One of football’s most explosive rivalries heats up again this weekend. And I’m not talking about the Manchester Derby.
The Old Firm rivalry, the century-plus old enmity between Glasgow giants Celtic and Rangers has deep roots in Scottish history and culture. Plenty of fans will tell you their local derbies aren’t just about football, but Celtic and Rangers fans tend to understate it. Whole books have been written dissecting the Old Firm derby as a reflection of Scotland’s political and sectarian divisions. Every game puts the city’s police and first responders on high alert. Arrests and hospitalizations are common. People die at a non-trivial rate.
I’m pointing all this out so that when I say ”this game was an absolute horrorshow,” you’ll know I’m not kidding.
This week we look back on the meeting between Celtic and Rangers in October, 1987, the game where the Old Firm nearly died of shame.
Before we start, you should really watch this short documentary on the Old Firm to get at least a passing sense of how intense the rivalry can get.
The match at Ibrox that fall day, while obviously a derby, didn’t betray any early indications that things would be unusually tense. But from the start it became clear something was different.
In the 17th minute, Celtic striker Frank McAvennie crashed into Rangers keeper Chris Woods. The two started trading punches and at one point Woods got his hand around McAvennie’s throat. Two of Woods’ teammates, including England captain Terry Butcher, got in on the act and started punching and choking their opponent. The referee finally managed to get things under control and showed red cards to Woods and McAvennie, putting both sides down a man for the rest of the game. Butcher also saw yellow for his troubles.
That wasn’t enough to keep the England international in line, however. Just after the hour mark, Butcher fouled Celtic goalkeeper Allen McKnight and was sent off.
The game ended 2-2, but the result was rather beside the point. Celtic finished with 10 men, Rangers with 9. Sixty-two supporters were arrested in and around the stadium. After the game, four players— McAvennie, Woods, Butcher, and another fellow England international Graham Roberts— later faced criminal charges for “conduct likely to provoke a breach of the peace.” They all attended their trial in April the following year. Woods was ultimately fined £500 while Butcher had to pay £250. McAvvenie and Roberts had their charges dismissed.
Jim Reynolds, a sportswriter for The Herald, was nearly incandescent with rage following the game.
”I know there are those who stupidly believe that this kind of ‘red blooded’ behaviour brings an extra thrill to the proceedings. It is downright hooliganism, which, but for the admirable restraint shown by the fans, could have led to something much more serious. I wonder if these players, especially those who have come from England, fully understand the powder-keg situation they are in every time they take part in an Old Firm game. If not, then it is time for someone with a sense of responsibility to spell it out in full. Saturday will go down as the day the Old Firm clashes almost died of shame.”
This weekend Celtic and Rangers meet again in the league for the first time in several years, as Rangers concludes its long climb back from insolvency and fourth division football. Glasgow has had nearly four years of relative peace and quiet, a truce that will surely be broken into a million little pieces on Saturday. No one knows exactly how this is going to go, but one thing is nearly certain— the football itself will likely be somewhat beside the point.