Belfast Telegraph

The Old Firm: if you know your history then you will realise that it means more to people than a game of football

You can't complain when your team's beaten by the better side... as much as you'd like to, says Eamonn McCann

The salt in the wound of Celtic fans on Sunday was that not only did Rangers prevail in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden, it would have been a travesty if the result had gone any other way. Although the Light Blues' victory came via the penalty shootout route, they had been the better side over 120 minutes.

Coming away cursing from a game you've lost on account of a referee who should have been wearing the other side's jersey is an essential element in the full football experience. It confirms that there's a cruel world conspiring against your team, endlessly alert for opportunities to trip you up.

By the same token victory - when it comes - is all the more glorious for having been accomplished against rigged odds and evil machinations.

There is no more sour experience than having to concede that the reason you were hammered is that the other side played better. To be deprived not only of bragging rights, but of the right to be resentful.

Then again, there was already a clamour under way for Celtic manager Ronny Deila (below) to be given the heave-ho.

That's another way football people can console themselves: dwell on the fact that you had seen this coming months ago and if only the dunderheads on the board had listened this demoralising episode need never have happened.

By such means do the vanquished find vindication.

One Saturday afternoon long, long ago, myself and Dermie were slouching despondently out of the Brandywell after the City had been beaten by Distillery or some other equally embarrassing outfit when we came across a member of the board. "Well," Dermie greeted him. "I hope you're satisfied now."

We may have lost the match, but Dermie had extracted a bit of grim satisfaction from the debacle.

Or you can retreat into reverie about greater days gone by, the way a Ukipper might sigh for Amritsar. Or you can call to mind previous periods of gloom compared with which the current difficulties scarcely register.

On Lone Moor Road in Derry on Sunday night one grizzled aficionado described the current Celtic front line as "the worst since the Sorrowful Mysteries".

Among those nodding heads in agreement were some whose parents, much less themselves, are unlikely to have been around when the Five Sorrowful Mysteries notched up one goal between them from play in the first nine matches of the 1948/49 season. We've been through worse. We bounced back. We will again.

Alternatively, contemplation of days of giddy achievement can be made to overwhelm all present feelings of failure. No matter how far we fall, we'll always have Lisbon.

There are always ways to ease the pain. Bittersweet is the defining flavour of football fandom.

The first time I saw Celtic play was also the first time I saw Derry City. The Bhoys were over for a pre-season tour, which included a gig at the Brandywell.

My uncle Tommy had travelled with them from Ardrossan, where a considerable community of New Lodge emigres had settled. He had a position of some sort in the supporters' club. My cousin Adelaine was later chairperson of the federation of supporters' clubs. I mention this to establish my credentials.

The Celtic 11 that graced the Brandywell included Bobby Collins, Bobby Evans, Sean Fallon, Willie Fernie. I was standing no more than 10 yards away when Charlie Tully scored direct from a corner. The ref ordered him to take it again. He scored again. You don't forget things like that easily, or at all.

The other thing I recall is that, even though Derry was the home side, half the crowd, minimum, was cheering for Celtic. I was puzzled then, but I think I understand it now, although I am not sure I approve, not entirely, not anymore.

The Celtic-Rangers rivalry is one of the longest-running and the most jagged-edged in all of sport. It arose as a reflection of the material reality of Glasgow in the 1870s and 1880s, when the clubs were formed. Glasgow, little more than a generation previously, had been the most Protestant city in the Empire. But the Catholic Irish had been pouring in in huge numbers in the aftermath of the Famine. Catholicism in Scotland developed relatively suddenly and as an almost exclusively Irish phenomenon.

Religious and national rivalries thus combined to explosive effect. And has persisted unabated. If the Old Firm relationship was an expression of the reality of life in central Scotland at the outset, it has arguably since become the main source of separate, hostile identities.

Marx called this "the relative autonomy of ideology" - the material basis of a social relationship may have gone, but the phenomenon lives on, generating its own reality.

Directors, managers, players come and go.

Only the fans go on for ever, hopes of happiness hitched to the fortunes of the teams sent out uniformed to represent them on a Saturday afternoon.

At least, it should be a Saturday afternoon.

Football was specifically created for Saturday afternoons.

We must come back to that.

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