Firm Favourites: Old Firm

Religion and football remain a potent and unpleasant mix. Dianne Millen finds the Old Firm may have ulterior reasons to distance themselves from bigotry.

When is an orange not an orange? When it’s a tang­erine, of course – or so the Rangers fans who gleefully donned the club’s notorious 2001-02 away strip would have liked the rest of Scotland to believe. At best ill-judged, at worst inflammatory, the strip drew an outcry from anti-sectarian groups. Few outside Ibrox believed the club was unaware of its connotations.

Football is inextricably linked to religion for both sides of the Old Firm: Celtic’s brand identity draws heavily on their Irish Catholic origins and a hardcore element remains vocally supportive of the IRA. But pressure to cut these ties is growing in a post-devolution Scotland less and less inclined to accept religious prejudice. Anti-bigotry legislation is imminent and the First Minister himself is taking a high-profile hard line (even summoning club chair­­men to his office after a particularly rancorous derby in 2002).

Taking their cue from this political agenda, Rangers and Celtic have come together for initiatives such as Glasgow council’s Sense Over Sectarianism campaign, which aims to fund projects which bring the religions together. Lending themselves to wider social change is one thing, but the real credibility test is the extent to which the clubs are willing to confront their own fans. Last year Rangers launched the Pride Over Prejudice scheme, intended to create a more family-friendly atmosphere at Ibrox, threatening fans with lifetime bans if they breach anti-sectarian rules. Across town, Celtic season-ticket holders received an official letter instructing them not to sing IRA songs and staff have been threatened with dismissal if they refer to anyone connected with Rangers as a “hun”. But despite such moves, anti-Catholic and pro-IRA chants continue to echo round Scottish stadiums – often glossed over as “a fantastic atmosphere” by commentators – and Loyalist and Republican flags continue to flutter.

Eliminating this altogether is regarded by both clubs as “difficult” – with Celtic manager Martin O’Neill, for one, openly sceptical. Although such be­haviour is often dismissed as ritualistic posturing, it can have serious consequences. It is estimated that local hospital admissions increase ninefold after an Old Firm game and at least eight people have been murdered since 1999 in sectarian attacks, according to Glasgow anti-sectarianism group Nil By Mouth.

However, despite the potential for mayhem, it is not unrealistic to suggest both clubs might see value in retaining some of their religious associations. Their religious and cultural constituency gives them a wider reach than any provincial club, ensuring their continued prestige and thus financial clout. Every weekend supporters’ buses pour towards Parkhead and Ibrox from all over Scotland, packed full of identity-conscious Catholics and Protestants who have pledged their allegiance on cultural and religious grounds rather than to their local team. All of them count towards the continued dominance of the Old Firm on and off the pitch, and ultimately towards the uncompetitive and financially unsustainable league set-up.

Furthermore, marketing decisions such as the orange strip do suggest a willingness to commercially exploit fans’ prejudices. As MSP Donald Gor­rie, auth­or of a private members’ bill to combat sec­tar­ianism, pointed out at the launch of Sense Over Sectarianism: “There is a school of thought that sectarianism helps the bank balance.” After all, the strip was one of Ran­gers’ most popular, shifting 300,000 and heavily outselling the blue strip before it was withdrawn.

Ultimately, however, it may soon become too difficult to covertly foster these allegiances if they move on. Both clubs are clearly desperate to trade the parochial grimness of the Scottish Premier League for a glossy, family-friendly, cosmopolitan experience – preferably not involving Scotland at all. There may be money in sectarianism, but there’s a lot more in European football. If the promised land of the Premiership or the Atlantic League ever becomes a serious option, it’s hard not to conclude that the clubs would find a way to jettison their sectarian hardcore faster than you can say: “Is that top orange or tangerine?”

From WSC 206 April 2004. What was happening this month