"I got feelings in my skin." "What kind of feelings?" "It's hard to say, kid. You know quite a bit before water boils, it gets to heavin' around? That's the kind of feeling I got."
– John Steinbeck, In Dubious Battle
Glasgow, January 2015: turn away from the shopping parades running off Argyle Street and join the gentle climb as icy High Street bends away eastwards. At the snowbound horseback statue of William III – King Billy to you and me – take a right past St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art.
Sidestep David Livingstone's monument and enter Glasgow Necropolis. Cross its Bridge of Sighs and look up: there, bible in hand, John Knox towers over the city. On the horizon behind the leader of the Protestant Reformation lies the green outline of Parkhead.
Back on Argyle Street, a different climb. This one takes you up to the second floor of the Sports Direct outlet. In the doorway a vivid blue display of knockdown Rangers memorabilia offers three Ibrox baubles for your next Christmas tree at £2.50.
Ancient and modern, religion, football and commerce: Glasgow is a city weaned on it all.
But for the past three years, Glasgow has done without its premium brand, has
to do without it. The trademark clash that entices the eyes of the world to Clydeside –
& Rangers, the Old Firm – has lain dormant.
Then, on November 1st last year, Rangers and Celtic were drawn together in the Scottish League Cup semi-final at neutral Hampden Park, and the absence of the Old Firm caused by Rangers’ liquidation and subsequent demotion in 2012 was coming to an end. That end is nigh.
As it has approached, anxiety has grown that Glasgow is in for an eruption. While some argue that this is a new era for Glasgow’s icon clubs – and a loud element of Celtic followers have declared the Old Firm “deid” – among others, including the authorities, the concern is that the rancorous rivalry which underpinned the Old Firm for 124 years is as vigorous as ever.
One thing is sure: absence has not made hearts grow fond.
A flavour of things comes in the series “Sashes to Ashes” run about Rangers by some Celtic supporters. A further taste was last Sunday’s newspaper advert taken out, at some cost, by a section of the Celtic fanbase, which stated: “As Celtic supporters, we regrettably recognise that our club had an association with Rangers (1872) through the collective description, The Old Firm. We believe this term is now redundant . . . this will be the first ever meeting between the two clubs.”
This is a seriously held view with the added benefit of winding up blue Glasgow. Unsurprisingly it sparked a reaction. "Utter nonsense," says Ronnie Johnston, when it is put to him that the Old Firm is over.
Johnston supports Rangers First. It is a group buying up shares in order to have some future fan input in a club that has been mugged by its own boardroom. Johnston stresses, though, he is speaking as an individual Rangers fan, one who has been going “for over 50 years” to Ibrox.
“Celtic had a new company under Fergus McCann,” Johnston adds. “They shuffled stuff around, changed the badge. [Celtic changed from private company to plc in 1995]. We never made a song and dance about that. Those claims are just ramblings – the entity of Rangers that I go to watch is the same.”
To outsiders, and to many insiders – including this week Neil Lennon and Kenny Dalglish – there have been 399 meetings between the clubs and this will be the 400th. It is a continuum.
Sucks up energy
The argument over Rangers’ company status sucks up time and energy and becomes tiresome until one recalls the £55 million debt owed to unsecured creditors left by Rangers when the club folded. If that debt helped fund teams that won Scottish championships and cups, there is a reason why Celtic fans want those trophies and titles to be asterisked.
This might seem like the stuff of ordinary rivalry, claim and counter-claim, except that with the Old Firm there has long been a violent extrapolation.
The visible, audible matchday bile may have been missing since April 2012 – bar a volatile under-17s match between the two a year later that featured a call-out for the local fire brigade – but not the feelings behind it. And if the battleground has moved from terraces and streets to social media and the internet, the sectarianism can be as shocking as ever.
An understanding of Old Firm consequences has led the Wetherspoon pub chain to announce that none of its Glasgow bars will be showing the match. Extra police will be on duty across the city, and, according to one report, there will be police checkpoints on “every route into Hampden”.
Officers from Police Scotland have also visited the Celtic and Rangers training grounds to remind players of their personal responsibilities. This is a football match morphed into a security clampdown.
It is not alone –Manchester, Cardiff, Tyneside and elsewhere stage such derby day operations – but Glasgow's enmity has always entailed more than football: it is about religion and culture and Scottish society's relationship with Ireland. Depending on your view, the fixture has weight, or unpleasant gravitas.
"Football is the magnifying glass that highlights sectarianism in Scotland," says Dave Scott. "It's the prism most people see it through."
Scott, from Lisburn, represents Nil By Mouth. It is the anti-sectarian campaign charity set up by Cara Henderson after the murder of her boyfriend Mark Scott in October 1995.
Scott was walking home from a Celtic match when he was stabbed to death outside a Loyalist pub by Jason Campbell. Scott was 16, Campbell was 23 and from a UVF background. In court Campbell was defended by Donald Findlay, once vice-chairman of Rangers.
As the murder did not occur after an Old Firm game, there was a reluctance to include it in the sort of statistics which often flow in the fallout from a Rangers-Celtic meeting. Nil By Mouth’s estimate is that there were 8 to 15 Old Firm murders between 1990 and 2005.
Official reticence, however, had to be overcome following the infamous ‘Shame Game’ of March 2011, when Rangers had three players dismissed at Parkhead, 12 yellow cards were shown and managers Lennon and Ally McCoist squared up to each other on the final whistle.
Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond felt compelled to call a summit to discuss a situation spiralling out of control and Les Gray of the Scottish Police Federation said: "I'm realistic enough to know that they'll probably never stop it [the Old Firm], but we need to have a serious look at it."
The mayhem had at last reached a tipping point for a country seeking to prove its independent nation credentials.
Unintentionally, a year later, Gray got his wish. Rangers’ demotion to the fourth tier of Scottish football meant that from eight Old Firm derbies in 2011 – 47 yellow cards, seven red – 2013 and 2014 had none.
Has it been missed?
“I suppose we have missed the fixture,” says Johnston. “Through no fault of our own, us supporters have been watching third division football and we’ve seen millions of pounds worth of talent leaving Ibrox for smaller clubs. But we’re fighting our way back.
“These [Celtic] are the games you take the most pleasure from winning and least satisfaction in losing, but I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all. What I miss are big European nights. What we miss is being in the battle for top honours.
“A downside is the cauldron that is Scottish football and the squabbling going on. It makes it a bit of a tinderbox fixture. Most of the fans are hoping the match passes off without serious incident. That’s as important as Rangers getting to another cup final.
“I like to think the vast majority of fans have matured. But there’s always the fear of a few kicking off. And regrettably the authorities have zoned in on football, they’ve demonised football supporters while they pat rugby fans on the head.”
That sense of demonisation offers a rare connection for the fanbases. At another level, money is a link.
The term ‘Old Firm’ was first used in 1904 and a cartoon from 1909, republished this week, shows one player each from Rangers and Celtic heaving a sack of cash together above the caption: “Parting At The Bank.”
In Glasgow, the “merchant city”, the “second city of empire”, the mutual economic benefits were seen in joint television contracts and the sheer volume of turnstile and sponsor money that a year such as 2011 brings.
The clubs got rich on rivalry, and part of Rangers’ demise is the unwillingness to confront the culture of extravagance once they no longer had the Old Firm to rely upon: even last January, before facing Forfar Athletic, Rangers stayed overnight at Carnoustie.
By August last year Celtic's chief executive Peter Lawwell was saying: "We could have lost £10 million a year, quite easily, on the back of Rangers going down."
Economically, Rangers’ removal has made hard times harder. Eleven days ago, Inverness offered admission against St Johnstone on a pay-what-you-can basis. Last Saturday there was a one-off 10p admission at Hamilton. Both were top-flight Scottish games.
The Scottish Premiership, as the SPL has been known since last season, has no sponsor. The League Cup had no sponsor – until the draw for the semi-finals was made. Now an engineering company, QTS, are involved.
And there is another loss, competition on the pitch. Celtic won the league by 29 points last season. They were then hammered 6-1 on aggregate by Legia Warsaw in a Champions League qualifier.
At Ibrox a wary feeling is that lower division football is no preparation for meeting Celtic. In the past 20 years of lavish spending Rangers could name Gascoigne, Laudrup, De Boer, Kanchelskis, Caniggia and Mols among others; on Sunday they will have 36-year-old Lee McCulloch in defence and 35-year-old Kenny Miller up front. McCoist has gone as manager and his successor Kenny McDowall has handed in his cards too. There is on-going boardroom convulsion.
Limitations Rangers do not appear ready and the expectation is that Celtic will "gub" them. Yet even Celtic fans know their team's limitations. Kris Commons is likely to be the biggest name on the Hampden pitch.
But whether it’s Game One of a new era or Game 400 of the Old Firm, the eyes of planet football will be back on Glasgow. As Celtic’s Norwegian manager, Ronny Deila, put it: “You can feel the atmosphere in the city. Right now it feels like the most important thing in the world.”
The issue of sporting credibility is just one part of a jumble of emotions as the circus rolls back into town. Fear and loathing, noise and spectacle, and angst, guaranteed.