Book Review: The Old Firm: Sectarianism, Sport and Society in Scotland

Posted by on Apr 24, 2015 in Book Review | One Comment
Book Review: The Old Firm: Sectarianism, Sport and Society in Scotland
Image available under Creative Commons (c) Scott Edmunds

The Old Firm by Bill Murray
Published by John Donald

On being asked once about the musical tastes of the Glasgow Rangers squad, Ally McCoist remarked that while he favoured the beat combos of the 1960s, most of his team mates favoured songs from the 1690s. Therein lies the rub of the bitterest rivalry British – and possibly world – football has ever known – an endless cause of claim and counter claim, accusations of bias and people failing to keep their heads.

I was inspired to seek out Bill Murray’s Old Firm to seek out further background to Stephen O’Donnell’s two novels Paradise Road (reviewed on these pages recently) and Scotball. O’Donnell’s impressive literary debut is a fine stab at the elusive attempt to write good football fiction but is very much a view from Celtic eyes – passages in both books piqued my interest in order to investigate the establishment bias that O’Donnell and others allege while I wanted to get to the bottom of a phenomenon with very deep roots. Watching the excellent Ulster set movie, ’71 also prepared me for an analysis of Catholic-Protestant antipathy in the various parts of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Two key questions would be how so far football has prevented the far more serious violence we have witnessed in Ireland from taking a grip in Scotland. Has allowing the two communities to vent their spleen four times a season prevented far nastier events on the streets and schemes of Glasgow? Also, is there any evidence of collusion on the part of the Celtic and Rangers hierarchy? After all, the initial label of The Old Firm dates back to the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when relations were, for the most part, cordial. Though never bosom buddies, it was clear to both Celtic and Rangers owners and directors that playing up the differences between the two clubs was a sure fire route to making a lot of money. The chapter, ‘The Business Basis of the Old Firm’ clearly outlines this although the former question remains largely unanswered.

The version of the book I read was the first edition which appeared in 1984 (a subsequent update appeared replete with Gazza’s misguided piping incident) on the cover) and predates many significant events such as the arrival of Graeme Souness, the signing by Rangers of Maurice Johnston and more recent anti-sectarian legislation. Indeed, it is the contention of Celtic fans that the Irish folk songs of which they are fond are of a less venal nature than the more extreme invocations of the Rangers support. Murray, exiled to Australia, is careful to strike a balance but does in part acknowledge this. More significantly, he does point out that Celtic have been fielding protestant players for their entire history (legendary manager Jock Stein was famously a protestant and Kenny Dalglish and Danny McGrain were Rangers fans as youngsters) while it wasn’t until Johnston’s signing that Rangers knowingly did so.

The book is especially strong on the early years of the two clubs and in fact serves very well as a history of society in the west of Scotland in general. Some of Glasgow’s more notorious characteristics including the knife crime of the interwar years, poverty in areas such as the Gorbals and Orange marches are well described and it is shown how each aspect related to football. A shocking incidence of hooliganism at the 1980 Scottish Cup Final was perhaps a watershed moment although the ambiguous attitude of fringe minorities to the death of Celtic keeper John Thomson after colliding with an opposing forward in 1931 and the Ibrox disaster of 1971 also provide for grim reading.

Of course in a book that purports to be about religion, faith is almost completely absent. For this is a rivalry founded on tribalism, economics and other tensions between two communities who saw themselves as indelibly opposed. Many strides have been made to right these wrongs in recent times and one hopes that Rangers’ current cooling off period may help matters but as a neutral, one is left to wonder why any right thinking individual in Glasgow would do anything else apart from support Partick Thistle.


Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 50 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

1 Comment

  1. Andy Clark
    April 24, 2015

    Sounds like a fantastic book, not for everyone of course but I enjoy things like this.


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