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Ulster's strong influence in the formation and history of Rangers FC is brought to book

Long history: Kyle Lafferty
Long history: Kyle Lafferty
Jimmy Nicholl
Sam English
Billy Simpson
Billy Simpson scores for Rangers against Dundee in 1953
David Healy and author Billy Kennedy
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

The late West Belfast MP and sometime Celtic fan Gerry Fitt probably had no idea when he chose to include the County Down townland of Bell's Hill in his title for the House of Lords that he was picking a place linked with the history of Rangers.

But the association between the blink-and-you'll-miss-it hamlet near Crossgar and Celtic's rivals has just been revealed in a new book about the blue half of Glasgow's Old Firm.

Author Billy Kennedy, a veteran News Letter journalist, has discovered that the mother of two men who helped set up Rangers in the early 1870s was from Bell's Hill, which Baron Fitt adopted in his Lords name to acknowledge family ties to the townland where he also used to holiday.

Jean Bain moved to Scotland to work and married a Scot, John McNeil, and in Glasgow it was their sons Peter and Moses who helped establish Rangers with the latter sibling naming the club after an English rugby league side.

In his book 'Rangers Football Club: The Ulster Connection', Kennedy says that since their formation to the present day Rangers have had 32 players with links to Ireland and not just to the north of the island.

Among the players who have pulled on the Rangers' blue shirt were Alex Craig from Galway, James Lowry McAuley from County Laois and Dubliners Alex Stevenson and Jon Daly.

Many of the names of players from the last century will mean little to modern day supporters of Rangers. But Kennedy says that men like Albert Lyness, Bob Hamilton, Robert Logan McDonald, Billy McCandless and ex-captain Bertie Manderson - who spent 15 years with Rangers after playing in the Irish League with Glenavon, Cliftonville and Belfast Celtic - were important to the development of the Ibrox club.

Two of Rangers' more recent captains, John McClelland and Steve Davis, have been Northern Ireland internationals as was Jimmy Nicholl, who had several spells at Ibrox as a player and as an assistant manager.

Other recent signings by Rangers have included Kyle Lafferty, Gareth McAuley, David Healy, Dean Shiels, Andrew Little, Andrew Mitchell and Roy Carroll who made only one appearance for the Ibrox club.

His former international teammate Healy, who is now the manager of Linfield, watched Rangers as a boy travelling to many games with his father Clifford.

Kennedy, who's been an official of Linfield Football Club for 45 years, has been a fan of Rangers since his childhood too.

He says: "I was a Linfield supporter first and foremost but started going to see Rangers at a time when they had household names like Jim Baxter and Willie Henderson in their line-ups."

And he remembers his early trips to Glasgow from around 1961 involved long overnight journeys on ships on the Burns & Laird line where there was always a race to get a top bunk to avoid ending up below fellow travellers with notoriously queasy stomachs.

The similarities between Rangers and Linfield are obvious and go deeper than the colour of their jerseys. Their supporters are cut from the same Protestant cloth and for a time Catholics weren't recruited to the playing staff of either club.

Those days are long gone, though supporters of Rangers and Celtic are still loyal to the same causes they always were.

But Kennedy insists his book is purely about football, not about religion or politics, and the words 'Protestant' and 'Catholic' don't feature at all.

He has, however, written a chapter about the Ulster Scots connections and the movement of people from Ulster to Scotland and in the other direction.

Kennedy writes: "The vibrant shipyard industry in both Glasgow and Belfast, where the ill-fated Titanic was famously built, was an attraction for workers to travel across the North Channel for employment in the late 19th century and early 20th century."

In his contribution to the book, Rangers' official historian David Mason ponders why there is such a fanaticism for the Ibrox club in Northern Ireland.

He talks of 'brothers united by our culture, standards, beliefs and our history', adding: "Historians and genealogists will tell you we are one and the same. Of course, we have our differences, but when an Ulsterman runs on to the field in a blue jersey, he is celebrated as one of our own."

The book steers well clear of controversies and conflicts and the sectarianism which has blighted the game in Scotland.

Kennedy, who is from Bessbrook in south Armagh, has dedicated his book to his late friend Billy Simpson, who played for Linfield as well as Rangers and who was transferred from Windsor Park to Ibrox in 1950 for a fee of £11,500.

He's one of six players with Irish associations who have been inducted into the Ibrox Hall of Fame.

One player from Aghadowey near Coleraine still holds the record as Rangers' top goalscorer from this island.

But Sam English will forever be remembered for one of the most tragic incidents ever to occur in British football. In 1931 he was involved in an accidental collision with Celtic goalkeeper John Thomson, who died a few hours later.

Kennedy says that Thomson was diving at the feet of the Rangers striker and an official inquiry - and Thomson's family - later cleared English of any blame but though he moved between clubs in Scotland and England the tragedy haunted him.

English described his playing career after the accident as 'seven years of joyless sport'.

Another tragedy figures in Kennedy's book. Sixty-six Rangers fans were killed in 1971 during a surge of supporters on an exit stairway at Ibrox after the Gers scored a last-minute equaliser against Celtic.

The disaster was witnessed by the late Belfast Telegraph sports editor Malcolm Brodie, whose evocative memories of that appalling day are included in Kennedy's book.

The Ireland's Saturday Night was the first newspaper to carry a report of the tragedy and it was a day that Brodie never forgot at the ground where he had gone regularly as a boy to see his Rangers heroes.

Kennedy, however, recalls that an unexpected seed of hope was planted in Northern Ireland by the disaster just as the Troubles were intensifying in the province.

He says: "I was the secretary of a Linfield supporters' club in the Newry area where a local Celtic supporters' club made contact and said they wanted to help raise money for the people who died at Ibrox."

The Celtic fans and the Linfield supporters raised £1,500 - the equivalent of £21,000 today - which they presented to the Lord Mayor of Belfast to hand over to the Lord Provost of Glasgow.

Kennedy also tells a more light-hearted story of how an all-time great from Celtic played a one-off game for Rangers at Ibrox in 1922.

Donegal man Patsy Gallagher turned out for Rangers in a charity game against Newcastle United after getting clearance from the Scottish FA.

At the end of the match Gallagher showed his true colours, so to speak, as he took off his Rangers jersey to reveal a Celtic top underneath!

Kennedy also recalls how a Rangers legend who enjoyed success at Ibrox over a 12-year period came to Belfast to manage Linfield and didn't last 12 months.

Falkirk-born Tully Craig, who'd had a spell at Celtic, won a fistful of medals with Rangers and played for Scotland.

But he was shown the door by Linfield after the team finished third from the bottom in the Irish League, their worst ever season with just five wins out of 22 games.

Kennedy says Rangers have co-operated fully with him in the four years that it's taken him to research and write the book.

He says that the Rangers fan network in Northern Ireland is vast, with no fewer than 60 supporters' clubs in existence.

Celtic also have huge numbers of fans here and it's estimated that several thousand supporters travel on ferries to watch their respective teams every week - albeit on separate boats to cut down the risk of trouble.

The rivalry between Rangers and Celtic is summed up by Jimmy Nicholl, who has a large section of Kennedy's book devoted to him.

Nicholl says: "When I played for Manchester United against Manchester City in derbies the atmosphere was huge, but nothing to the level of a Glasgow Old Firm game.

"There are two questions you have to ask yourself if you want to play in games like this and get the best from them. Can you handle being booed by 50,000 people? Will you enjoy being cheered by 50,000 people? You better believe it."

Rangers: The Ulster Connection is available from all good bookshops, £14.99 hardback, £9.99 paperback

To be in with a chance of winning a free copy, email the answer to the question to btsportsdesk@hotmail.co.uk, including contact details, by noon on Monday

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