Continuing the nostalgic look back at footie of yesteryear and expanding slightly on the ‘first game’ angle, let me tell you the tale of my first Celtic versus Rangers game.
Some decry Auld Firm games as low quality, north of the border footie, but for this fan, it’s a fixture that should be on everyone’s bucket list of games to take in.
Whilst you go to any game wanting to be entertained and watch quality players perform, part of the ‘fun’ of the Auld Firm is the intense rivalry between the two sets of supporters.
These days – my most recent AF game was the 1-0 win for Celtic the season that saw Rangers relegated six years ago – the atmosphere is positively sanitised in comparison to forty years ago when I first went.
Gone are the abhorrent and cringe-worthy sectarian chants and songs, the absolute vitriol that spewed from every pore of every fan, whether green or blue, and the underlying atmosphere of potential physical violence.
So here’s my memory of a trip to Glasgow for the Scottish FA Cup Final on May 7th, 1977 – all of what follows is true.
The trip had been a week in the planning, as together with five mates – Billy, Johnny K, Johnny M, Reggie and Adge – we borrowed a transit van, arranged for an old settee and a load of cushions to go in the back and where we’d meet up.
Billy – the brickie – was sorting match tickets through a couple of his building site mates in Glasgow, and we all chipped in for fuel, food and the inevitable skinful of beer.
I didn’t drive at the time, and neither did Reggie or Adge – what was his real name? – so that onerous responsibility fell to Billy and the two Johns’ to argue about.
Leaving Manchester around 8am, Billy at the steering wheel, we headed north with the first of the copious amounts of canned lager being opened well before we passed Preston – it was going to be a long, long day.
The van purred along nicely, Johnny K – a mechanic – having given it the once over the day before at the garage where he and I worked, and we called in for breakfast at an overcast Lockerbie just before opening time. Bacon and egg sandwiches followed by a couple of quick pints of Tennents and we hit the A74 for Glasgow with rain falling.
Billy had arranged to meet his bricklaying mates – Hughie and Willie – in a pub called The Anvil, right outside the walls of Barlinnie Prison in Riddrie. Back then Riddrie was, probably still is, a tough area of Glasgow and the pub perfectly matched that description.
Small tables and chairs firmly attached to or set into the concrete floor, unpadded seating, well it might have been padded once upon a time, but precious little was left and an early afternoon clientele who needed just one earful of Sassenach twang to sneer and turn the other way.
A large, buxom and fearsome looking ‘lady’ served us the six pints of politely requested Tennents and positively grimaced when we asked for some Scotch pies.
Hughie and Willie arrived a few minutes later to inform us their Dad had our game tickets, but he was in another pub, The Stepps about a five minute drive away.
We downed the lager and throwing a cheery, “we’ll be back for the pies after the game missus,” in the general direction of the now snarling landlady, and piled into the Transit and drove to The Stepps.
Aptly named was The Stepps as it was on a hillside and had three levels with the main entrance on the middle level. Songs, the lyrics of which I knew none boomed from the top and lower levels – evidently one being Celtic fans, the others Rangers – the middle level was a sparsely populated no-mans land, we stayed there.
Hughie and Willie’s Dad was there, already three sheets to the wind, his sons explaining he was just back from three months on a North Sea oil rig and he was rapidly making up for lost time.
He was terrific fun, generous to a fault, handed us six game tickets, how he’d acquired them we neither asked nor cared and he happily bought beer for his sons and all their English mates.
“Aren’t you guys coming to the game?”
“Nae chance son, it’s pissing doon, it’s on the wee box an’ we’ve got sam serious drinkin’ tae do.”
Three or four pints later, we dragged ourselves from the pub, fell into the van and headed off to Hampden for the game.
It was dull, overcast and raining, and the Celtic end was uncovered, we were going to get wet.
Over 70,000 tickets had been sold, but the recorded gate was 54,252 so evidently plenty of others chose ‘tae watch it on the wee box’ and no doubt partake of their own serious drinking.
Entering the stadium was chaotic as there was a very strict ‘no beer or alcohol’ policy and the local constabulary were extremely vigilant in enforcing the rule, dustbins by every turnstile were laden with cans and bottles – a carry-oot bonanza for them to take back to their stations.
To the game itself, it was a rather dull affair as I recall, but the atmosphere was manic. With every tackle, especially the fouls of which there were plenty, the cheers and roars got louder. There was absolutely no quarter being given on the pitch, it was the nearest thing to legalised violence I’d ever seen.
Celtic won, thanks to a hotly, even to this day, disputed penalty for handball after about twenty minutes. The golden boy of Celtic, Kenny Dalglish, declined to take it, Andy Lynch sending the ringing wet green and white hordes into raptures with the first spot kick goal of his career.
The rest of the game, the crunching tackles and fouls, and the sectarian slanging apart, was largely a non-event, but like I said at the outset, Auld Firm games are not necessarily about quality of football.
Celtic lifted the cup, coincidently in the last game Dalglish played before his transfer to Liverpool and the 25th and final trophy for Jock Stein as manager of the Bhoys.
It was the after the game that the true – back in those days – level of hatred and latent violence between the two sets of supporters became manifestly and frighteningly evident.
Exiting the ground to head back to our van, a coachload of Rangers fans whether deliberately or mistakenly came down the road full of Celtic fans. Not one window remained intact as a hail of bricks, bottles and any other object available saw the bus pelted from all four sides – the Rangers fans inside hurling everything back as quickly as they could – it was unbelievable to witness.
A couple of minutes later and Johnny M – a carpenter – says to me, “take a look at the guy behind.”
I slowly turned to see a huge guy, bedecked in green and not the most alluring of sights I assure you.
Green boots, green trousers, Celtic shirt, green and white scarves on both wrists, a green and white bobble hat atop his head and an Irish tricolour flag draped across his shoulders.
The Jolly Green Giant had his arms aloft and was hailing, “we won the cup, we won the cup” and all the while there was blood dripping down the front of his shirt – we knew not whose it was, nor did we care to ask.
We walked on.
Billy, who’d had way more than his fair share of the lager, was in conversation with two guys. Reggie, the token Scot in our party, was looking nervous.
Reggie – a plasterer by trade and mountaineer for fun – had a sixth sense for trouble and he quietly told the rest of us that these two guys were not good news.
Needless to say, Billy loudly announced that we were giving them a lift home, so much to the chagrin of Reggie, they were allowed into the back of the van.
Johnny M was now driving with me in the passengers seat, the rest in the back sprawled across the settee and cushions.
One of the guys, wearing a full-length leather coat, directed us towards Parkhead and then into a small side street not far from the Celtic stadium.
Johnny M and me jumped out to open the back doors to let our passengers out.
They alighted and turned to face us.
The one in the leather coat said, “where are ye guys fram?”
“Ah right, cas I never forget a face.”
Cue gulping from five Mancunians, Billy was too pissed to gulp.
“You see, ye’ve dun me a big favour today and ah dinnae forget favours.”
And with that he opened his coat and there hanging from a loop was a blood-stained machete.
We bade them an extremely hasty farewell and back in the van, we high-tailed it back to Riddrie and the welcoming arms and pies of Mrs Attila the Hun, landlady of The Anvil.
I don’t ever recall six guys drinking three pints each so quickly and when Mrs Attila arrived with a tray full of about thirty pies, we paid for the lot and thanked her gratefully, we weren’t in any fit state or inclined to take her on after what we’d seen in the previous hour or so.
We eventually left, but whoever drove and how we got home remains a mystery to this day, whoever was almost certainly over the limit.
Looking back the day out was a blast, a frightening at times blast, but a day I wouldn’t have missed for anything.
We went many more times, including the sunny afternoon cup final that ended in a full-blown pitch invasion by Rangers fans with police dogs and horses on the pitch and batten charges galore, and a memorable overnight stay and pub crawl on the one occasion we saw a Rangers win.
As earlier, the Auld Firm games or more correctly the crowds are massively sanitised these days by comparison, but if you’ve never been to one, you should. It’s an occasion and for atmosphere, there is no other ‘derby’ game like it in the UK.