Match of the day

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
Picture it, if you will: May 28, 1888. Celtic, a new club in the East End of Glasgow, plays its first ever game. The opposition? Also a Glasgow team,Rangers, founded 16 years earlier. The new boys - or Bhoys, as they came to be known - win by 5 goals to 2. But "none of the 2,000 spectators at that game could have guessed that they were present at a historic occasion,for that evening marked the first of what was to become the most famous, long-lasting - and bitter - sporting rivalry in the history of football," writes Bill Murray in his book, The Old Firm: Sectarianism, Sport and Society in Scotland (1984).

To some it is the greatest club game in the world; to others it seems to be an excuse for the outpouring of tribal hatred and religious bigotry. But whatever you make of the Old Firm - and of the traditional Ne'erday holiday fixture that began in 1894 - "Rangers, Celtic Ltd", as they were dubbed in 1904, is part of the historical, cultural and social fabric of Scotland.

Take literature, for example. Hugh MacDiarmid, who loathed "the cult of sport" in Scottish society, made it grist for his poetic mill in the futuristic fantasy sonnet "Glasgow 1960" (see panel), choosing Ibrox as the venue for a miraculous intellectualisat ion of the urban proletariat.

In the same year that the poem was published - 1935 - George Blake's novel, The Shipbuilders, came out with a graphic account of Glasgow in the Depression, including the escape offered by football.

No one who has read the novels of Alan Spence can be in any doubt as to his Rangers affiliations. His award-winning book, The Magic Flute, opens at an Orange flute band practice held in a Catholic primary school. The title of his collection of short stories, Its Colours They Are Fine, is a line taken from "The Sash". In the autobiographical "Colours", Spence outlines the emotional and cultural parameters of a ProtestantRangers Unionist upbringing with genuine feeling and insight.

Football passion can be translated into literary pursuits. It was the inimitable ball control of Celtic winger Jimmy Johnstone that inspired the poet, singer-songwriter and teacher Morris Blythman ("Thurso Berwick") to compose the popular folk blues "Hey, Jinky Johnstone" (see below), which compares the diminutive forward's footwork with that of the Russian ballet dancer Nijinsky. "And if you know your history . . ." declares a line from the Celtic anthem, "A Grand Old Team".

Any study of the two clubs reveals masses about the social history of Glasgow and the west. In the 1988 official centenary history, Celtic: A Century with Honour, a young journalist by the name of Brian Wilson wrote: "There is more social history in this book than would normally be found in the story of a mere football club."

Now Scotland's education minister, he went on to say: "I think it is important that the youngsters who stand on the Celtic terraces, and those who come after them, should have access to the story which, from the start,ensured that Celtic would be a very special club."

Celtic (originally pronounced with a hard "C" to reinforce Scottish-Irish connections) was founded for charitable reasons, its first aim being to raise funds to provide food for the poor in Glasgow's East End and to help integrate the Irish into Scotland.

Any study of the history of Celtic involves an understanding of the Irish home rule movement and the social position of Irish immigrant Catholics in late 19th-century Scotland.

In A Century of the Scottish People 1830-1950, TC Smout described the workers of the 1890s - when Celtic built a stadium for 70,000 people - as "becoming football-mad". "It was the ideal sport for a deprived proletariat," he wrote, "satisfying their need as losers to identify with winners, and providing them with a fund of bar-room dogmatism, record-keeping, wise secret knowledge and pseudo-scholarship of the sort usually associated with the decision-making or executive or opinion-moulding classes."

When it comes to economics and the study of free-market competition and the development of monopolies, what more obvious illustration could there be than Rangers and Celtic? They are not called The Old Firm (singular) for nothing. When Celtic threatened to leave the Scottish League in 1952, in response to a Scottish Football Association demand that they take down the Irish flag, it was Rangers FC who supported Celtic's right to fly any flag they wished. What may have seemed a surprising case of solidarity, made sound business sense. Could either partner really afford to lose the other, as is implied in Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting?

Nowadays both clubs are heavily involved in their local communities and in schools of all denominations in their area. "Rangers FC is involved with 23 primary and secondary schools of all denominations in the area around Ibrox, Govan and Kinning Park," says former club captain John Greig."We work with the community centre over the road from the stadium. They have four SFA qualified coaches and we pay them a fee to go round these schools, coaching the pupils, and to provide five-a-side tournaments. We also provide boots, balls and T-shirts. We feel we should be doing it, and we would not do it unless it was offered to all the schools."

In January 1996, Celtic's Social Charter, "Bhoys Against Bigotry", was launched with a mission to work against sectarianism, racism and bigotry, a campaign which won a European Commission Scottish Equality Award the following year.

Working with Glasgow City Council's education department, the club sent information packs to all the city's secondary and primary schools with "Working Against Bigotry" initiatives built into study plans. It also launched an initiative to encourage youngsters from Glasgow's large Asian community to take up football, in the hope of bringing through prominent Asian players, while promoting the club as one that Asians can feel part of.

Celtic has also set up a charity fund to support children's needs, community action on drugs and projects that develop and promote religious and ethnic harmony. All of which marks a return to the charitable roots of the club. Both partners in the Old Firm have taken major strides to offset ignorance, bigotry and racism in educational and community initiatives. They have come a long way since that first derby in 1888.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today