All it took was two words. Our taxi driver has just launched into a 15-minute diatribe berating all and sundry, triggered by a simple request. “Ibrox, please.”
It’s bright and early on a Saturday morning, and FourFourTwo is embarking upon a bumper day of Scottish football: Rangers versus Celtic at 12.30pm, then Hibernian versus Hearts at 5.30pm.
There’s no such thing as a quiet, relaxing drive to the stadium on the day of an Old Firm game, though: within seconds of leaving the hotel and climbing into a taxi, our driver has discovered our destination and immediately bombards us with his thoughts on anyone and everyone related to Scottish football.
“Do you know who’s a tosser?” the Rangers-supporting cabbie asks in a broad Glaswegian accent, as he reels off a long list of names, many of them affiliated to Celtic in some way or other, before explaining with great enthusiasm why he dislikes each of them. “I had him in my taxi - the guy’s a nob.”
We cross the River Clyde - Ibrox within view on our right, Celtic Park visible to our left - before he turns his attention to matters further afield. “Got no time for English football: I’d rather watch Raith Rovers than Man United,” he insists, accompanying many remarks with a smile and a glint in his eye. This is just how people discuss football in Glasgow. Everyone in this city has an opinion on it - and it’s a forthright one, too.
“Anyway, I hope you enjoy the game,” he concludes as we pull up at Ibrox. “And I hope Celtic get stuffed!”
We make our way past a line of police horses, positioned outside the ground to keep things in order, and venture into the Main Stand. We’re guests of Sky Sports at Ibrox, and we head down to the tunnel area to meet commentator Ian Crocker, preparing for his latest Old Firm assignment.
“I’ve been doing these games for 20 years now - I’ve done nearly 60 of them,” he tells FFT. “The atmosphere is always fantastic. You just get completely gripped from the first minute to the last - the game goes by so quickly.
“You’ll see today that the noise will be unbelievable, here and in Edinburgh too, for Hibs versus Hearts. You can go to some of the big grounds in the Premier League in England and I find sometimes that fans are almost waiting for something to happen before they make a noise. Rest assured, they’ll be making noise well before kick-off here.”
Crocker is an Englishman himself, originally joining Sky’s Scottish commentary team after covering the Football League south of the border. But that hasn’t allowed him to escape the thorniest issue involved in covering the Old Firm match - there’s rarely been a journalist or commentator who hasn’t been accused of bias in some way or other. Rangers fans accuse the media of being biased towards Celtic, while Celtic supporters insist the media are biased towards Rangers.
“I was brought up in a little village in Dorset called Sutton Poyntz and the Old Firm never came into the equation there - it was all about Weymouth Football Club - so I’m probably the most unbiased person!” Crocker smiles. “I try not to check my Twitter feed after the Old Firm games. It’s already started this morning - people saying ‘How biased are you going to be?’ or ‘You sound more excited when one team scores than when the other one does’. But if you’re getting 50/50 complaints, you must be doing something right.”
Crocker’s co-commentator today is the former Celtic and Scotland striker Andy Walker. “This is the game I grew up on,” he says. “To play for Celtic in it, they were the best days of my life.”
Walker’s old club have been Scottish champions in each of the past seven seasons - a period in which Rangers dropped into the fourth tier because of financial problems. Today, Steven Gerrard’s side are seeking their first Old Firm triumph since returning to the top flight in 2016.
“These games have been strange since Rangers have come back, because they’ve struggled to cope with the experience and power that Celtic have,” Walker says. “With Steven Gerrard there’s been an improvement, but they have to get a victory in an Old Firm match. A title race will only be meaningful if Rangers win today and they can’t have a better chance - practically the whole stadium will be right behind them, bar 700 Celtic fans.”
That’s because season ticket sales went through the roof following Gerrard’s summer appointment, so Rangers controversially decided to cut Celtic’s allocation from the usual 8,000 away tickets to accommodate all of their own fans. Celtic responded by doing the same in the first Old Firm game of the season at Parkhead - a game won 1-0 by the hosts.
“It’s a pity that both clubs have gone down that road,” Walker says. “It’s a much better spectacle when you’ve got the colour and added edge that away supporters bring. But it won’t take away from the pandemonium you’ll still hear when the players enter the field today.”
Sky’s production team have spent the past 48 hours setting up at Ibrox, as they prepare for their biggest day of Scottish football for some time. They currently share the rights to the Scottish Premiership with BT, although they show all Old Firm games exclusively and are also screening tonight’s match between Hibs and Hearts. In 2020 they’ll become sole owner of the league’s rights, on a five-year deal.
“It’s the two best fixtures on the calendar on one day,” explains Luke Shanley, Sky’s pitchside reporter at Ibrox, relishing the fact that the Old Firm and Edinburgh derbies are both taking place on the same day for the first time since 2010 - he’s also been busy this week previewing Hibs vs Hearts for Sky’s SPFL Matters show. “Up until 1998 all the derbies took part on New Year’s Day, it was a tradition in Scotland, so it’s a bit of tradition we’ve got back.”
The welcome that Scott Brown receives at Ibrox has become pretty traditional, too: when the Celtic skipper strides on to the pitch an hour before kick-off, there are only a few people in the Rangers end but one of them shouts, “Brown, you’re a f***ing w*****!”, before giving the midfielder the middle finger. Brown just laughs: at 33 years old, he’s used to it all by now.
An hour later and the noise is rather greater as the teams emerge on to the field for the start of the match, to the tune of Tina Turner’s Simply The Best. Gerrard takes his place by the dugout, giving himself a moment to look around and appreciate the atmosphere, in his first Old Firm match at Ibrox.
Within seconds of kick-off, his gameplan becomes apparent: Gerrard has asked his players to hustle Celtic, to outwork them, to prevent them from playing their normal game. Andy Halliday flies into a challenge on Olivier Ntcham, wins the ball, then stands up and screams at the Frenchman. The message is loud and clear: Rangers are up for it. Their fans roar with approval.
Every decision is contested by both sides - in fact at one point, Gerrard is so incensed by a decision that he takes the drastic step of complaining to his local MP mid-match. Fortunately, that MP is so local that he’s literally stood two yards away - the linesman on that side of the pitch is Douglas Ross, who’s also a Conservative Member of Parliament.
With Celtic unable to get into their normal rhythm, Rangers take the lead on the half hour mark when Ryan Kent - signed on loan from Liverpool thanks to Gerrard’s connections - sets up Ryan Jack to fire a deflected effort past Craig Gordon. The goalscorer races the length of the field to celebrate, as Avicii’s Levels pumps out from the stadium speakers.
As the game goes on, Rangers’ work rate never relents as they hurry and hassle their rivals, never giving them a moment’s peace - all while their fans bounce up and down in joy, and perform the Icelandic thunderclap at regular intervals.
Gordon has to make fine saves to prevent the hosts from adding a second, before an altercation sees Colombian forward Alfredo Morelos taunt Brown with wild gesticulations, to huge roars from the near-50,000 crowd. The 700 Celtic fans in one corner of the ground can barely be heard, so few is their number, and so little do they have to get excited about.
There’s jubilation around Ibrox at the final whistle: it’s Rangers' first league win over Celtic since 2012. Players race to all corners of the stadium to celebrate, before Gerrard marches into the centre of the pitch, claps the fans then gives it the double fist pump. “This is the turning point,” we hear one Rangers fan shout. Could this be an important moment in the Glasgow balance of power? Only time will tell. Celtic remain top of the table with a game in hand.
Glasgow to Edinburgh
There’s no time to waste: Hibernian versus Hearts kicks off in three hours, so we quickly make our way out of Ibrox, somehow picking our way through the swirling mass of people outside, all darting off in different directions to begin their afternoon of celebrations. One can be heard simply screaming down the phone at his mate, so happy is he to have finally witnessed a Rangers Old Firm victory.
We make the 45-minute walk back across the Clyde to Glasgow’s Queen Street station, taking the next train to Edinburgh, joined by a number of Rangers fans making their journeys home. Dark begins to fall as the train traverses the countryside eastwards, passing the floodlit home of Falkirk, who are busy playing out a dispiriting 4-2 home defeat to Dunfermline, in a 3pm Championship fixture.
As we discuss the Old Firm game we’ve just seen, even the train attendant wants to join in the conversation. “It’s about time,” she says of the result, revealing that she’s currently a very happy Rangers fan. It’s hard to find anyone in Scotland today who doesn’t care about football.
Soon we’re stepping off the train in Edinburgh, dodging the tourists making their way up to the castle. It’s a city with a gentler feel than Glasgow, but kick-off is less than an hour away now, and fans are around in numbers.
We take a quick ride in a taxi. “There’s only one team going to win today - Hibs!” the driver declares with a smile, as we get out near the stadium. Closer to Easter Road, where the dark terraced streets are lined with a plethora of takeaway shops, there’s a little more edge to the atmosphere.
Police horses begin to run down the street, before a fan takes exception to a police van turning unexpectedly. “Use your indicator!” he complains. “Shut up!” the police officer shouts back.
There’s a man urinating against a wall a few yards from the stadium, before a chant of ‘You Hearts bastards!” goes up as a group of away fans dare to wander past a much larger group of Hibernian supporters. It’s sung with a smile, but we’ve only just arrived, and the rivalry is immediately clear.
No friends tonight
While neither club have won the league for more than 50 years, they’ve vied for supremacy in Edinburgh for decades. The two teams met in the 2012 Scottish Cup Final, when Hibs were seeking their first triumph in the competition for 110 years. Hearts won 5-1, and revelled in their rivals’ misery. Both have suffered relegation and then promotion in recent years, while Neil Lennon’s arrival as Hibs boss has stoked things up a little too: he was already unpopular with Hearts fans from his days as boss of Celtic.
In the previous Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle on October 31 - a game in which Hearts keeper Zdenek Zlamal was allegedly struck by a Hibs fan - Lennon turned to the home crowd to celebrate their late disallowed goal, then fell to earth as he was hit by a coin thrown by a supporter.
“You saw with the last game on Halloween, this is a feisty game,” explains fan Keiran Brydon. “It’s got more intense over the last few years - apart from Rangers and Celtic, I wouldn’t say there’s a bigger derby. This is the capital.”
Will he be hoping for some bragging rights over his friends if Hibs win this game? “They’re acquaintances…” he says with a smile - Hearts supporters aren’t friends tonight.
This isn’t a rivalry split along religious lines in quite the same way as the Old Firm derby. “Hibs’ background is Irish, but it’s not as obviously sectarian here,” says Alan Pattullo, covering the game for Edinburgh-based newspaper The Scotsman. “It’s a great atmosphere, though.”
That’s helped by the fact that, unlike the Old Firm match, at Easter Road the visiting supporters are still allocated the entire away end - 4,000 tickets in a 20,000 capacity stadium. The Hearts fans are in good voice well before kick-off, with an ultras section bouncing up and down.
Hibs supporters unveil a tifo as the teams emerge from the tunnel - the home end is turned green and white, accompanied by a banner saying ‘There’s class, there’s first class and then there’s Hibs class’.
The game is end to end from the start, if a little lacking in quality at times, with both teams mid-table going into the derby. Hearts are attacking well down the right thanks to brilliantly-named wing back Marcus Godinho - his surname presumably originating from that weird phase the Almighty ruler of the universe went through, when he decided he wanted to sound a bit more Brazilian.
The volume is loud as both sets of fans attempt to outsing each other, and Hibs supporters cheer loudly when Efe Ambrose nutmegs Olly Lee. The former Luton midfielder gets his own back minutes later, though - brilliantly smashing a 25-yard shot past on-loan Liverpool keeper Adam Bogdan and into the top corner, to put Hearts 1-0 up. It was the sort of long-range effort that his dad Rob became known for during his days at Newcastle.
Away fans leap about in joy, setting off red flares and throwing one onto the field, briefly holding up the match as police move in to prevent any Hearts supporters encroaching pitchside.
Hibs hit the bar through Oli Shaw’s long-range effort early in the second half but they create few clear cut chances, and Hearts supporters grow ever more confident - so confident that they start to sing an adapted version of Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom! by the Vengaboys. Who knew that Dutch Eurodance was so popular in Edinburgh?
Hibs respond by bringing on David Gray, but the hosts’ hopes sail away when Steven Whittaker’s 25-yard shot improbably hits the inside of one post and goes just wide of the other post, after the merest of fingertip saves from Colin Doyle.
Hibs fans groan in horror, Hearts fans cheer in relief. They’re home and dry, and the 4,000 visiting supporters reach full song at the final whistle, celebrating with the victorious players, before chanting at the top of their voices for another five minutes. They’re in no rush to leave.
Freya Ridings’ Lost Without You is the melancholy choice of tune for the home club over the PA system as Hibs fans trudge out of the stadium - it’s sad songs for the rest of the weekend for the beaten side. “When that shot hit the post I thought, ‘Bloody hell, it might not be our night’,” Neil Lennon says ruefully afterwards.
There are unwanted headlines for the club after the game, too: a Hibernian supporter is arrested after cameras showed him allegedly shouting racial abuse at Hearts’ Congolese defender Clevid Dikamona.
The incident doesn’t dampen the mood for the visiting club, though - it’s their first win at Easter Road since 2014, and boss Craig Levein can’t resist a little dig at the hosts’ pre-match tifo. “I’m thrilled to bits with the boys,” Levein says. “We reached a new level today - because there’s class, there’s first class, there’s Hibs class, and then one above that, there’s Hearts class.”
Such is the rivalry, we suspect it’s a quote that will be remembered on both sides of the divide. Few matches are remembered more vividly than derbies, and in Glasgow and Edinburgh they are as crucial as they’ve ever been. Scottish football has faced challenges over the years, but its passion is undiminished.
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