More known for his tactical musings and statistical nerdery on Twitter, Politics degree holder Dougie Wright looks at how the political aspects of the rivalry between the two big Glasgow clubs evolved and whether in modern times it has transferred over into other causes and cultural allegiances.
Football and politics are strange bedfellows.
In no other sport does politics have as strong an influence in fan culture as it does in football. Supporting Andy Murray makes you a leftie just as much as following the Green Bay Packers makes you a conservative.
Yet, in football, it’s different. The famous Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry is inherently political: Catalonian separatists against Spanish unionists. From the Spanish heavyweights to far-left St. Pauli against the far-right Hansa Rostock, football is littered with politics at all levels. International meetings have allegedly even sparked wars in the Balkans and Central America.
Glasgow is no different.
A brief history of a fierce rivalry
Celtic’s identity has been built on republican values. When the headmaster of Sacred Heart school in Bridgeton decided to set up a football team in 1888, his initial aim was to raise money for the East End’s needy. Given that the majority of the East End were Catholics of Irish descent, it was natural that they developed an affinity for this new social enterprise.
The 20th century saw the Irish Wars of Independence and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. With star players such as Patsy Gallacher and James McMenamin either Irish or first-generation Irish, and a support gathered from largely Irish Catholic communities, it is no great surprise that the culture around the club evolved with the Irish republican cause.
Across the city, another culture has steadily developed over time.
Rangers were founded in 1872 by a few 14-year-olds from Argyll who wanted to start a football team in Glasgow. Historical accounts show that the club had no political or social leanings in its opening years. Indeed, the team’s early successes won it support from even the Glaswegian Irish community.
In 1899, the nascent club needed a proper home after spending its first 20 years bouncing about grounds in the city. They built a stadium in the Ibrox area of Govan, where they reside to this day.
Govan in the 20th century was synonymous with shipbuilding. So too was Belfast, where shipbuilding had become a predominantly Protestant profession. With nationalist tensions rising in the Emerald Isle, much of Belfast’s Protestant Unionist community moved across the water to Glasgow. Many of them were shipbuilders. Many of them found work in Govan. Many of them started to follow the local football team.
Thus, a rivalry was born.
Changing with the times
In 2018, the war in Ireland is largely over. Pockets of paramilitary activity aside, the Good Friday Agreement and a collapse in church attendances have led to an easing of political and sectarian tensions.
Furthermore, very few Celtic or Rangers fans have a direct link to the Irish conflict.
Yet the divide between the Glasgow giants remains prominent. At Celtic Park, you will nowadays often see a Scottish saltire waving in the stands. At Ibrox, the only saltire you see is emblazoned in red ink with “SFA – corrupt to the core”. Has this rivalry now rumbled on to Scottish independence?
There is not an awful lot of evidence for the Celtic support lending unanimous backing to Scottish independence. The Green Brigade songbook is still geared towards Ireland with “Roll of Honour” and “Broad Black Brimmer” sung on a regular basis. Polling company YouGov found the team’s supporters to be generally left-wing, but with the Scottish independence question splitting traditional left/right politics, it’s difficult to make a case for the typical Celtic supporter being a Scottish nationalist at this point.
On the other side of town, the answer is probably clearer.
“Rule Britannia” is a regular at Ibrox, while the Union Bears ultras end every home game with a rendition of “God Save the Queen”. The same group produced an anti-independence banner in the lead-up to the 2014 referendum.
So far, so unionist.
And yet, an informal online poll on Rangers supporters’ website Gersnet in 2015 found that 30% of the 800 voters intended on voting SNP in the upcoming election, more than any other party. Indeed, Glasgow Southside, home to Ibrox and many Rangers fans, is the constituency of SNP First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. It seems inconceivable that the club’s supporters are as politically aligned as a day out at Ibrox may have you believe.
Where does the rivalry go next?
The Scottish independence movement is not particularly linked to any class, gender or race. Some want independence for perceived financial gain, others don’t want it for social reasons, and vice versa. This makes it harder to really take root in the tribal environment of football.
Furthermore, with globalisation affecting Glasgow as much as anywhere else in the world, it’s just as likely a young boy from an Irish Catholic background will grow up supporting Manchester United as it is that his Scottish Protestant counterpart will follow Celtic because he likes Scott Brown. In 2015, Barcelona sold more shirts in Glasgow than Celtic and Rangers combined. Support for the teams just because of family, political or religious ties simply cannot be taken for granted.
And yet the rivalry is thriving as much as ever. Last season, UEFA ranked Celtic and Rangers as the 8th and 13th most supported clubs in Europe, respectively, in terms of total attendances. These attendances aren’t high out of dumb loyalty, they’re high because of an astronomical passion for these teams.
Born for the greater good, moulded by politics, it will be fascinating to see how the support of these Glaswegian giants evolves with the times.