Yes, yes, I know. This is supposed to be about your first ever experience of attending a ‘live’ football match. Well, this wasn’t mine but I’m sort of glad about that fact now. If it had been then there is a good chance I might never have become the die-hard football fan that I am today. My only Old Firm experience really was that traumatic, easily the worst experience I’ve ever had following football. This is a story of how NOT to go about experiencing an Old Firm derby game. Every word is utterly true; let it be a warning to the unwary amongst you.
This was far from my first ever time attending a game of football. That was about 12 years prior to this particular occasion, when my father had taken myself and a school friend to the ‘autumnal delights’ of Ballymena United vs. Linfield in 1982.
This was something entirely different, almost a different sport. At the end of this trip, I wasn’t even sure that the word ‘sport’ could justifiably be used in association with Rangers vs. Celtic.
They call it the “Old Firm”. It is famously known worldwide as one of the most ferocious, antagonistic, bitter sporting rivalries in existence. It’s a battle fought between 22 men on a pitch, and sixty-odd thousand off it. A war re-enacted at least four times a season between those who identify themselves as Irish – and overwhelmingly Catholic – and those who are proudly British and almost entirely Protestant.
Growing up within the embattled Unionist community of Northern Ireland during The Troubles, I needed no history lessons as regards the origins of the two Glasgow clubs.
Rangers had been founded within the hard-working, hard-living Govan shipyard area of West Glasgow and came to draw the majority of its followers from the mostly Protestant working-class men of the surrounding River Clyde districts. It was a tough area that would one day become the birthplace of a certain Alex Ferguson who, indeed, grew up a huge fan of the Ibrox club and went on to play for them for a few years in the late 1960s.
A little later, an Irish priest called Brother Walfrid wanted to organise a sports club to give the huge influx of immigrant Irish Catholics in the east end of the city a place to call their own, a place where they could usefully expend what leisure time they had…Glasgow Celtic was born in 1888.
There’s been almost constant enmity between the two clubs ever since, though in reality the presence and rivalry of “themuns” across the city has almost certainly helped to grow the fanbases of both Celtic and Rangers in the many decades since. They would be much poorer without each other, though I’m sure neither would happily admit to that!
Despite growing up having many mates who were ardent followers of Rangers, I’d never really considered myself a Rangers fan, though by the time of this tale I did own a Rangers shirt and scarf. I was only really interested in one team: Manchester United. However, I did keep an eye on Scottish football, which had become truly competitive and almost cosmopolitan for the first time in decades with the success of the aforementioned Ferguson at Aberdeen and his long-serving counterpart Jim McLean at Dundee United in the early 1980s. Along with Hearts, they had finally made a strong (if ultimately short-lived) challenge to the age-old dominance of the Old Firm in Scotland.
However, by the time our tale took place, on New Year’s Day 1994, the domination of the trophies in Scottish football by the Glasgow pair had well and truly been re-established. Rangers were in the midst of a run of nine consecutive Scottish Premier League title wins under their popular boss Walter Smith, equaling a record set by the famous Celtic sides of the late 1960s and early 1970s managed by Jock Stein.
In The Beginning: Getting There
Our tale begins with a school-mate announcing to me in November 1993 that he had got a spare ticket for the Old Firm game at Parkhead on New Year’s Day, if I was interested. Of course I was. Let’s face it, if someone offers you a ticket for one of the biggest games in world football, you’d be a mug not to grab it. Russell was a big Rangers fan, so I didn’t have to ask which end the tickets were for.
So, 31st December 1993 saw myself, Russell, his lovely girlfriend Sharon and her cousin Joe all squeezed into his tiny Citroen AX (Google it, kids), loaded onto the Larne-Stranraer ferry across the Irish Sea, and then headed up the west coast of Scotland to our bed & breakfast in Irvine, Ayrshire (a pertinent location whose significance will come into play later). It was then that the seemingly unending sequence of bad decisions began…
The First (of Many) Bad Decisions
That evening, instead of being sensible and just having a few quiet drinks to see in the New Year, we foolishly went on a Hogmanay pub crawl around Irvine, which didn’t end until well into the early hours of 1994. If I besmirched the lips of any buxom young Scottish girls that evening, I hope they remember the occasion better than I do!
Suffice to say that the picture the next morning was not bright and breezy. This wouldn’t have mattered too much except that we were not anywhere near Glasgow, and so an early rise was necessitated to get into the city. Not only that, but the first big problem that we hadn’t thought about raised its ugly head. There are no forms of public transport available in Scotland on New Year’s Day – or at least there weren’t then – as the drivers have the day off too. Russell stated that under no circumstances was he in any condition to drive. This was really bad news and would become worse news later.
So, a taxi it was, and that proved to be expensive too. Irvine-Glasgow is not a short distance for taxi drivers and this particular one was definitely adding on to our fare for the hassle we had caused him in having to get up early on a public holiday to ferry these Irish idiots into town.
On the journey, Joe regaled us with tales of Old Firm matches he’d been to in the past, including standing with a few Celtic-supporting mates in the Jungle at Parkhead a few years before, smiling sweetly as those around him launched all sorts of ‘Orange bastards’ vitriol at the visiting players. He was quick to add that he most certainly wouldn’t have dared wearing anything blue that day.
Chilly Jocko-land (as Greavsie used to call it!)
The next problem reared its head as soon as we got dropped off in the city centre. It was bloody ‘Baltic’ – a Norn Irish expression meaning really, REALLY cold – and because it was still early on New Year’s Day, the only place open to find any kind of heat or shelter from the biting easterly winds was a betting shop.
The tough-looking chap behind the counter knew fine rightly that we weren’t in his establishment due to some overwhelming desire to cross his palms with silver in order to claim victory in the next race. By this stage of proceedings, I couldn’t have cared less if Shergar had miraculously reappeared from the dead and carried Lester Piggott home in the Derby. I was cold, hungry and beginning to think this trip hadn’t been such a bright idea after all.
We were probably marooned in that bookies for no more than an hour, but it seemed like five to me. We only left its heated sanctuary because raging hunger, having not had any breakfast before grabbing the taxi in Irvine, was by then more of a desperate need than avoiding the freezing chill outside. However, as we stepped out again into the fridge, I was disheartened further to notice that my comrades had at least thought to bring jackets with them. I had a light summer top on over the Rangers shirt, which was about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike against the Glasgow winds. My scarf may as well have been made of papier mache.
Geography? Is That a Subject…?!
Things picked up a little when we came across a café that served bacon butties and ‘chips in a bap’- a culinary delight where the chips replace a burger that would have been in your bap if you’d forked over an extra three pounds. We wolfed it all down and then, feeling sated, the hunt began for an establishment offering pints to wash the bacon remnants from betwixt our teeth.
My pals decided that now would be a good time to reveal the fact that they didn’t know the centre of Glasgow very well. To be more precise, not at all. We would have to tread carefully as we slowly wound our way inevitably eastwards through the almost deserted city streets, since we were nearly all sporting something blue or Rangers-related on Derby Day. Joe wasn’t, but whether that was deliberate or just good fortune on his part, I never did find out. Well, cheers lads, great planning ahead.
A Lucky Break…
After about half an hour of aimlessly wandering in a general easterly direction through the chilly streets – and studiously avoiding any bar that looked distinctly “Irish” or that was painted green – we spotted a small establishment off a side street that looked innocuous. The smart thing would have been to send the ‘colour-less’ Joe in to scout it out first. However, we were anything but clever on this particular day. No, we steamed on in – too late to do a rapid about-face when we realised everyone inside was clad in green and white hoops…
In just about the only favourable thing to happen for us all day, the barman beamed a smile at these four clearly clueless strangers in mostly blue entering his hostel, wished us a ‘Happy New Year’ and asked us what we were having. ‘A bloody coronary, mate’, I thought to myself.
Iceman Joe, quick to gather his wits about him, ordered four pints of Tennents, and we quickly huddled around a table in the only deserted corner of the bar-room. It transpired that we had simply got very lucky not to get ourselves into real bother coming into a Celtic bar, because it was New Year’s Day and the mostly elderly Celtic fans in attendance were in jovial mood as they were extremely confident that we’d be drowning our sorrows later this evening anyway after their beloved Hoops had thrashed our ‘Hun bastards’ for 90 minutes. I’ve never drunk a pint faster in my life.
Hurriedly beating a hasty retreat, we got ourselves back onto a main thoroughfare and tramped resolutely eastwards. As the floodlights at Parkhead came into view eventually, I never thought I’d feel relieved to see an opponent’s ground so much in my life. By now there were quite a few fans streaming along these city streets, mostly in green but a few splashes of blue were evident too, which mystified me slightly – until I caught sight of Strathclyde Police.
The Old Bill…Taking No Prisoners!
Their ranks, very clearly identifiable in their reflective-yellow police vests, started to swell about a mile from the ground, and as we followed the ever-growing number of fellow football fans trudging towards Celtic Park, it seemed at times like there were going to be more police attending the game than fans.
What was also very apparent was their absolute zero tolerance of any kind of aggression or heated banter between blue and green. Far from the taunts, sing-songs and skirmishes I imagined would precede an Old Firm match outside the stadium (and which did sometimes precede other big games I’d been to, such as United vs. Liverpool or Leeds United), the two sets of rival fans pretty much ignored each other as they walked down opposite sides of the road. Whether this was unusual or different from the norm I have no idea, but that’s how it was on that particular day. Perhaps many of the locals were still suffering the after-effects of a heavy night on the booze and simply couldn’t raise themselves to get into any nonsense.
Onto The Terraces
Not really knowing exactly where we were supposed to go at Parkhead for the away end turnstiles, we simply followed other Rangers fans, who clearly knew their way to the Janefield Street entrances. After having our ticket stubs torn off, we made our way up several flights of stairs and out into the stand. We were amongst the early arrivals onto the terraces and made our way to stand directly behind one of the crush barriers dotted seemingly randomly across the Janefield Stand terracing. This was one of the last seasons that Parkhead would retain its terracing before the inevitable effects of the post-Hillsborough Lord Justice Taylor Report would see the introduction of seating in every part of the stadium.
As we stood taking in the swelling atmosphere, it was easy to be impressed by the sheer size of the Jungle home terracing at the far end of the pitch. Before long, it was filled to capacity with a heaving horde of green, white and orange-clad Celtic fans, with banners proclaiming Supporters’ Clubs from places as close as Castlemilk and Drumchapel, as far away as Kilburn (North London) and Whiterock (West Belfast).
Meanwhile, all around us, the away terracing steadily filled with red, white and blue. There were banners, scarves and flags from Renfrew, Ayr, Irvine (ironically), Greenock, Carrickfergus, Dumfries. Oh, and the singing began in earnest too but unlike other big games I’d been to in England, it simply never stopped.
Some songs I knew, some I didn’t, but the fervour and gusto with which they were belted out by every single person within earshot was the most impressive thing I’d ever heard at a game. I’ve no doubt the Celtic fans, who out-numbered the away fans by at least five-to-one, were giving back as good as they got. However, I couldn’t have told you anything they sang in our direction because as we approached kick-off time and the players finished their warm-ups, the noise was simply deafening! I’d never been in an atmosphere like it and I haven’t been since.
Let The Game Begin!
As referee David Syme blew his whistle, and the game began, the noise was absolutely deafening. Celtic came into the game in fine form, having lost only once in their previous 14 fixtures under new manager Lou Macari. They had a few very decent players in the side too, such as Celtic legend Paul McStay, the mercurial John Collins on the left wing, tough tackling Peter Grant in the middle and a 32-year-old “Bonnie Prince Charlie” Nicholas, returned from his ultimately unsuccessful spell with Arsenal. By contrast, Rangers, led by captain Richard Gough, were in the midst of an injury crisis and in relatively poor form… but within a minute that had all been forgotten.
Wow!! What A Start!
With virtually their first move of the game, Rangers’ fiery midfielder Stuart McCall intercepted a poor pass and spotted big Englishman Mark Hateley making a run through the high, static Celtic defence. His exquisite defence-splitting pass played him through one-on-one against Packie Bonner and Hateley kept his cool to fire left-footed into the far bottom corner. All around us utter pandemonium erupted! The big bearded guy beside me, whom I had dubbed “Santa Claus” to the others before kick-off, picked me up and threw me around like a Doberman tossing a chew-toy, while Russell was relocated about five terrace steps down in a surge of bodies from the rear of the stand…absolute chaos.
Minutes later, with Celtic still in a stupor and the multitudes around us dancing jigs of delight, Rangers repeated the trick. Young midfielder Neil Murray was played through this time after some delightful one-touch stuff involving Hateley and Alexei Mikhailitchenko, but when his tame shot was deflected across the box by Bonner’s trailing right leg, big blonde Ukrainian Mikhailitchenko was quickest to react to the loose ball and steered it into the unguarded hosts’ net. 2-0 up inside four minutes! Santa Claus launched me into space this time, the delirium off the scale all around as the Celtic supporters stood silent, dumbfounded.
I’d never been in an atmosphere like it. The blues all around us were belting out ‘Hello! Hello!’, the old controversial Billy Boys song (which sounded weird with their Scottish accents), and for once you knew the Celts were hearing every word because they, in turn, had been stunned into silence.
Moments later, only a great stop from Bonner prevented Hateley making it 3-0 with a bullet header from a corner-kick; Celtic were all over the shop.
The Mood Sours – Things Turn Ugly
Things really kicked-off in the stands after 28 minutes when unlikely hero Mikhailitchenko grabbed his second and Rangers’ third goal of the game. A cross from the left was headed back across the area by Hateley, and when experienced striker Gordon Durie scuffed his attempt at a shot, it fell perfectly for the Ukrainian to bundle left-footed into the corner past Bonner. 3-0 up. Cue utter bedlam!
As coins, bottles and (bizarrely) Mars bars began raining down on the Celtic directors’ box from some of the disgruntled home supporters, on the near touchline it was very much a case of The Raising of Lazarus, part II. A Celtic fan who had apparently been getting stretchered from the ground for some reason – and was therefore inside the security cordon – ‘miraculously’ recovered, leapt up off the stretcher and charged across the pitch in the direction of Rangers keeper Ally Maxwell, clearly intent on gaining some retribution for what was happening to his team.
Maxwell, for his part, was totally oblivious to the sudden danger he was in, since the noise coming from the delirious fans in the away end behind him was cascading down onto the pitch like an aural waterfall and he simply couldn’t hear the warnings being bellowed at him by many of us in the stands. Luckily, Gough and big John Brown did notice the intruder, who had left the chasing stewards in his wake, and as he approached the clueless Maxwell and aimed a punch at him, Brown grabbed him and held him until the stewards could take over.
In the visitors’ stands, some of the crowd were baying for blood, desperate to get onto the pitch to give this interloper the hiding of a lifetime…it was like a scene from the film ‘Gladiator’, absolutely feral. I had no doubt they would’ve killed him if they could have got their hands on him.
Maxwell proved his worth with a good save from a Pat McGinlay header moments later, and then the excellent Trevor Steven put a good cross over that Bonner did well to hold under pressure from Hateley.
As the game fizzled out a little going into the break, the party mood all around us was beyond anything I’d experienced before. Endless songs, scarves being twirled, ‘bouncies’ sending people up or down several flights of terracing without their feet ever getting near the ground once…it was bonkers!
Clearly not even the most ridiculously optimistic Rangers fan could have dreamed of seeing the team 3-0 ahead by half-time, especially at Parkhead, and so the mood all around us was jubilant as the players trudged off towards the dressing-rooms.
The Celts Respond…
I don’t know what Macari said at the interval but it didn’t take long for Celtic to show some fight in the second half. Within three minutes Rangers conceded a needless free-kick for a foul on McGinlay and when the subsequent kick was played short to John Collins, he took it onto his left foot superbly and fired from the edge of the area past Maxwell into the net off the keeper’s left-hand post.
The home fans erupted into a wall of noise, and all of a sudden we could hear their songs. It was as impressive as you’d imagine 50,000 people all singing the same song to be. Urged on by a suddenly revitalised fanbase, Celtic took control of possession for a spell, but Rangers, with Hateley and Durie as twin targets up front, always looked dangerous on the counter-attack.
Then Charlie Nicholas hit the crossbar with a pile-driver, which had it gone in at that stage might have swung the game completely, but as the nervous tension around us built to a crescendo, with plenty of fingernails getting bitten and chewed, the touch paper was lit once again.
Icing On The Cake…
Durie collected a pass from Gary Stevens towards the right side of the Celtic area; his cross was half-cleared by a defender straight to defensive midfielder Oleg Kuznetzov, of all people. The former Soviet player chested it down and hit a fabulous half-volley from 25 yards out to Bonner’s right-hand corner…cue utter carnage all around us!
I was man-handled about ten yards down the terraces, people screaming, roaring, delirium. I’d never heard a noise like it… these people were beyond mere passion!
Celtic did manage to get the final score of the game, a close-range header from a corner bundled home by Charlie Nicholas, but it was scant consolation, and they knew it. When referee Syme blew for full-time, the scenes of unbridled joy all around us were genuine and heartfelt. Across the park, the home crowd couldn’t get away fast enough, apart from the few thousand who stayed behind to direct protests towards the Celtic directors’ box. The natives were very restless indeed.
Left All Alone…
As we filed out into Janefield Street, our total lack of any planning whatsoever in terms of how we intended to get back home to Irvine came rushing up to bite us fully on the backside, and we went from the buzzing high of having seen the team win convincingly to the crushing low of paying the price for idiotic decision-making.
Russell and Joe thought that it would be easy for us to beg a lift back on the Irvine Rangers Supporters’ Club coach. However, as with all the other coaches filling up with jubilant ‘Gers fans and rapidly departing for destinations near and far, the Irvine coach driver steadfastly refused to allow us to come on board. He stated that if he was pulled over by the police, he personally would be fined for overloading the vehicle with us sitting or standing in the gangway. It was the same answer from Ayr; from Girvan; from Kilmarnock. Whether there was any truth in their responses was pretty irrelevant to us – we were going nowhere fast.
Soon, we were stood alone in the cold, darkening, deserted coach parks outside Parkhead, wondering exactly how we were going to get out of the city. There was nothing to do but turn towards the city centre and start to walk back in, hoping to find some means of transport to get us westwards. However, as I stated earlier, none of us had any clue about the geography of Glasgow, and in the days before smartphones there was no Google Maps app to browse either.
By now, cold and hungry, I was feeling very apprehensive. Yes, the gathering darkness was a help to someone dressed in Rangers’ blue in the wrong part of town after the locals had witnessed their team humiliated 4-2 on their own pitch, but I knew if we ran into any trouble it would be big trouble. We were alone and had no idea where we were or where we needed to go. Hailing from Northern Ireland probably wouldn’t do us any favours with the local Celts either…
After walking for what seemed like hours, we didn’t seem to have made any real distance on the bright floodlights of Parkhead behind us. That’s when we realised we’d somehow managed to walk in a giant circle- ‘unhappy’ wouldn’t even come close to describing my feelings at that moment.
Into Deep Shit…
By now it really was dark, not to mention freezing, and so we headed for the nearest bright lights we could see. What we weren’t to know was that the road we were walking down was the Gallowgate, probably the most renowned, feared Celtic haunt in all of Glasgow. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we had somehow been rumbled by several locals as belonging to the hated Hun. Presumably, they had caught sight of the colour of our clothing in the light of a bus stop as we ambled past. We were now clearly being tailed by at least five or six lads some 40 or 50 yards behind us.
If we had wondered why they hadn’t attacked us yet, the answer became apparent as we walked another few hundred or so yards along the street. There, on the opposite side of the road, were at least four or five Celtic bars in a row; The Hoops Bar, The Barrowland Bar, Bar ‘67, all packed so full of fans that they had spilt out onto the pavements outside. We could hear their drunken singing clearly from where we were and had no doubt as to how very ‘welcoming’ they would be to four people in blue. The fact was that we were being shepherded towards them by the lads behind us.
I honestly thought we were goners; I don’t mean hospital, I mean morgue. I’d heard stories of the occasions when clashes between Old Firm fans had got violent, but we were in a much worse situation than that. We were hugely outnumbered, deep in enemy territory, facing locals who would be itching for any kind of retribution they could get against the hated Rangers after the way their team had been humiliated earlier. Plus, we had a beautiful young girl with us; I didn’t want to think about what might happen to her in the hands of people who were drunk, angry and part of a mob seeking vengeance.
There Is A God, Y’know!!
And then there was divine intervention. I’m not kidding either- it had to be a supernatural act. The only car parked on the street between us and these bars was unlit, but a man was sitting in it. By the grace of God, he was an off-duty taxi driver – no word of a lie. We knocked on his window and literally begged him to just drive us a few streets away, or out of the city if he wouldn’t mind. He must have smelled the fear on us because once we assured him we could pay him for it, he agreed to take us all the way back to Irvine. I don’t think I’ve ever been more relieved by anything in my life.
We loaded into the car as fast as we could, and he just got pulled away before the first of the chasing Celtic mob, who had started to run down towards us when they realised what was happening, could land a kick on the taxi door. As we journeyed through the city streets, ever westward, I said a silent prayer and vowed never to do anything so foolish ever again; we’d had the escape of a lifetime.
If You’re Gonna Do It, Do It Right!
Back in Irvine, we spent the evening in a Chinese restaurant and then a quiet bar, having the kind of relaxed, pleasant evening we should have had the night before. I was quietly determined that the next time I ever came back to Scotland for a game, I would be damned sure to do my own planning ahead of time – and perhaps travel with different companions.
The Old Firm is, without doubt, the most passionate, intoxicating, insane football fixture I have ever had the pleasure of attending, and that particular game was one of the craziest in recent memory, with lots of action both on and off the pitch. If you’re going to travel up to view one of them, be well advised: go with someone who knows what they’re doing, and more importantly where they’re going and what not to wear in the wrong places.
I’d strongly recommend that every football fan in the British Isles attend at least one Old Firm game in their lifetime. It doesn’t matter which side you lend your allegiance to for a day, the experience will be something you look back on and think: “Those Glasgow people are bloody nutters, but they know how to get behind their team…”
This was, very much, how not to do an Old Firm Derby! It was the experience of a lifetime…but next time I’ll make my own arrangements, thanks…
1st January, 1994; Parkhead, Glasgow.
Referee: David Syme.
Celtic (0) 2 Rangers (3) 4
Celtic: (3-1-4-2) Bonner; Gillespie, Boyd, Wdwoczyk (Biggins); Grant; Byrne, McGinlay, McStay (c), Collins; Nicholas, O’Neil (McNally).
Manager: Lou Macari.
Rangers: (4-4-2) Maxwell; Pressley, Gough (c), Brown, Stevens; Steven, Murray (Kuznetzov), McCall, Mikhailitchenko; Durie (Huistra), Hateley.
Manager: Walter Smith.
Celtic: Collins (47), Nicholas (82).
Rangers: Hateley (2), Mikhailitchenko (5, 28), Kuznetzov (76).