Old Firm derby reduced to a mere sideshow? Only in Scotland

Painful memories: The 1999 title decider between Rangers and Celtic ended Old Firm title deciders.
Painful memories: The 1999 title decider between Rangers and Celtic ended Old Firm title deciders.©SNS Group

This weekend’s Manchester derby at Eastlands has turned into a high-stakes match for both clubs. United still retain an interest in chasing the Premiership title, whilst City are pursuing a cherished Champions League slot, as well as bragging rights over their detested rivals. It will be a visceral encounter, replete with juddering tackles, players flinging themselves into the fray at 100 mph, and supporters involved in a raucous battle for supremacy, employing language inappropriate for a pre-watershed audience.

The last time I looked, nobody was talking about switching this game to a less flammable date or trying to avoid a clash of the Manchester behemoths. Yet what a contrast with the situation in Scotland, where the SPL authorities have got themselves into a right guddle over the logistics of the last Old Firm tussle of the season: a fixture which, one suspects, they would like to schedule outwith Glasgow, and possibly on St Kilda if they could arrange it.

In most other countries in Europe, the meeting of the top two teams would be a sure-fire ratings winner, both for fans at the stadium and for a massive television audience, but not apparently for those who run the sport in these parts.

Yet the SPL’s decision to push the Old Firm’s last derby of the campaign into May, hopefully, from their perspective, once the championship has been settled, is surely pandering to the idiots on either side of the Glasgow divide. Obviously, Strathclyde Police has a responsibility to maintain public order, but here we are in 2010, we have a scenario where Rangers have a 13-point lead over their traditional adversaries and yet the authorities seem terrified of allowing them to lock horns before the prizes have been settled.

Given that Scottish football is hardly in the rudest of health, the competition requires healthy rivalries and matches which carry genuine intensity and meaning, but, instead, the SPL has stumbled into a series of self-inflicted travails, whether in having their governance challenged by Motherwell and St Mirren, or their refusal to countenance the prospect of the Old Firm squaring up with the title deeds still up for grabs.

We have been here before, of course, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. When the Glasgow duo convened in May 1999, the referee, Hugh Dallas, was struck by a coin, a number of fans invaded the pitch, and the players, themselves, allowed the red mist to descend, with three of them – Stephane Mahe, Rod Wallace and Vidar Riseth – being sent off, amidst Rangers’ 3-0 victory at Parkhead. In what was a poisonous atmosphere on a baking-hot afternoon, this was a reminder of the depth of tribal loathing which existed between the clubs.

Later that evening, I saw two girls fighting, a la Mike Tyson, in the car park of a normally respectable Lanarkshire bar and heard at least half a dozen police cars screech past the hostelry, in the course of an hour, to attend to a variety of disturbances, brawls and other public order offences. It was a noxious occasion, and anybody who thinks that this blight has been erased from the Scottish game needs their head examined.

SPL'S FAUX PAS

But, on the other hand, rather than try to sweep the detritus under the carpet, the SPL might well be creating a rod for their own backs. By the stage the Old Firm resume hostilities on May 4, on a Tuesday night, the likelihood is that Walter Smith’s side will have long since wrapped up the championship, and their supporters will doubtless wish to use the evening as an opportunity to drive home their sense of triumphalism.

Where better to do that in their opponents’ back yard? The majority of decent Rangers and Celtic aficionados will probably be happy to watch the action in the safety of their own homes or with their mates at their local tavern. So who exactly will flock to Parkhead? That’s right, many of the very people – I hesitate to use the word “fans” – whose neanderthal behaviour has dragged the Old Firm into disrepute for the last 20 or 30 years.
 
Isn’t it time that far from pussy-footing around the issue, the SPL insisted that Rangers and Celtic accepted their social responsibilities and grasped the nettle in this matter? We keep hearing about anti-sectarianism initiatives, and how attitudes are less entrenched than they were during the infamous Scottish Cup final riot of 1980, but I would wager that switching the Old Firm game to May – when the outcome will be irrelevant to the destination of the title – is simply surrendering the moral high ground to the bigots, the reprobates and trouble-makers.

We keep hearing former players talking about the “unique” atmosphere of these contests; we don’t hear many of them discussing the anarchy on the Glasgow Underground, the casual violence which erupts across central Scotland and Ayrshire, and the many women on the receiving end of a battering from their husbands or partners. If any of this mayhem is to be eradicated, Old Firm matches have to operate by the same rules as the rest of the matches on the calendar.

Not, as the SPL has done, by trying to limit the damage through artificial means. If Rangers and Celtic can’t control their supporters, the SFA and UEFA, should be demanding they address their failings, not appeasing the knuckle-draggers.

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