18 September ~ Amid the usual socio-political posturing around today's Glasgow hate-fest, one explanation of the tension will be ignored: it's the eighth Old Firm clash in less than 11 months. And this one has arrived late enough in the calendar to allow Rangers and Celtic to negotiate their way to the top of the table. Despite having played one game less than most of the SPL, despite this being only their seventh game of the domestic season and despite postponing SPL fixtures to play lucrative friendlies, it's already a battle between first and second. Celtic are top scorers and Rangers have conceded once. Natch. It just wouldn't be that special derby atmosphere if there wasn't "absolutely everything" riding on the game.
For me this has always been the main ingredient of Old Firm enmity. We play each other more than we play anyone else and it's almost always "make or break". As Barcelona and Real Madrid have also been discovering recently, coming second in a never-ending two-horse race creates a rare feeling of football inadequacy which must be diffused if it's to be borne at all. The colour-coded bigotry, the bar room politics, the screaming hysteria and gnawing paranoia all pile in after the result. But, then, as a Rangers fan I would say that, wouldn't I. After all, how else does one justify a life of ethnic hate crimes and Protestant fundamentalist plotting.
I can't stand Old Firm games. Except when Rangers win them – and sometimes even then. There's been a long-held belief among the blue half that we're only allowed to talk about football when Celtic triumph. Basically, it's felt that when Rangers lose, they lose but when Celtic lose they change the subject. However, last season saw a deviation or two from that format which may reflect a wider sea change in the hugely stereotyped Old Firm dynamic. While Celtic were once the "biscuit tin" misers, Ibrox now has HM Revenue and Customs banging on the door; while pre-war Celtic fans were the outcasts of an anti-Catholic society, Union Jack-waving Bluenoses have little place in evolved and devolved 21st century Scotland.
In last season's Scottish Cup replay at Parkhead Rangers had three players sent off, two in rather attention-seeking fashion. Ally McCoist – now our manager, then Walter Smith's assistant – had a serious handbags confrontation with Celtic gaffer Neil Lennon. The game sparked an intervention by the Scottish government and statements to the nation by the first minister, live on Sky Sports News. Most of the coverage was noxious drivel but, amid it all, hardly anyone noticed Celtic had won. Rangers had changed the subject. In fact, McCoist's calm, in-the-face confronting of Lennon seemed to be drawing a line in the sand as regarded the Celtic manager's shit-stirring style in the five derbies to that point, three of which we'd lost. Celtic eventually won the Scottish Cup but Rangers tied up the other two domestic honours at their direct expense.
Rangers are widely and often wildly reported to be on the verge of bankruptcy. If it happens it will be Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs who pull the plug. So much for our famed reputation as loyal Royalists favoured by the Establishment. Yet facing financial ruin for the last few years has lent our continued domestic dominance and frequent European triumphs a sheen of romantic defiance usually reserved for the Bhoys. The SFA seem unable to defend Rangers from increased UEFA sanctions for decreased instances of sectarian singing. Yet the same institution, historically rumoured to be riddled with freemasons out to sabotage Celtic, has done all it can to have the Parkhead club reinstated to the Europa League competition from which they were fairly eliminated by an unfairly constructed Sion side.
While the infamous 1976 statement that Rangers "would sign a Catholic if one good enough came along" was seen as final confirmation of our institutionalised sectarianism, it's now 22 years since we signed the genial genuflector Maurice Johnston. Countless Catholic signings followed and we've subsequently lauded a Catholic captain and manager. No one cares at Ibrox anymore. It would now seem the religious hysteria is driven by Celtic's board – particularly chief executive Peter Lawwell – and for the very same venal reasoning behind Rangers' Protestant cantera of the early-late 20th century: brand protection.
No one at Parkhead went out their way last season to acknowledge the vast majority of Rangers fans would no more think about sending bullets and bombs to Neil Lennon than they would report him to the police for cupping his ears at the Ibrox Main Stand. Celtic plc need to keep the oppression myth alive or else they're just another football club. Thus, one dodgy penalty award demanded a root and branch investigation of the SFA and one bad day in court for the beleaguered Lennon now means the entire Scottish legal system is bent.
The Old Firm play each other too often for any sustained sanity to exist between the fans and there's copy and cash to be made in keeping the hate alive. In maintaining this equilibrium over the last century, the only thing Rangers and Celtic haven't swapped is shirts. But what would be the point – both brands are ridiculously overpriced and the sizes far too big. Alex Anderson