Lessons From History? Apparently Not...

When I first heard that Rangers were in financial trouble I did not think much more of it, expecting some sort of exaggeration like the headlines back in 1994 claiming Celtic were “eight minutes from bankruptcy” but were saved by the green knight charging in from the Bahamas to save them. Fergus McCann soon entered into the usual commercial relations with Rangers to form a New Firm ready to take up arms against the SFA and ensure the two big clubs kept to themselves most of the money to be made in Scottish football. The people at Paradise were no doubt in trouble then, but no bank was going to suffer the ignominy of putting them out of business. Today’s Blue Knights had more to face than repaying the bank, unlike “The Bunnet”, who did not receive the praise he deserved for putting his money into the club, at least from the more “Celtic-minded” who thought he was not deeply enough imbued with the club’s Irish and other connections. Like Murray he was less interested in the ideological baggage than running a commercial enterprise.

On realizing that the problems at Ibrox were much more than the “eight minutes to doom” headlines, I still thought it would all be worked out, as had been done in the past, with Celtic realizing that they would be the first victims of a Scottish football without their traditional rivals, and the rest of the Scottish clubs aware that they would suffer from being deprived of the financial flow over from the crowds and television money brought in by the two big clubs. In the days of the Flag Flutter in the 1950s, when Celtic threatened to withdraw from Scottish football if they were forced to take down the tricolour flying over Celtic Park, Rangers were the first club to come to their aid. So it was back in the early days when the two clubs realized that playing the sectarian card ensured the support of people who might not otherwise have come to watch football. For this they were christened, contemptuously, ‘The Old Firm’, in a now famous cartoon in the Scottish Referee. The title did not in fact catch on until much later, but the “business based on bigotry” was a reality as the two clubs put aside any ideological differences when it came to battles with the SFA or the Scottish League. The New Firm of McCann and Murray had a long history.

Scots have played a predominant role in the spread of football throughout the world and in Scotland itself set up records in crowd attendances, some of which still stand. Most of this has involved Celtic or Rangers. The extent to which crowds at Scottish football matches depended on Rangers and Celtic was nowhere more sadly emphasized than in the 1980s when Aberdeen and Dundee United were playing by far the best football in Scotland but could not attract crowds as large as those for a run of the mill Celtic or Rangers game.

For all such historical reasons it took me a long time to realize that Rangers, unlike the various banks calling out for government bail-outs, were in fact not “too big to fail”. Neither Celtic nor the other clubs have come to their aid, and indeed seem to have shown a hatred for the club that surprised even me. It is ironic that at a time when Rangers have done all they could to divest themselves of their sectarian past, they have found so little sympathy within the game. As Scotland’s (and for a long time Britain’s) biggest club they would always attract the jealousy of the less powerful clubs, and their associations with the Union, the Freemasons and the Orange Order (only one of which seems to be taken seriously today) would not enamour them to those who did not share such allegiances - and not just those of a particular religious bent.

In my youth before being dragged off to Australia I was a Morton supporter from a Protestant background with no liking for either of the big two, but close enough to Ibrox to see the Iron Curtain ‘Gers every now and then; Celtic were a club from the depths of the East End and the altogether darker side of Glasgow: my father, who as a policeman was on duty for some of the bottle parties of the late 1940s, would not let me go to Old Firm games. So it was that I did not see my first Old Firm game until 1979 when I embarked on my “research” on the historical roots of The Old Firm. At the many games I attended thereafter I always positioned myself between the two sets of supporters to pick up the exchange of vitriol between them. All of this was before the mid-1980s when Rangers were at a low ebb and Rangers fans loudly and proudly boasted: “We are Rangers, Super Rangers/ No-one likes us, we don’t care/Hate the Celtic, Fenian bastards …. “ I have to say that I always found the Celtic supporters less hostile, prepared to have a discussion with someone who was clearly not a Celtic supporter and indeed before my book came out I met very few Rangers people prepared to speak to me (This changed when the book came out). This was reflected at other levels: in correspondence with the two clubs Celtic always replied courteously, Rangers never replied at all (I was amused on the one occasion I met Cardinal Winning to hear that the club would not reply in writing to him either) - this was put down in some cases to the Masonic virtue of silence in face of criticism by the non-initiated, a misguided approach that left the field free to the club’s critics. In the official and unofficial histories and fan magazines the Celtic versions were more honestly critical, their fanzines less offensively antagonistic.

All of this was before the signing of Mo Johnson and the slow but steady progress to a Rangers where the only sectarian charges against the club were historical. In the mid-1980s, no club benefited more than Celtic from Rangers’ “no Catholics at Ibrox” policies, both morally and in terms of player selection. Over the next two decades the moral pendulum swung in the other direction as Celtic, a club that had never had a Protestant on its Board (Stein was a brief cover-up), but did play Protestants and had a sizable non-Catholic following, became increasingly obsessed among its “Celtic-minded” custodians with its Irish origins and the wickedness of those Scottish bigots who did not share their love for all things Irish.

I am lost to blogs and tweets and twitters and other electronic means of communication – although I was the first historian to take the fanzines seriously – but I have to say that The Rangers Standard has lived up to its name with constructive criticism of the club almost totally absent in the days before the Souness revolution (and some time thereafter). The more perplexing, then, that the club should be in such desperate straits at a time when it appeared to be escaping the burden of its past and showing the highest standards of intellectual engagement with friends and would-be enemies alike.

I am no financial or economic historian and so find it hard to follow the technicalities of the mess in which Rangers have been floundering: I would be the first to condemn tax dodgers where they are most usually found, among the filthy rich, and reading about the financial problems swilling around Manchester United and Real Madrid and other clubs I still have to wonder where Rangers went wrong. And remain astonished that they have found themselves so friendless in their time of most need.

In the past Celtic and Rangers made approaches to gain entry to the English Premier League, where they would easily have held their own, but there were no serious expectations that this would happen. Now there is talk of Celtic trying to gain entry by themselves, hence breaking with the more than a century’s old Old Firm. It will take Rangers at least three years to win their way back from the fourth tier of Scottish football in its present form, with only cup games to keep them in touch with the top clubs. All this without imported stars, or even young bloods devoted to the jersey but not prepared to wait three years in the virtual wilderness. We can learn a lot from history, but to use the old sporting cliché, this time we are entering on a whole new ball game.

Bill Murray is the author of numerous books on Scottish and world football. His publications include ‘The Old Firm’, ‘Bhoys, Bears and Bigotry: The Old Firm in the New Age’ and ‘The World’s Game: A History of Football’.

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