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 By Chris Jones

The Old Firm, Rangers vs. Celtic, remains a derby like no other

Just like old times: Rangers and Celtic faced off in the Scottish League Cup semifinal at Hampden Park, the first Old Firm match in almost three years.

In the latest edition of ESPN FC's derbies series, which features eyewitness insights into some of the biggest rivalries in world football, Chris Jones visits Glasgow for the first game in three years between Celtic and Rangers. 

GLASGOW, Scotland -- Glasgow wakes up slowly on winter Sunday mornings, even if the Old Firm is waiting, even if the first match between Celtic and Rangers in nearly three years is only hours away. It's not as though the center of the city was shimmering at dawn, lit by a giddy crackle. It was hungover and harder-faced, a gritty place filled with dark corners, an unplanned mix of ancient stone buildings and modern glass with the River Clyde cutting through it. The streets run alongside the water toward the sinister spiked mound of the Necropolis, a cemetery so large it's almost a city within a city. On winter mornings, it can feel as though its graveyard armies have risen out of the earth and launched an invasion across the Bridge of Sighs, leaving Glasgow seeming less like one of Europe's great cities and more like one of its principal crypts.

But on that Old Firm Sunday, on the frigid first of February, there were a few pockets of early-morning life, rubbing red eyes and smoking the day's first cigarettes. At The Annie Millers, perhaps the most famous -- or infamous -- of Glasgow's sectarian pubs, the previous night's broken glass and thick sludge of anticipation was being mopped from the floors. A mural of Rangers legend Davie Cooper looked down on the expanding scene, the bar festooned with Union Jacks and blue scarves.

RANGERS VS. CELTIC STATS

- In 1969, a record crowd of 132,870 turned up at Hampden Park to watch the teams in the Scottish Cup final.

- R.C. Hamilton is Rangers' all-time top scorer in the fixture with 35 goals in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Jimmy McGrory has scored 27 goals for Celtic between 1922 and 1937.

- Rangers and Celtic have won 99 of the 118 Scottish titles.

- Of the 399 matches played. Rangers have won 159, Celtic 145.

"I played for the team I loved," Cooper had said when asked to sum up his career, and that love was about to be rekindled, as well as the hate it had both stoked and countered. Rangers -- Protestant, Unionist -- would once more rise against Celtic, against the Catholics, against the Irish. "Three years since we've played those bastards," one of the bartenders said while he filled the fridges. He marveled at the gap, as though the years when Rangers and Celtic have been apart were some incredible fiction, some impossibility.

It was all too true, of course: Rangers and the lunatic spending, the crushing debt and dubious accounting, the new (and dodgy) ownership that had bought the storied club for a single pound, the forced liquidation in 2012 and contentious reformation. Then came the painful exile to the Scottish third division -- after 10 of the 12 Premiership clubs voted against allowing the "new" Rangers to keep their former spot -- followed by the long climb back, now stalled in the Championship, the second division, with Queen of the South and Cowdenbeath. Celtic, meanwhile, have won three straight league titles and are on course to win another title this campaign. The Scottish Premiership without Rangers is baseball without the Yankees, the NFL without the Cowboys. But at last the Old Firm was back, giants current and former on the same pitch, a high-stakes reunion in the Scottish League Cup semifinal and a mismatch in every way except by history's measure. It would be the 400th time Celtic and Rangers had faced each other, this time at the neutral site of Hampden Park.

The Annie Millers wouldn't open for business until half past noon, an hour before kickoff, the Sunday whistle pushed up by the authorities to limit the pre-match consumption of pints. And after? "Depends on the result," the bartender said. He expected to be home by four, the pub no doubt evacuated and shut down by the police before then. The cops were already assembling at the train stations, 300 more making their way to the stadium, leaving dividing lines and warnings in their wake. The Louden Tavern near Ibrox, Rangers' ground, would likely be closed up, too, along with Celtic's more notable holdings, Failte and the Brazen Head among them.

Inside their walls, the Old Firm had never stopped being fought, kept alive like embers. Now the battle would spill back into the streets, and the day was destined to end with incidents. The bartender laughed when he remembered the oblivious American who had come into The Annie Millers not long ago and loudly introduced himself. "I'm Patrick," the American had said.

An Irish name in a British territory. That was reason enough, in this divided city, for the mops to have needed bringing back out.

Scottish police escorted fans to and from Hampden Park in an effort to keep the peace.

The two sides began funneling toward Hampden in twin but separate streams, shining under the low winter sun. The sold-out stadium had been split precisely in half. Rangers owned the west end and Celtic the east. Fans dressed in Rangers blue took their segregated trains to the station at Mount Florida and came down the hills through the shuttered streets, empty but for police and their clomping horses. Fans dressed in Celtic green came across from Kings Park station, up Aikenhead Road, past the stalls selling tricolors and Hoops regalia. Where they might pool together -- in the parking lot behind the south stand, for instance -- there was a thick band of police waiting, stretching from the stadium steps toward the horizon. There the two sides shouted and sang across the police line, one cop facing one side, the next cop facing the other, and so on, a cleaving so mathematical it felt like architecture.

Inside the stadium, the separation was even starker. A swath of vacant seats had been cut through the middle of the north and south stands like the Clyde, maintained by stadium stewards and more lines of police, leaving two perfect horseshoes of allegiance. It's hard to describe what it feels like in those spaces in between. It's like swimming in the energy field between the like poles of two magnets, except they're somehow drawn together even as they're repelled. It lifts you off your feet. Before the opening whistle, blue and green flare smoke filled the stadium; banned songs about Irish famine and the nobility of hunger strikers were sung; black banners were unfurled, their provocations written in white block letters:

At the going down of the Hun
And in the morning
We will remember them

Then the match began, and Hampden was suddenly a heaving ship, pitching in a storm. In the 10th minute, Celtic scored, Leigh Griffiths heading the ball easily home, and he ignored the pre-match pleas for restraint from authorities and went straight to a corner of the already torn-up pitch to celebrate in the red faces of Rangers fans. Vast numbers of police marched out from under the grandstands, pushing Griffiths and his teammates back onto the grass. During the terrible Old Firm riot here in 1980, that same goal had been used as a triage center. ("This is like a scene now out of 'Apocalypse Now,'" match announcer Archie MacPherson had said, describing the day's battle, this one between punch-and-projectile hurling fans.) The violence and its victims had altered Scottish football forever -- no more drink inside the stadiums, for starters -- and now the police dug in at the bottom of each stadium section, a literal bulwark against the making of more ghosts.

Twenty-one minutes later, Kris Commons stripped the overmatched Rangers defense of the ball and rocketed home a left-footed strike. It was 2-0, and the inevitable rout was on, perhaps the worst possible outcome for the match, not because the result was already a foregone conclusion, but because the consequences of the result might also be. In a country defined by the evenness of its divisions -- September's independence vote had gone Rangers, barely -- a humiliation would threaten the day's and Scotland's delicate balance. Rangers had already suffered nearly three years of purgatory. The next hour would tell how much longer it would last and how they would endure it.

Just then, Celtic fans turned toward their silenced counterparts and began to sing. "Always look on the bright side of life," they taunted, and they waved their hands while they did: Back to the second division for you, back over the Bridge of Sighs.

Like the monarchy or the Catholic Church, the Old Firm is far from a universally beloved institution. There are vocal elements of Glasgow and Scotland that saw the last three years as a kind of respite, a relief from the sins and torments of history. Irvine Welsh, the novelist and well-known supporter of Hibernian FC, is among the more lyrical of the scorners. During the match, he took one look at the holes in Hampden's battlefield pitch and made the case against on Twitter. "Scottish football 'needs this game' like a family needs a jakey uncle who has shown up at a wedding after a prison stretch for sex offences," he wrote. For Welsh and his allies, the Old Firm represents some former sense of country that is better gone for good, a too-soon reminder of a backward time that hurt families and neighbors and Scotland's reputation in the world. At the Old Firm's worst, the anti-factions fear its return won't just open a window to the past; it will risk dragging Scotland kicking back through it.

But it's undeniable that Scottish football, without its central rivalry, is some lesser version of itself: 50,925 souls came to watch the Old Firm, even with the knowledge that it wasn't going to be much of a contest. Another 120 million, in 54 countries, tuned in on television. At Hampden the afternoon before, for the first League Cup semifinal between archfoes Aberdeen and Dundee United -- the so-called New Firm -- only 29,608 showed up. The entire upper grandstand was empty, and the match wasn't broadcast locally. It felt like an opening act rather than the first half of a double bill.

In the minutes before that kickoff, a fire drill had been announced. It was only a drill, just a testing of the alarm.

"But if it goes off tomorrow ..." one Scottish journalist started. "Run for the hills," his colleague finished.

League play that weekend unfolded in front of even grimmer figures. St Mirren beat Partick Thistle 1-0 in front of 3,864 fans; 5,618 watched Dundee and Hamilton play to a 1-1 draw; Motherwell and St Johnstone played to the same result to a crowd of just 3,449. These are Premiership sides, and Rangers aren't.

Welsh might wish otherwise, but football, especially Scottish football, was never built on love or enlightenment, and it wasn't played by open-hearted men who looked across the field and saw kin. It was always a game between enemies, between two distinct and dominant sides in particular, and the reason the Old Firm became what it became in Glasgow and beyond is that there was never any doubt that it was a fight and which side of it you were on. Nobody chose Rangers or Celtic. Blood decided it, and blood always would.

Celtic fans send Rangers a message in the previous Old Firm, April 29, 2012, won by Celtic 3-0, before Rangers were eventually relegated out of Scotland's top division.

Rangers withstood Celtic's battering for the rest of the first half, and then mustered a greater resistance in the second. They were still well out of range -- Rangers never recorded a shot on target -- but they weren't embarrassed. The pitch continued to dissolve in chunks, and the players became muddy with slide tackles, but the truce held even through a late foul by Celtic captain Scott Brown. The final whistle came before any larger boiling-over, and both sets of fans applauded their sides: 2-0 wasn't the most reflective outcome, but it was one that everyone could accept.

After the match, the police praised fans for their calm. There had been only 37 arrests, and just 12 for sectarian breaches of the peace, mostly the singing of those banned songs. The BBC reported that a 10-year-old boy on a Rangers bus had taken a stray bottle to the face, losing three teeth on his way to his first Old Firm -- tellingly, the stands were almost devoid of children -- but breathless rumors of a post-match stabbing now appear to be false. By the warped standards of one of football's most fearsome derbies, the damage was as light as anyone might have hoped.

"Can't be better," Celtic manager Ronny Deila said in his post-match news conference. "It was a very good day."

"Fantastic, fantastic," Kenny McDowall, his Rangers counterpart, agreed.

It's unclear when they will meet again. Rangers, in the midst of continued ownership strife and fan defection, appear unlikely to return to the Premiership next season. "Youse can decide that," McDowall had said when asked how close Rangers are to returning to their former glory; "not very" is the honest answer. They were knocked out of the Scottish Cup the week after the Old Firm, losing at home to Raith Rovers for the first time since 1959, and they trail Hearts in the promotion race by 24 points.

But there was still something hopeful about the scene at Hampden, as though the last three years had acted as a reset of sorts, a release for more than a century of almost seismic pressures. Even Celtic fans -- at least those who hadn't taken out full-page newspaper advertisements declaring this the first meeting between these clubs, not the 400th, because the "old" Rangers were vanquished and gone -- seemed to recognize in themselves if not an affection for their rivals, then at least a longing for them. Celtic recently dropped out of the top 40 clubs in Europe in revenue, but it's more than a financial hit they've taken in the Old Firm's absence. Sometimes you need to see what you are not to remember what you are.

Late that night, The Annie Millers was still lit up and bustling, Davie Cooper watching proudly from the walls. The police had stopped by but had found no reason to close the doors. There were smiles and arms thrown around wet shoulders, the drunken singing of happy songs. Even Fraser Aird's sweet Canadian mother had decided it was a reasonable place for her to be. Nobody risked joining the ranks of the dead up on the hill. Only the ghosts had been sent to their graves. Celtic had played Rangers, the way they always had, and they had beaten them, the way they sometimes did, but maybe the Old Firm really had become something new. Maybe it took 400 tries and three lost years to get it right. Maybe after all this time and blood, maybe just this once, it had become a game played by and for the living. 

Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.

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