Life’s full of those “what if” moments. Like, what if I hadn’t gone out the night I met my wife, or what if the Rangers-supporting friend I went to see this game with had gone crazy when Richard Gough bundled in the home side’s last-gasp equaliser in their 1987 derby with Celtic.
After all, that’s what the rest of the Blue Noses did, at least the ones who’d stayed on after Rangers had gone 2-0 and a man down. But, after watching his nine-man team come back to get a draw in one of the most mental and controversial games in a fixture famed for being mental and controversial, he just stood there, his arms by his side, his mouth firmly shut.
Thank god that he did. Thank Jesus that somehow, at the moment Gough forced the ball over the line and Ibrox erupted with the loudest roar I’ve ever heard in all my puff, somehow he remembered where he was and kept a lid on it all. If he hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. He and I would have been beaten to a pulp by the 10,000 Celtic fans around us: him for being a Rangers fan and me for being the idiot who’d given him my spare ticket knowing full well where his allegiances lay.
So Graham Blount, over 23 years after the event, it’s time to say thanks for keeping it all in, for staying true to your word, for keeping me in one piece. And it’s also time to say a heartfelt sorry to my former colleagues at the Glasgow University Celtic Supporters Club for bringing a dyed-in-the-wool Teddy Bear into our midst that unseasonably sunlit day.
I learnt my lesson as that volatile afternoon unfolded. I’d seen plenty of violence following Leicester in the 1980s and I knew the history of the Old Firm. Or at least I thought I knew it. It’s one thing watching the highlights or reading a newspaper report, but until you’ve actually experienced a Celtic-Rangers game in the flesh, you can’t hope to understand what it means to the people who play in it and the people who watch it.
And rarely has the fixture meant more than it did in the late 80s, when Graeme Souness took up residence in the blue corner of this most tribal of rings and proceeded to revolutionise not just the club but the parochial world of Scottish football itself. Well, he didn’t so much revolutionise it as stick the heid on it, rake his studs down its shins and squeeze its baws so hard they popped out of its mouth.
“I don’t like U2 ... and Simple Minds. I found out Kerr was a Celtic supporter, so all my Simple Minds tapes, they went out the window. Celtic, you hate ‘em so much.”
The press loved it, Rangers fans loved it and so too did the Celtic contingent, their hatred of the old enemy taking on a new dimension with the sight of willing English mercenaries such as Terry Butcher and Graham Roberts seizing the blue standard and carrying it into battle. Here they were, the born-again Gers, converts to a cause they championed with relish.
They’d come enticed by Souness and the opportunity to play European football while English clubs were serving their post-Heysel penance, though it wasn’t only about that. Butcher, we later learned in Pete Davies’ majestic All Played Out, was no flute-playing mime artist: “I don’t like U2 ... and Simple Minds. I found out Kerr was a Celtic supporter, so all my Simple Minds tapes, they went out the window. Celtic, you hate ‘em so much.”
We didn’t think much of you either, Terry. How did the song go again? “We all agree, Souness is homosexual. Wherever he goes he touches his toes and Butcher is right up his....”
Into the fray also came Souness’ fellow Serie A sophisticates, the likes of Ray Wilkins, Trevor Francis and, latterly, Mark Hateley. Their exposure to the less well-travelled occupants of the Rangers dressing room provided fertile ground for fanzine writers, none of them better than Not the View’s Gerry Dunbar, who once told of Wilkins and team-mate Ian Durrant frequenting the city’s swanky Grosvenor Hotel: “I’ll have a cappuccino please,” said Ray to the waiter. “Aye, ah’ll hae twa o’ those,” chirped wee Durranty. “Ah’m starvin’.” An apocryphal tale? I wouldn’t be so sure.
Celtic had their own bampots and firebrands. None were more fiery than Roy “The Bear” Aitken or Peter Grant, the heel-clipping midfielder Rangers fans loved to hate, seen here genuflecting after Butcher had turned in Celtic’s second goal of the afternoon.
And it was into that century-old atmosphere of fear and loathing, one cranked up a few notches more by the arrival of Souness and his southern henchman, that I, an Old-Firm virgin, stepped out with my supposedly neutral mate. Over two decades on what sticks in my mind is not the game itself, the goals and the on-field “violence”, but everything that was happening off it: the wall of noise, from the jubilant singing of the Celtic fans to the primordial roar that greeted Gough’s goal, followed by the sight of 35,000 Begbies singing “Cheerio, cheerio,” as we trooped silently out.
Having seen so much aggro in England, what amazed me more than anything else was that there never seemed the remotest threat of it “kicking off” inside the stadium. Heads would have been broken in the city that night, as they always are, but even amid the bedlam that afternoon, the terraces of Ibrox felt a safe place to be.
I’d go to several more Old Firm games in the four years that followed. And while they were all special occasions, none of them ever matched the intensity of that one. If I’m honest, it’s not the greatest game I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely the most vivid, the most raw and the most memorable. And luckily for me, I got out of it unscathed, never to give away another spare ticket lightly again.
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