By Alden Mehta
The Old Firm Derby: How History Shapes Soccer and Society in Glasgow
Editor’s Note: This paper was completed as a part of the History Research Fellowship, a one-semester course available to sixth form students.
In 1999, two rival soccer teams, Celtic FC and Rangers FC, went head to head in the Scottish Cup Final. Many of the local Glaswegians, unable to attend the game in person, gathered in pubs with their team’s fellow supporters to drink and watch the match. It was more than a game to many of them; they hated their opposition and that hatred ran deep. Rangers won the game 1-0, taking home the trophy. After a crushing defeat, sixteen-year-old Celtic supporter, Thomas McFadden, left the Life of Reilly’s pub. Heartbroken though he was, deep down he knew that life would go on. He was young and had a lifetime ahead of him to watch his team play. However, life did not go on for Thomas McFadden. Minutes later, he was murdered. On his way home after the game, Thomas encountered a heavily intoxicated Rangers supporter named David Hutton. It was not long after the final whistle. The emotions were still fresh. The two opposing fans confronted one another. Getting in each others’ faces, they chanted rival soccer songs. Before long, the confrontation escalated, and David Hutton stabbed Thomas four times in critical areas. In his final moments, Thomas was “staggering about with blood over his Celtic top.” As he bled to death, he sang a traditional Celtic song, faithfully representing his team until the very end.
I came to learn that while horrifying, this incident was not unexpected. Glasgow’s complex history has created the conditions for the sport of soccer to turn into something that resembles tribal warfare. In many parts of the world, soccer is considered to be more than just a game, but this claim is arguably most evident in Glasgow, Scotland, home of the Old Firm derby between Celtic FC and Rangers FC. The rivalry is referred to as a derby because both teams are from the same city. For decades, these two Glaswegian teams have dominated Scottish soccer. The name of the rivalry, the Old Firm, was supposedly coined in the late 1800s in recognition of the commercial benefits of the two teams’ encounters on the field. Many soccer enthusiasts, ex-professionals, and coaches deem the Old Firm to be the most heated sports rivalry in the world. Celtic legend Henrik Larsson played in both the Old Firm derby and the notorious El Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The El Clasico is by far the fiercest rivalry in Spain, and yet Larsson says, “Nothing compares to Celtic playing Rangers, absolutely nothing … You can talk about Barca against their old rivals from Madrid, but believe me, it’s not even close.” The Old Firm polarizes the two sides, produces a vicious hatred, and frequently spills over into violence.
I’ve grown up heavily involved in the sport of soccer, so much so that I feel it occupies a certain portion of who I am. In my experience, it has always brought people together. Whether through my experiences playing soccer or through watching events like the World Cup, I’ve seen the sport unite people across cultural, ethnic, and language differences. I’ve witnessed the mutual respect that results from the game. To me, “the beautiful game,” as soccer is often called, was and still is an apt description. Therefore, when I discovered that for nearly a century and a half soccer has fostered division in Glasgow, I sought to discover why.
In this paper, I will explore the religious, political, cultural, and social underpinnings of the sectarian divide between the two Glasgow soccer clubs. Since the club’s founding, Celtic FC has identified as a Catholic club and has predominantly drawn its support from Irish Catholics. On the other hand, Rangers FC has identified as a Protestant club and has mainly garnered support from Protestants who take pride in their British identity. This alone is not a sufficient explanation for the incredible tension between the two sides. Protestants and Catholics coexist peacefully despite their differences of opinion in many places around the world. It is Glasgow’s unique history that makes it a breeding ground for such fierce hatred. When many tens of thousands of Irish immigrants flooded into Scotland in the mid-1800s, they brought with them vehement opinions that had been shaped by their homeland’s history. These opinions clashed with those of the native Scottish population, which were derived from their own history. As a result, the Catholic-Protestant divide was widened by other factors outside of religion, including national identity and opinions on the idea of a political union with England. It is the clashing of these historically-rooted perspectives that has generated such animosity within the Old Firm and even impacted Glaswegian society beyond the sport itself.
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Alden Mehta is a VI form boarding student from Southborough, Massachusetts. He is interested in studying economics, philosophy, and politics. His love for soccer inspired him to write this paper.