The Old Firm dominates many people’s lives in Glasgow – but is this a good thing?
Ah yes, and so it appears in the distance, like a swirling tempest raging on the horizon, once again. One of those crucial points – in fact, perhaps the only crucial point – in the SPFL season. The Hoops v The Gers. Celtic v Rangers. The Glasgow Derby. The Old Firm. A footballing rivalry that straddles a river, a city, which dates back over a century, which has religious connotations that stretch back to the First World War. A chasm, often portrayed, dividing not just this city but Scotland as a whole.
While my enthusiasm for the footballing product might shine through in this piece, this is perhaps an opportune moment to add that my experience here is as a tourist to these parts, a visitor, with no greater understanding than a small corner of south-eastern suburban Glasgow. You should be aware that the match under discussion here has caused murders and violence, hatred, stabbings, and shootings. In short: I am no more than a casual observer, and nothing like an authority.
However, in my humble opinion, to take the negative view here is to see Glasgow as a tormented, downtrodden place; a city beleaguered, brought to its knees by greater, more established forces. It is to see the city as a place of division, of unrest, of disobedience, of anger and ill-feeling. This is, however, surely not the case. Who constructed this grim narrative anyway? Not Glaswegians that’s for sure. More likely the kind of people that frown on anything enjoyed by the working-class; the kind of people that reside in Westminster; the kind of people that like throwing work bashes while the rest of the country is in lockdown maybe. As an outsider who has lived here for two and a half years, a more welcoming place has been observed. I have witnessed close lifelong friendships that survive, even flourish, across this supposedly cavernous divide. From infancy, these young people have known each other as close friends, not enemies.
It perhaps follows then that this bitter division is one built on something from the past, a construct of late-Victorian working-class society that survives today in evolved form because the people want it to. Undoubtedly, there must be pockets of this fine city where a thuggish dictum still lurks, but the Glasgow of today is a world away from the nastiness of British football in the late ‘80s. I am fortunate, and thankful, as a relative outsider to never have encountered this hostility. I hope I never do.
“Undoubtedly, there must be pockets of this fine city where a thuggish dictum still lurks, but the Glasgow of today is a world away from the nastiness of British football in the late ‘80s.”
The old firm, then. Good or bad? Needless, pointless, angry division? Or sport as heritage, competition, happiness? Surely the latter. It is an aspect of west-central Scotland that has been passed down for generations, a rivalry unlike any other I know of in the British Isles. This is football as something tribal. God knows that if the marketing capitalist big wigs could stumble across the formula for this, they would manufacture it industrially and sell it en-masse at obscene mark-ups. This is sport as ingrained into and enriching for the city. This is football as heritage, football as deep identity, football as tattooed on your soul. The industrial urban history of both teams has a working-classness to it, a term so often derided by the establishments of today – yet this heritage is of significant cultural value to the fabric of Scottish, of British, society. Where would we be without the great figures associated with these two clubs? Would the history of the modern game be as luxurious without Jock Stein, Ally McCoist, Kenny Dalglish, Alex Ferguson? Doubtful.
There are, of course, wider constitutional issues at play which I am at pains not to discuss here. As an Englishman, as a guest in this country, it’s not my place, nor my right, to delve into these complex issues. Yet the more concentrated point remains: this rivalry is enhancing, this banter among friends is fun – as long as it’s non-violent and friendly.
This is why we love football, why we love elite sport. This is something that has survived in humans in this crazy, fractious age – this sense of belonging. This is tribalism. This is Glasgow as togetherness, Glasgow as shipyard humour – a craft in itself. This is Glasgow as Kevin Bridges, as Billy Connolly. This is laughing until your sides hurt at the post-match jokes. This isn’t Glasgow as some forgotten empirical backwater. This is a Glasgow that lives and breathes. This is a Glasgow that pulses and swaggers with vibrance and style, charm, and good grace. This is happiness, this is wry smiles and witty quips. Long live these giddy moments of familiar humour and those that know such ways. Long live Glasgow. Long live the Old Firm.
And here’s an idea: perhaps nowadays this sprawling, vociferous, angry thing might come with a warning not to misbehave – a shot across the bows to avert disaster. “Celtic v Rangers day – Please enjoy responsibly.”