Celtic and Rangers; A Rivalry Moulded by Politics

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.

Paul Gallacher (photo from CelticWiki)

Paul Gallacher (photo from CelticWiki)

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.

Vote No

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.


90 Minute Cynic is a football website covering the important issues in the modern game. We follow European football with a distinct focus on the Scottish & English Premier Leagues. As part of the Hail Hail Media network, we cover Glasgow Celtic on our very popular podcast. We also seek out interesting and funny stories from all corners of the globe, bringing an analytical yet enjoyable spin on football podcasting.

'Celtic and Rangers; A Rivalry Moulded by Politics' have 4 comments

  1. February 11, 2018 @ 5:40 am Jim wood

    I enjoyed the article.
    I think a major cause of the Celtic v Rangers relationship changing was the church of Scotland’s anti-Irish stance as exhibited in pamphlets and discussions in their general assembly.
    I may be wrong on details but sentiments like, ” who will stop this alien Irish menace ” etc are fairly well documented . So much so in fact that the Church of Scotland recently apologised for one such document.
    It is not clear to myself if the influx of Belfast shipyard employees precipitated this behaviour from the church or vice versa but it cannot be ignored in the grand scheme of things.


  2. February 11, 2018 @ 7:38 am Brian

    Lazy article. Don’t give up the day job. Neglecting to mention the toxic anti catholic poison sung at every Ibrox game, the persistent vile use of the term ‘paedophiles’ in reference to Celtic Football Club. To suggest Rangers are anything other than a bigoted institution who you also neglected to mention signed no catholic or black player until the 1980’s is evidence of your own agenda in this one sided price of regurgitated student level essay marked D.


  3. February 11, 2018 @ 9:40 am Neil Dempsey

    An article about politics written by a politics graduate that barely addresses the issue.
    Religion is mentioned but not sectarianism. Why did no Catholics work in shipbuilding in Belfast or Glasgow? Did they just not fancy a well-paid job? Maybe it was for similar reasons that Rangers wouldn’t sign Catholics during much of their history.
    The author only mentions Rule Britannia and God Save the Queen as examples of songs sung at Ibrox. Maybe analysing The Billy Boys wold have been useful. Just who was this Billy, and what were his politics?
    Moving from religion to politics the author only looks at Scottish independence. Why no mention of Israel or Palestine? Did the support express themselves differently over Nelson Mandela or the Falklands/Malvina conflict? The Miner’s Strike? Do a bit of research and tell us of any protests against Pinochet in Chile and the use of football stadia to detain and slaughter. St Pauli are mentioned as are Hansa Rostock. Maybe tell us a bit about some Celtic supporters showing support for St Pauli. Do Rangers supporters ever show Hansa Rostock banners?
    Allegations over the years that Labour councillors have conspired to favour Celtic would easily fit into an article addressing politics in a Celtic/Rangers context. Is Masonic influence, actual or imagined, a political subject? We certainly are no wiser after reading this article.


  4. March 12, 2020 @ 12:32 am Noel McGrath

    Neil.. we’re you on a socialist march in support of jailed miners across Northern England in 1985?..if so.. You were on it with me.


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