Is this the most important Old Firm derby ever? Yes, until the next time!
Before we go much further we have to firstly deal with the tedious tripe which will immediately be thrown up over the term “the Old Firm.” There is no Old Firm claim lots of punters: we don’t want to be associated with “THEM.” It’s a hierarchy of one-upmanship - we’re morally, socially and sportingly on a higher level so why handcuff ourselves to those on the other side of the city. All good footballing banter but sadly so overdone, thanks to the internet, as to be meaningless.
Sadly, nowadays you have to spend half the time giving social history lessons and religious instruction rather than talking about the football, such is the combination of madness, hype and ignorance which flows around the fixture. And in my time that nonsense in the media has got worse and not better.
For good or ill, we’ve been part of The Old Firm for over 100 years. I too find it tedious when certain Scottish journalists, presumably all paragons of virtue themselves, blather on about both clubs being happy to profit from sectarianism and can sympathise with those suggesting if some had real morals they'd refuse to make money from talking or writing about it.
There are, of course, religious and political overtones associated with the fixture - but Glasgow is not and never was Belfast however much it may serve some desperate need some folks have to talk Scotland down. The real difference on the bigotry front is that Rangers-minded extremists are alone, Celtic extremists have a panoply of academics, journalists and politicians who will apologise, excuse and lie for them.
It really is that simple. It’s just how it is.
But guess what? Most of the fans are normal folks - like Man United fans they don’t act out in real life songs about burning Scousers and City fans. Unpleasant songs and chants at a football match - nobody anywhere in the world ever heard those, eh?
In my lifetime, behaviour at football matches has improved out of all recognition. In the 70s you would get bother at any ground you wanted to go to - and often whether or not you wanted bother. Police tactics have (despite recent setbacks) mostly improved and society has changed - but banning alcohol from the grounds has greatly diminished both the fury of the punters and the ammunition to throw. Nowadays, compared with big matches elsewhere in the world, the Old Firm is pretty tame (As an example - every time I’ve been at a Feyenoord match there has been fighting inside and outside the stadium with opposition fans and the cops and Den Haag has been like reliving the 70s!)
Has banning drink taken the edge off the atmosphere inside the ground? A fair bit. But throughout the 80s it was pretty good even when Rangers were not playing too well. At Parkhead when they scored it was like the crack of a rifle as a wall of sound hit you - after a few seconds we burst into song in retaliation to try and rally our heroes. Nowadays I don’t find Celtic Park that impressive, a lot of the frenzy has gone. We used to get part of their Main Stand and a wee bit of the Jungle until about 79 (?) as well as the 19,000 packed into the old Rangers End. At Ibrox they had the away end (naturally there is no Celtic End at Ibrox!), part of the Main Stand and the West Enclosure and a wee sliver of the Govan Stand when it was built. Nowadays the away fans are cut in number - Celtic confined to the Broomloan Road stand and the Rangers support hidden away in a corner of Parkhead.
We used to laugh at the game - now the rest of the footballing world largely laughs at us for having the state calm us down. Humour (often gallows) has been outlawed. For better or worse - cruel and offensive as it was - it was part of the game. When Bobby McKean committed suicide Celtic fans sang “Where’s your Bobby gone? Left his engine on.” A couple of years later when Johnny Doyle died in an electrical accident we sang “Nobody knows where your Johnny has gone, but the lights went out the same time” in a parody of “It’s My Party.” Perhaps the peak of this bad taste came when Celtic Chairman Desmond White died and a banner went up in the Rangers End using an adapted line from “The Exorcist.” Nowadays we live in a world of media hysteria and contrived offence where everyone wants to be a victim, everyone wants to be the most offended. It's often tricky to see the improvement.
This culminated a few years ago in 2011 when assorted Celtic fans groups banded together calling for 20,000 Rangers fans to be arrested for singing naughty songs. If I recall correctly it was roughly at this time we saw the first instance (it has now grown to a flood) of Celtic fans claiming their children sat at home crying in front of the TV after dutiful parents explained what the Rangers fans were singing. And no, I’m not making this up.
It’s Celtic fans who have brought us to this sorry state - their constant bleating and running to the authorities brought more and more intervention into the football grounds - and guess what? Eventually the focus also alighted onto their songs, their banners, their behaviour - some of their more perceptive (and it must be said Irish Republican) fans had warned on forums like the Huddleboard that if ‘Scottish civic society’ didn’t like Rangers fans repertoire did anyone fondly imagine they would forever turn a blind eye to what went on amongst the Celtic support even if they tried to rebrand their bigotry as ‘politics?’ Their stopwatches, campaigning and recorders have just about killed what some of them most like about football. I’m not sure many of them care - it’s just given them something else to complain about.
So, yes, a bit of the edge has been taken off of the greatest derby in the world - and fans I know who have seen a fair bit of the globe say that only the Boca v River Plate rivalry challenges it for that title, no matter how dire the standard of football is. It still remains special.
Over the years I’ve learned to cope with the derby - always expect to lose, that way a draw feels like a win! Cup ties are more difficult as it’s sudden death, yet even here you can soften the blow by assuring yourself that it’s the league title that really matters. A win is of course the holy grail.
Over 20 years ago Rangers would face both an Old Firm game and a game against Marseille in the inaugural Champions League; with a 20-odd game unbeaten run the question was to whom would you rather lose if forced to choose? It was of course a question to which no football fan could give a genuine answer. In recent years, the enforced demotion Rangers suffered has financially weakened the club and hence the team - your playing staff are now largely a function of spending power rather than startling nouse displayed in the transfer market. Sunday’s game is a challenge in itself - and it will be the most important clash in both clubs histories. At least until the next derby.