In normal times, the ferry from Belfast to one of Scotland’s quiet port towns on a Saturday/Sunday morning is, truely, a sight to behold. Walking through the boat, you’ll either be greeted with a sea of red, white and blue or green and white, as Northern Ireland’s Rangers or Celtic loyal begin their weekly pilgrimages to their own, respective, footballing Mecca’s.
Both Rangers and Celtic have fan bases highly entrenched in many facets of culture and sport on the island of Ireland as a whole, especially in Northern Ireland, were donning a shirt of either club is a symbol to all that see it as to which side of the fence you fall on. The Old Firm rivalry is seen as one of the fiercest in world football. Like many big derbies, you’re generally born with your club long decided for you, and the old firm is no different. Whether you’re Protestant or Catholic, British or Irish determines your tribe. I use the word tribe, because supporting either side and embracing their hatred for each other is nothing short of tribalistic, with the pure vitriol and hate expressed by the supporters going hand in hand with the violence that occured in Northern Ireland for some decades and, indeed, motivating/exacerbating the rivalry.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and type up yet another run of the mill, Protestant vs Catholic, green vs blue, let’s give peace a chance bullshit article that is a dime a dozen for any reporter desperate for a story on a slow news day, the sort of article that would take a mere 10 minute Google to research, write up and get decent views for. Lets be frank, the sectarianism and tribal hatred that exists between these two sides is very well documented and the examples are numerous. Look at Paul Gascoigne’s flute celebration, Celtic fans republican chanting/banners, Neil Lennon’s many inexcusable death threats (which included many bullets in the post). This hate will never dissapate, in my opinion, and is, again in my opinion, half the reason most of these fans crossing the Irish sea even show up to games, and no article I write on this topic is ever going to change that or describe it in a way that you, the reader, haven’t previously read or heard before. It’s been done so many times before, that you, the reader, likely already has an opinion, if not a basic understanding, of what this rivalry entails.
No, the point of this article is, well, what’s the point? Why bother going to Celtic Park or Ibrox every weekend to chant about how much you hate -insert sectarian slurr here-, when you can do it in your own back yard? Hundreds, if not thousands, of football fans empty out of Northern Ireland to go to Glasgow and chant about Northern Ireland/Ireland. Why?
It’s not just that it continues to drag the names of both these clubs through the mud whilst also dragging the image of Northern Ireland, and indeed Scotland to foreign viewers, through the same dirt. This continued secterianism at old firm games and beyond comes during a time period where NI attempts to heal and move on from its abhorrently dark days of recent memory. It’s at a far more basic and less important level, in the grand scheme when compared to the troubles, where my point arises; could losing these fans to Scottish football be what’s to blame for the diminishing profile and quality of local football in Northern Ireland? No fans, no money, simple. And where are the local fans? A lot of them are on a coach to Glasgow. Simply look at Northern Ireland matches and the demand for tickets to see the taste and passion for football here, what clubs do these fans support? Again, hop on an early morning ferry on any given weekend to get a decent idea.
I get that many Irish football fans, North and South, support teams located outside of Ireland, or even support a local side and a side based elsewhere, and I must stress, a lot of fans North and South couldn’t care less about the Old Firm clubs. But, not to be heavily critical here, the quality of football on this island as a whole doesn’t quite compare to, say, the English/Scottish top flights, does it? Or even League 2 in England, for that matter. So, if you’re going to Manchester or Liverpool or London or wherever week in week out, fair play to you, if this writing business ever works out I hope to join you.
But herein lies my point, why bother going to Glasgow to support a team that cements your identity in NI? I’m not totally ignorant to how going to watch these teams signifies your identity, read above for evidence of that, but why bother? If you were travelling purely for the quality of the football, you’d be going to support a club in the English Premier League. Yeah okay, you might be going for the same reasons any one goes to watch a team they support, your dad supported them or you just liked their kit when you were a kid etc. But I hazard a guess that this isn’t quite what entices some Rangers and Celtic fans to games. Just look at the derby, it’s clear that these fans want to get one up on each other as it’s seen to be sticking it to the people they demonise the most in their communities at home, pure and simple. A Rangers fan doesn’t look at a Celtic fan and see a football team they hate, they see a Catholic they hate and vice versa. But, ultimately, why not just go to a Linfield game or a Cliftonville game if you’re going to a football match to cement your Republican/Loyalist identity and do the Scottish Fa and Glaswegian police a favour? Scottish football has been, for want of a better phrase, banging it’s head against the wall to try and eradicate the vile sectarianism that blights their leagues, but as long as Northern Irish football fans of both sides empty into Glasgow that’s never going to change.
Forgive me Northern Irish Celtic or Rangers fans if I’m missing the point here (I’m sure you won’t), but seeing as attendance figures in the Northern Irish Premiership are dwindling and the football is, frankly, woeful, would it not be worthwhile to support your local clubs here, instead of going to Scotland to express an identity that thrives on keeping us firmly in the past? Why not move with the times like everyone else and instead make our league and our football better? I’m not going to lie and say that I’m a week-in-week-out NIFL Premiership football attendee, but if there was a semblance of an atmosphere or, even, a crowd, I would be far more likely to go to games. Why not lay down your arms and just embrace the actual football and make these leagues something worth going to, give the regular football fan that travels to the England a reason to stay here? I know this sounds truely like the give ‘peace a chance’ article I previously said I wasn’t going to write and if you do still want to go to a football match and express your sectarian views, by all means, there’s plenty of clubs here in NI that will happily accommodate you if that’s what you’re into. But at least consider giving the other local clubs here more of a chance to develop and grow and even, God forbid, become professional, and go to games here. If not for those reasons, maybe do it to at least stop making the rest of the world that watches the Old Firm games think the worst of Glasgow and Northern Irish/Irish travelling supporters.
If we ever see the day were fans of the Old Firm clubs choose Northern Irish, or Irish, football clubs, then I truely believe that, in time, we’ll develop a league worth sitting up and taking notice of. Whether it’s a good thing or not to invite more of that type of mindset into our local game, remains to be seen.