Celtic glee at Rangers' plight shows the Old Firm need each other
It was party time in the away end at Easter Road yesterday but the demise of one Glasgow giant would also spell disaster for the other
Monday 20 February 2012
Rivalry can lead to eccentric behaviour. On one of the early afternoon trains from Glasgow to Edinburgh yesterday, a passenger walked up the carriage holding an opened box of ice cream with jelly cubes scattered on top. It ought to have been an unnerving sight as he offered passengers mouthfuls from a plastic fork, but most understood the gesture. As Rangers have lurched into administration, Celtic fans have explored every means to express their glee.
"Jelly and ice cream while Rangers die," has become a recurring chant. The triumphalism is to be expected and party hats were passed out on the walk towards Easter Road. The relationship between the two sets of Old Firm supporters is endlessly antagonistic and Celtic fans are unrestrained in their willingness to revel in the plight of their old foes. It is a basic reaction but Celtic's response to Rangers' problems is a complex business.
There is an element of revenge to the euphoria, since Celtic found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy in the mid-1990s. At the time, Rangers were winning nine successive league titles, equalling Celtic's record, but also at their most haughty. Sir David Murray, their owner, taunted Celtic by claiming that his club would always spend double in the transfer market.
Vanity was second nature to Murray, and his financial management of the club during the last decade contributed directly to the current woes, along with the use of Employee Benefit Trusts, which Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs has begun to clamp down on. Rangers may yet face a significant tax bill, once the legal arguments have been resolved, and this potential liability, in conjunction with the club's debts, deterred buyers.
Such a volatile mix allowed Craig Whyte, a man with a vague business background, to take over last May, and he exploited Rangers' situation. The club has not paid PAYE tax since last May, generating a £9m bill that led to the administrators being appointed last week.
This financial mess is in stark contrast to the prudence at Celtic Park. Peter Lawwell, the chief executive, has occasionally been chided by Celtic fans for not spending more freely, but their rivals' problems are a justification. No accusations of frugality are heard now.
Both Lawwell and Neil Lennon, the manager, have spoken about Celtic's financial strength, stressing that they can thrive without Rangers. Two men so steeped in the club's background might have found the opportunity to highlight the Ibrox side's difficulties too tempting. There was more than a hint of disingenuousness, though.
The two clubs owe their very size and rich history to the Old Firm rivalry. The teams fed off it, financially, emotionally and competitively. If Rangers were to go out of business, Celtic would inevitably have to downsize. No other club could challenge them in the Scottish Premier League, so there would be no competitive tension. Crowds would fall, budgets would decrease and something unique would be lost.
Events at Easter Road yesterday were an illustration. Celtic swept aside a Hibernian team who were no match for them in a contemptuous 5-0 win. There was no drama, because each goal arrived so simply, and when the fourth was scored in the 51st minute, Hibs supporters began to stream out. The away fans spent the whole match taunting Rangers, which in itself was a reflection of why the rivalry is vital. Who else would they rail against?
Celtic and Rangers do not play each other every week but they are always competing against each other. It is this eternal contest that drives the two clubs on, even if it also generates a dark intolerance. Rangers fans filled Ibrox to capacity on Saturday and were initially rousing in their support.
The occasion was to be a show of devotion to their team, to the purpose of reviving the club, but there were also sectarian songs. Defiance ended up being futile, as they lost 1-0 to Kilmarnock and only further intensified the despair around the club.
The religious nature of the Old Firm rivalry is a cause of distress. Rangers fans had abandoned the old anti-Catholic sentiments, so their return was only damaging to the cause. Celtic supporters are also capable of causing offence and many of their chants at Easter Road referred to Rangers fans as "Huns", a term that is derogatory and designed to be particularly insulting, although not sectarian. The issues are knotty when two sets of fans are so implacably opposed to each other.
They are united only in the disdain they provoke in other clubs. The rest of Scottish football tends to resent the Old Firm, since the two Glasgow teams monopolise attention. Hibs fans displayed a banner that read: "One Down, One To Go."
Yet the game in Scotland relies on the presence of Rangers and Celtic for its broadcast, commercial and sponsorship income, while the vast away supports provide crucial ticket revenue.
The Old Firm dominate, which others begrudge. Some SPL chairmen privately complain that they would expect to be treated more severely by HMRC had they not been paying PAYE for nine months in the same way as Rangers.
The Ibrox club's predicament is alarming for their own fans but it also reveals contradictions in the relationship with Celtic and the rest of Scottish football.
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