Best of enemies return to centre stage in new Scotland
Celtic's dominance has mushroomed in the absence of Rangers, says Peter Geoghegan
In July 2012, Rangers were on the brink of extinction. The club was bankrupt and in liquidation. Scottish football mandarins warned that Rangers' demise would spell doom for the game. SFA chief executive Stewart Regan predicted "social unrest" and even "armageddon".
The doomsday scenario did not come to pass. Two and a half years on, Scottish football is still alive and kicking. This afternoon the Old Firm will meet for the first time since Rangers went bust, in a league cup semi-final. More than 60,000 fans will transform Hampden into a raucous sea of green and orange. Millions around the world will watch on television. But the absence of the Old Firm has been felt - on the pitch and across Scottish society, too.
Rangers, still perched on a financial precipice, are struggling to make their way back up the Scottish football pyramid. Ronnie Delia's new-look Celtic side have stuttered. That Celtic still find themselves three points clear of Aberdeen says more about the standard of Scottish football than the Hoops' quality.
Average attendances at Celtic Park are down from more than 50,000 in 2011/'12 to just over 43,000 this season. Empty seats have been a common feature. The implication is clear: the club is suffering without regular meetings with their oldest, and fiercest, rival.
"Celtic will tell you on the record that they don't need Rangers. And in a sense they don't need Rangers. Celtic is a well-run club but they want more money and the only way to get more money is through television revenue. The only way to have a product that television companies will pay more money is with Rangers in the league," says Irish-born BBC Scotland journalist Tom English.
Without Rangers, Celtic lack competition, too. A point borne out by their domestic dominance. "Even if they didn't invest a penny for the next three years, Celtic would win the league every year." says English.
Of course, today's game is no ordinary clash. The Old Firm - the aggression, the tribal animosity, the violence - is almost unique in football. Where other rivalries have been tamed by the advent of all-seater stadiums and rolling sports news, Celtic versus Rangers remains a raw clash of culture and identity.
"It is the bearded lady of football. There is a fascination. Sunday will look and sound and feel like every other Old Firm game. For good and for ill," says English.
Not all Celtic fans agree. For some the Old Firm died when Rangers were liquidated, along with millions in outstanding debts. Today's game, for them, is not the 400th meeting of Scotland's two most successful club sides, but the first game between Celtic and what they call "Sevco".
Former Celtic View columnist Willy Maley has little truck with the idea that Rangers is a new club. "I've got my ticket and my ticket says Celtic vs Rangers. If it's the Artist formerly Known as Prince then it's still Prince. Sometimes you have to accept things even if you don't like them," he says.
Some Celtic fans have lost interest, Maley says, but not because of Rangers' travails. "I've not missed (the Old Firm) at all. There has been a drift away from the ground. One of the reasons is economic, another is the different forms of entertainment that are available and the poor fare being served up on the pitch."
Nevertheless, today's game has been hotly anticipated ever since Rangers were demoted all the way back to the bottom rung of Scottish football two and a half years ago.
For many fans, out of sight has not meant out of mind. In the absence of live action, social media has kept Old Firm tensions simmering.
"A lot of things you saw on the pitch have exploded onto cyberspace and given the more obsessional elements an opportunity to voice 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says David Scott, campaign director at anti-sectarian charity Nil By Mouth.
Old Firm games have a reputation for violence, both inside and outside the ground. "There is a link between the game and social unrest, What is the ingredient underneath? It's religion, it's them and us, its sectarianism," says Scott.
Around 600 arrests related to sectarianism are made in Scotland each year, with about a third related to football. In 2012, in the wake of letter bombs sent to then Celtic manager Neil Lennon, the Scottish government introduced draconian legislation effectively criminalising football songs deemed 'offensive'.
While Celtic and Rangers fans have united against the Offensive Behaviour at Football act, the issue has received limited attention in the rest of Scottish society. Outside the Old Firm, many would prefer to see Celtic and Rangers, and their atavistic shows of identity, disappear completely. Last year's vote on independence was lost but Scotland increasingly sees itself as a more open, forward-looking society.
Some have asked whether there is room for the Old Firm in this 'new Scotland'. But reports of the death of the most famous fixture in British football are premature, says Raymond Boyle, a Glasgow academic.
"The reality is Celtic and Rangers have an ability to reflect and echo back supposedly old identities at the same time metamorphosing to reflect changes. The clubs always manage to reinvent themselves." Celtic v Rangers
BBC 1 Scotland, 1.30
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