celtic’s first game was of course against a Rangers side – essentially the second string Rangers ‘Swifts’ – with the Parkhead club triumphing 5-2. It was a most pleasant of meetings with the rivalry good natured and a noticeable degree of friendship and mutual good will.
But the rivalry would soon take a more sinister turn. By the 1890s Rangers’ new president John Ure Primose, a man with staunch anti-Irish Catholic views, established links between the Ibrox club and the Freemasons. He would use the club to financially support the Orange Order. He also quickly recognised how a religious aspect to the rivalry with Celtic would make the club more attractive to those throughout Scotland who resented the mere presence of the Irish-Catholic community.
As football’s stature in Scottish society grew the success of the “Irish club” Celtic rankled with many and with Rangers viewed as the club most likely to present a long-term challenge to the Bhoys the Ibrox board were only too eager to establish themselves as “the Protestant club”.
During these formative years the boards of both clubs enjoyed a mostly formal and polite relationship, with both fully recognising the business benefits of the rivalry. Indeed for some this ‘rivalry’ was little more than a cosy business relationship and in 1904 a cartoon in The Scottish Referee referred to both clubs, for the first time, as “The Old Firm”.
The arrival in 1912 in Govan of the Belfast-based Harland and Wolff Shipbuilding Company added an extra impetus to Rangers’ sectarian policies with newly arrived Protestant workers from the north of Ireland reinforcing the fanatical brand of loyalist Protestantism and unionism now embraced at Ibrox.
From the First World War to the mid 1980s Rangers would adopt an unofficial “no Catholics” policy throughout the club – from player to cleaner. In contrast the Celtic Park crowd would be cheering on favourites of all faiths – with many of the club’s greatest and most loved players being non-Catholics. Add in to the mix two hugely differing football philosophies – Celtic with their emphasis on skill and Rangers with their dependency on strength – and the contrast was complete.
It is this divide on football philosophy, much more than politics and football, which really mattered to the Hoops support. Being able to play football was the only credential you had to have at Celtic Park.
With such a stark dividing line between the two most successful clubs in Scotland it was almost inevitable that both on and off the pitch rivalry would reach levels of previously unseen intensity. For decades violence was commonplace at games and controversy was never far away. Throughout the years Celtic would feel on countless occasions that Rangers, as the self-proclaimed establishment club, frequently benefited from the dubious decisions of officials. Such moments only added to the feeling that Celtic would always be viewed as ‘outsiders’.
Rangers would eventually dump their sectarian signing policy as it became increasing plain to see that such an approach was detrimental to on field success.
As a club so much of what Rangers have come to represent has been as a direct consequence of their reactionary relationship with Celtic. It’s as if their entire identity revolves around looking at Celtic and deciding to take a polar opposite stance. Given all that is there anything sweeter in football than reminding Rangers FC that we are still here and still winning trophies?
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