LIAM MACKEY: High stakes for infirm Old Firm

It’s Old Firm day tomorrow. Or maybe that should be infirm day.

Depending on the outcome of today’s Motherwell v Kilmarnock game, Celtic could win the title at Ibrox for the first time since 1967, but when the full story of the SPL 2011/12 season comes to be written that achievement will be regarded as little more than a footnote to the doom-laden main theme: the catastrophic financial collapse of Rangers, a staggering saga which has seen the club go into administration, slash wages and personnel, be docked 10 points in the league and go up for sale under threat of liquidation.

Needless to say, this dire situation has sparked enormous sympathy from supporters of tomorrow’s visitors, as can be judged by some of the more printable gags doing the rounds.

“Rangers are reporting they are reducing staff from their employment,” goes one, “four referees, eight linesmen and two members of the SFA have been relieved of their duties.”

Or how about: “Breaking News: Rangers have just signed a new TV deal. From next season all of their games are to be shown on the History channel.”

You can’t help thinking Celtic fans should be careful about what they wish for. Celtic’s Chief Executive Peter Lawwell said recently the club “doesn’t need Rangers” to remain financially secure and, when one crunches the numbers, that’s probably true.

With their huge and loyal support, Celtic’s gates are solid and, were Rangers to go under completely, their city rivals could probably take even the ensuing reduction in television revenue more or less in their stride.

But the rest of the SPL would suffer from no longer having one of the big two coming to town, while the impact in terms of the overall standing of Scottish club football – already suffering a decline in standards across the board — would be acute.

And Celtic, unless they’d be happy to become a Scottish Rosenborg, would hardly be immune from that. On top of all that world football would be robbed of arguably its most potent derby. In saying which, I’m fully aware of the paradox at the heart of this most brutally intense of rivalries: the fact the age-old division which fuels so much of the ugliness surrounding an Old Firm game is also, at root, what makes it such a compelling spectacle to the world at large.

Eliminate the history, and it’s just another derby, no more or less intense than Manchester, Liverpool or North London. But, as we know, the Old Firm is about much more than mere bragging rights or one city oneupmanship: it’s also about class, politics, religion and national identity, and the result is the kind of ferociously heady brew which can put the toxic in intoxicate.

It also tends to produce football matches of surpassing drama, less for the beauty of the play, than for the 100 mile per hour intensity with which both sides tend to go about their business, the whole affair played out against one of the most utterly distinctive backdrops in all of sport: full houses of 50,000, separated by flags, battle-hymns, poisonous chants and a massive security operation, and united by a fanatical passion on both sides which, at least for one day, is fuelled as much by hatred as by love. Even the harshest critics of the Old Firm, would have to concede that were it to be surgically removed, top-flight football in Scotland might as well wither and die. Indeed, the nightmare scenario of Rangers going out of existence -or, as new entity, having to reapply for admission to, say, the Third Division – would probably hasten the day when Celtic would move south of the border.

The idea of both Glasgow clubs jumping ship has been mooted before, of course, but England’s Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore has recently ruled it out again, the League having voted against one such proposal as recently as 2009. “Our rules are simple,” said Scudamore. “It says we’re a league formed for clubs that play in England and Wales. I don’t see that ever changing. I don’t see that changing on my watch, not that my watch may last for long. There’s more in it for them than there is for us.”

Maybe so, but in the current economic climate, you have to suspect that more than a few English clubs might not be so quick now to throw out the idea of having even one half of the Old Firm as regular house-filling guests, never mind the increased bonanza in television revenue which would flow from games between Celtic and the likes of Man U and Liverpool amongst others.

Of course, as is often the way of these things, Rangers could yet discover there is life after debt, put this black year behind them and resume something more approximating normal business next season. As for Celtic, much is now expected of Neil Lennon’s startlingly young team, though predictions of years of dominance were rudely undermined last week when the treble went a-begging as Kilmarnock grabbed a shock win in the League Cup final.

Meantime, the wounded giants would like nothing better than to put one over on their bitter rivals tomorrow and, above all, ensure Celtic don’t get to celebrate lifting the title on Rangers’ front lawn. Needless to say, the police have already had a word with both clubs. Even with 21 points between them – leaving Rangers floundering in, er, joint-second — the stakes are always high with these two.



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