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Hugh McIlvanney
January 15, 1968
Glasgow citizens love a fight, and nothing stirs one quicker than a confrontation of Celtic-Rangers fans, especially when these two soccer teams meet to start the New Year
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January 15, 1968

Fierce Holy War In A Violent City

Glasgow citizens love a fight, and nothing stirs one quicker than a confrontation of Celtic-Rangers fans, especially when these two soccer teams meet to start the New Year

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Three years ago Celtic took a step that was massively embarrassing to The Rangers board: they appointed a Protestant to manage the club. Jock Stein, a big, intimidatingly sharp miner from Lanarkshire, was a highly competent but unbrilliant defender for Celtic, As manager, he has been miraculously successful. Last season Celtic won every competition open to them: the Scottish League Championship, the Scottish Cup, the Scottish League Cup, the Glasgow Cup and, finally and unforgettably, the European Cup, the prize in a tournament for the champion clubs of all the major football nations of Europe. No British club had ever gone beyond the semifinal in the European Cup. Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Dundee, Hibernian and Rangers—with their best performance in six tries—all reached that stage. Celtic at their first attempt went through to the final, and in Lisbon last May they played magnificent attacking football at bewildering speed to shatter the defensive strategy of Inter-Milan, the Italian club whose negative use of superbly gifted players had given them the European championship twice and driven true lovers of the game to despair.

When Celtic won, the thousands who had followed them to Lisbon ("Every mass has been all-ticket since we came" was Stein's favorite joke before the game) took over the Portuguese capital and for days afterward British Embassy officials were frantically trying to cope with little red-eyed men in rumpled suits that contained neither money nor passports. "Every time we opened a cupboard a Celtic supporter fell out," one of them recalls.

The debris of anecdotes left behind by that carousal in Lisbon is monumental, and the most bizarre stories are the true ones. One man awoke with a start in an airport lounge, rushed out to a taxi and said, "Take me to Johnstone." Johnstone is a few miles outside Glasgow but the taxi was outside Lisbon airport, so the driver turned down the 2,000-mile ride. Nothing conveys the euphoria of the whole episode more accurately than the case of the fan who was swirled merrily aboard the plane with his friends, celebrated lustily all the way back, landed blissfully at Prestwick, then realized he had gone to Lisbon by car.

Even the victims could laugh about these incidents because for many of them that Celtic triumph was nothing less than the climactic experience of their lives. For tens of thousands of people, not only in Glasgow but all over Scotland and among Scottish emigrants as far apart as England, the United States and Australia, the first plank of identity is being a Rangers or Celtic supporter. At least one Rangers supporter has had his ashes scattered over the center circle at the stadium, and there are tales of Celtic men being given the last rites one day and getting up to go to a match the next. One of the consequences of such devotion is complete financial security for the clubs. The supporters who come to important games by coach and train from every part of Scotland and some towns in England, and by boat and plane from Ireland, swell the vast congregations of ardent Glaswegians. Meetings of the two are frequently watched by crowds of well over 100,000, and even when they are not in opposition their names can draw attendances almost as large. To the fortunes taken at the gate, Rangers and Celtic recently added the income earned by operating their own betting pools. Celtic's is an orthodox lottery but Rangers' is based on football and pulls in money from their admirers all round the globe.

But though they are bigger than ever, Rangers have not found success to match their growth in the last season or two. Throughout this century Rangers and Celtic have dominated Scottish football to an extent that made it freakish if another club butted in to win one of the major competitions. In the 21 seasons between the wars only Motherwell, with one victory, broke their monopoly of the league championship, and when other clubs emerged more forcefully after World War II it was Celtic and not Rangers who suffered. Rangers remained more than capable of fulfilling the old pseudomodest vow that they would go on "struggling along at the top." However, the advent of Stein at Celtic Park coincided with a lean period for Rangers, and their supporters found it intolerable after the decades of plenty.

At the beginning of this season Rangers, for the first time in half a century, had gone three years without winning the league title. The bitterness of the situation was fully exposed when Celtic went to South America in November to settle the so-called world club championship with the South American champions, Racing Club of Argentina. Their playoff in Montevideo was a sordid shambles, with four Celtic players and two Racing men ordered off the field for fouling and brawling. Unbiased evidence suggests that Celtic reacted to unbearable provocation, but it was inevitable that the more virulent Rangers fans should leap in to say that their old enemies had been shown up at last as the thugs they were. There were malicious phone calls, and one Celtic player had to listen to groups of men jeering and singing outside his house, which was splashed with paint as a bonus insult. Presumably that persecution was the work of Rangers supporters but, had the roles been reversed, there is little doubt that just as many Celtic hooligans would have displayed the same sick prejudice. Justice and objectivity do not come into it. It is simply a matter of the orange-and-blue against the green, them and us, us and them.

Many people trace the intensification of religious bigotry in Glasgow between the wars to the importing of Belfast shipyard workers during World War I. Belfast is the headquarters of the Orange movement, the agglomeration of fanatically anti-Catholic "lodges" committed to preserving the memory and significance of the victory won by William of Orange over the dethroned Catholic James II of Britain on the banks of the Boyne north of Dublin in 1690. (Most historians agree that what happened on the Boyne was engineered for his own devious purposes by Louis XIV of France, and it is certain that James II, asked to face 35,000 troops with 21,000, was not so much routed as obliged to make a quick getaway.) Among those shipyard workers from Belfast were men steeped in such traditions and others equally immersed in the Fenianism that provides a savage counterpoint in the Ulster capital. Whatever other factors were involved, the trouble between rival elements at Rangers- Celtic matches definitely increased in the '30s, culminating in the record number of 120 arrests in 1936. When the serious disturbances recurred after the second war, with instances of mass bottle throwing and widespread fighting, even the extraordinarily efficient Glasgow police felt they needed help. In 1953 the clubs met police and the city magistrates, and it was agreed that Rangers- Celtic games should be subject to special conditions: there must be prematch entertainment and entertainment to occupy the spectators during the 10 minutes or so of the half-time interval; the teams must always come from the dressing rooms together; and there must be no flaunting of banners (a ban that is virtually unenforceable). At the same time the Lord Advocate laid it down that anyone arrested for causing trouble at a football match would be dealt with in a sheriff court, exposing offenders to stiffer penalties than they had faced in the police courts.

Since then there has been a marked improvement in the conduct of spectators at the games and, surprisingly, the mounting hostility that came with Celtic's success has not altered the trend severely. But it was the New Year's match that many people looked toward with apprehension. A tribal rite within a tribal rite, it has produced some memorable violence in the past. The two groups long ago elected to segregate themselves at opposite ends of the grounds, but that has never prevented the real wild men from making bother before, during or after the play. And this year's event had all the makings of an old-fashioned stramash.

Early in the season Rangers, clearly aware that something dramatic was required, fired their long-serving and hitherto successful manager, Scot Symon, and promoted David White, who had been recruited from Clyde, a part-time club. White, in his mid-30s, is small and boyish, and he is sometimes less than prepossessing in public. But he knows what he is doing, and Rangers had not lost a match since he took over. They went into the New Year meeting two points ahead of Celtic in the league table. The tension generated by the possibility that Rangers were thrusting themselves back on top was tremendous.

The magistrates had switched the fixture from January 1 to January 2 to give the supporters a chance to sober up after bringing in the New Year, but that meant playing on a day when the public houses were open instead of on one when they were closed. In addition, the weather was fine though cold, dashing police hopes of a nice discouraging rain. "This could be one of the vicious ones," said a Glasgow journalist, watching whiskey being drunk from five-gill bottles in the hired buses easing along Gallowgate and London Road to Celtic Park. They passed dilapidated tenements, pubs as bare and uninviting as urinals and waste-lots alive with brash, bespattered children who looked like extras engaged for the filming of a Dickens novel. There was a sense that anything might happen, but as it turned out very little did, apart from some weird occurrences concerning John Fallon, Celtic's young reserve goalkeeper.

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