Can we ever imagine a Scotland without the Old Firm?
The latest Old Firm derby occurred on Sunday at Ibrox, and Celtic beat Rangers to all but secure this year’s senior league title. It had the usual mayhem, incidents, controversy, ugliness and stupidity; as well as drama, theatre – and some football.
Not only that, for those of you who cannot get enough, there is another Old Firm derby in a week and a half in the Scottish Cup semi-final. So, with one final league match between the two, we will be treated to three Old Firm matches in one month, which does seem a bit excessive. This article is not meant to be a criticism of Celtic and Rangers who are proud Scottish institutions. Rather it is written with concern for the unsustainable nature of the status quo, and the damage it does to the Glasgow big two and to the wider Scottish world of football.
The Celtic-Rangers rivalry is more than a game, more than football, but about something both bigger and smaller. There is the revealing way that the game is marketed – Rangers presented this weekend’s match with the banner: ‘This is the Old Firm’, whereas Celtic in all official communications referred to it as ‘the Glasgow derby’.
Germane to the above (and the continued insistence by some Old Firm fans that no such entity exists – found more with Celtic than Rangers fans) is that the two clubs copyrighted the intellectual property rights of the term ‘Old Firm’ at the start of the 21st century – and last renewed it as a trademark in 2021.
The Glasgow two’s domination of Scottish football is now unprecedented in degree, and carries with it all sorts of consequences – including preventing clubs that in a small European league could rise to be major forces being able to challenge for the league and dream of silverware beyond the occasional cup. And all of this shrinks the potential of our entire game, including Celtic and Rangers, in Europe.
The victory of Celtic on Sunday all but gave them what will be their 52nd title – which is 41.3% of all senior titles. Rangers have won the overall total of 55 – 43.7% of all titles – leaving aside the non-debate about the liquidation of the club in 2012 and its refounding as a new club. This means that on only nineteen occasions clubs other than the Glasgow twosome have ever won the main league – and that includes the half-title which Dumbarton shared with Rangers in the first-ever season (which is also included in the 55).
The near-monopoly of Celtic and Rangers is seen in the preponderance of titles won by Glasgow clubs – of the 108, 55 were claimed by Rangers, 52 by Celtic, and one by Third Lanark: giving a total of 85% of titles for Glasgow. The next city is Edinburgh with eight titles – four each to Hearts and Hibs.
Glasgow’s overbearing success has continued and actually accelerated as the relative decline of the size of the city as a proportion of Scotland has continued in recent decades. The city’s population as a percentage of Scotland’s population is approximately 11% but the two big Glasgow clubs have captured nearly eight times the proportion of the city’s populace in titles. Glasgow used to be one-quarter of Scotland’s population as recently as 1961 – and the dominance of the two clubs has only increased as the city has experienced relative decline.
One big takeaway from this is that no one other than Celtic and Rangers has won the senior title since 1985. This was the year when Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen won their last title. This was the year the miner’s strike ended, and Margaret Thatcher’s Premiership was just entering its mid-point. Even the poll tax, part of Scottish political folklore, was not yet fully devised and was still on the drawing boards of right-wing think-tanks and ideologues.
The conceit that this Old Firm dominance has always been with us
The defence against this obviously unsatisfactory state of affairs is that this may not be great but increasingly it is the state of the football world. The big, powerful and rich dominate on the football field just like they do in the capitalist order we live in. The trouble with this defence is that it is wrong – at least in relation to football and Scotland.
First, Scotland’s duopoly is the most uncompetitive league in all Europe – jointly with Ukraine pre-invasion. These are the only two European leagues that have been only won by two clubs since the advent of the UEFA Champions League thirty years ago. The Ukrainian football league is a relatively recent league, born of Ukrainian independence in 1991, and so their dominance by Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk is more recent than that of Scotland – giving us the chance to claim we are the most uncompetitive in all Europe. The point is we have an unprecedented problem compared to nearly all other leagues.
Second, Scottish football was not always this unbalanced and predictable. The much-vaunted and referenced period of the ‘New Firm’ – of Aberdeen and Dundee United – from the late 1970s to mid-1980s saw them not only win the league and cups but rise to be major, impressive forces across Europe and feared by clubs much wealthy such as Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Another period of uber-intense competition was the two decades immediately after the Second World War from 1946-65, before the Jock Stein revolution led to the rise of Celtic’s dominance and winning nine titles in a row. In this era Hearts and Hibs both won the title more than once, while Aberdeen, Kilmarnock and Dundee all won it once.
The rise of the Old Firm and Scotland’s football ‘cartel capitalism’
The invention of the term ‘Old Firm’ did not happen by chance. It happened because of the rise of the two Glasgow clubs, the power of ‘the Second City of the Empire’, the effect of professionalism, and the reach of the two clubs aided by the sectarian divide of the city.
Many football historians believe that the term first gained modern parlance when used in 1904 in The Scottish Referee publication to acknowledge the mutual self-interest of the two clubs, capturing and monetising their bases in a relationship of co-dependency. A satirical cartoon showed a man with a sandwich board carrying the slogan ‘Patronise the Old Firm, Rangers, Celtic Ltd’ highlighting the commercial benefits of their matches to both clubs.
The football writer the late Bob Crampsey used to call this a form of ‘cartel capitalism’, whereby both clubs wilfully exaggerated the most pronounced aspects of their traditions to keep their fans – and their money and passions. It is not too much to say that they monetised the sectarian divide and traditions on both sides as a business model, that has allowed them to preside over this historic and ever-increasing dominance, to leave football defined by an ancient set of identities and rituals, and to suffocate the entire Scottish game.
Thirty-seven years of the same predictable and stale menu – of Celtic and Rangers fans getting excited about the bragging rights of nine in a row, and trying to outdo the other winning ten in a row and blocking the other side. This is not a competitive sport or league but a semi-closed market which if it continues ad infinitum will leave Scottish club fans as predominantly Old Firm fans – and a small, declining gathering of others around the country with historic ties to their local clubs.
Here is the thing about this ongoing circus. Until the 1975-76 league season Celtic and Rangers used to just play two league games against each other. Then the introduction of a ten-team league guaranteed a minimum four Old Firm league games, apart from the four seasons Rangers were out of the senior league. Such is their dominance that they can now play each other five or even six times a season, which even on the most generous interpretation is too much of a good thing (and ignores the scarcity principle of anything of value such as FIFA World Cups every four years, rather than the Arsène Wenger proposal of making the World Cup every two years!).
There has to be despite the Old Firm fixation in media awareness of the unprecedented stranglehold the two have now and in recent decades. There was the acquisition of Rangers by Lawrence Marlborough in 1986 which brought Graeme Souness to the club and two years later David Murray: heralding an era of high-spending, English imports, and success on the field (and which ultimately created the conditions for the club going into liquidation).
There was the 1995 Bosman ruling, which made players free agents and hampered smaller clubs financially gaining from selling players. As well as this there has been a continual failure from anyone – Hearts, Hibs, Aberdeen – to systematically believe they could challenge the status quo. All the non-Old Firm pack start off each season with the belief that the best they can do is finish third in the league and maybe win a cup: it is a philosophy which breeds being second-best and not trying to win. Broadcaster Jim Spence summarised this state before Sunday’s game, commenting: ‘Two teams … the other clubs have bent the knee, acquiesced and genuflected to their power and status for so long that no meaningful challenge is possible.’
As long as Celtic and Rangers have this stranglehold on the senior Scottish league title and the culture of the game Scottish football will suffer and look, as it did on Sunday, like an archaic backwater and place defined by toxic passions, bigotry and hatred. If the Glasgow two continue to dominate the game as they currently do, maybe they should reconsider that Sydney Super Cup game and permanently decant to somewhere else?
That would allow the rest of us to see a Scottish domestic game arise that would be massively competitive, would see numerous teams challenge and win the title, and hence because of that would find media rights and decent sponsorship. When can we at least begin to accept that the Old Firm holds Celtic and Rangers back – and the entire Scottish game? A domestic game without the Old Firm would feel like liberation – and maybe someday, such is the global changes in the game, this will come about sooner than any of us think.