Has the Old Firm rivalry lost its attraction over the years?

Nothing quite like an Old Firm rivalry, but the viewing figures say another

The late, great Tommy Burns summed it up well.

Asked to describe the nature of the storied Old Firm rivalry, the former Celtic midfielder and manager claimed it’s the only match “in the world where the managers have to calm the interviewers down.” Graeme Souness echoed that sentiment by insisting “it isn’t just another game.”

There are countless derbies around world football, but few carry the weight of the fixture between Celtic and Rangers. Few have captivated so many.

There are some Scottish football fans who baulk at the notion of the Old Firm rivalry being Scotland’s defining fixture, but there’s no real argument to the contrary. Celtic and Rangers are the two biggest, and most successful, clubs in the country.

On top of that is piled high an intertwined mass of political and religious factors that mark out the Old Firm rivalry as one of the most complex, and compelling, games in world football.

Even those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Scottish game know, at least on some level, to what extent the Old Firm rivalry matters.

It’s up there with El Clasico as something of a footballing outlier. Almost every football fan, regardless of their nationality or allegiance, watches El Clasico. It’s this way with matches between Celtic and Rangers too.

Well, it certainly used to be. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the Old Firm rivalry was just as big as anything the Premier League could offer up. It wasn’t just the rivalry that drew the eye, but the stars too - Henrik Larsson, Paul Gascoigne, Lubo Moravcik, Brian Laudrup. In every possible way, it was a match that carried great significance.

The stars no longer shine so brightly in Glasgow, though. That isn’t to say that Celtic and Rangers don’t boast quality, because they do. In Olivier Ntcham, Odsonne Edouard, Kieran Tierney and Callum McGregor, the Hoops possess more than a few standout performers. Rangers could say the same of Alfredo Morelos, Scott Arfield and Allan McGregor. Both teams also made the group stages of the Europa League this season, with Celtic progressing to the last 32.


However, there’s no denying that the Old Firm match can no longer claim the star power of 25, or even 10, years ago. Is the historic rivalry between the two clubs enough to catch the attention of the floating football fan?

The traditional new year’s Old Firm game will be played this weekend, but will more than the hardcore shun alternative offerings of the Premier League, or whatever Pixar movie BBC One are showing to appease the festive masses, to tune in?

In many ways, it feels like Scottish football has been left behind by the global game, reflected by how, to some, the Old Firm now comes across as something of an irrelevance.

It’d be over the top to suggest watching Scottish football over the Premier League or La Liga or one of Europe’s other big leagues is to watch a different sport, but it certainly seems like a different discipline of the game. Like rugby union in contrast to rugby league. Or BDO darts to PDC darts.

Just last week, Ovie Ejaria ended his season-long loan at Rangers early because of his uncertainty that Scottish football would help him make it back at parent club Liverpool.

Ejaria certainly isn’t the first to have been cracked by the game north of the border - see Joey Barton, who lasted just a few months at Rangers. Chelsea wonderkid Charly Musonda also cut short a loan spell at Celtic last season.

Some embrace the physicality and rough edges of Scottish football. The nature of the sport in the country played a major role in turning Virgil van Dijk into the player he is today, for example. Brendan Rodgers has still been able to impose a dynamic, possession-based style of play on Celtic, too.


Scottish football is frequently a victim of stereotype. Many fans show the game north of the border a certain degree of ignorance that frankly it does not deserve. There is a charm and romanticism to Scottish football that gives it an authenticity that the English game now lacks. In the nicest possible sense, it is a throwback to another time.

But in a sporting world that puts a high value on hyperbole and glamour (look at how darts has become a mainstream sport over the past decade through strong marketing and presentation), being a throwback league doesn’t count for much.

This weekend’s Old Firm won’t even be shown on TV in the United States. It won’t be shown in China either. Or in India. Or even Spain. So much for the global appeal of the fixture.

Even from a domestic perspective, the Old Firm lags behind. Not one of last season’s games between Celtic and Rangers featured in the UK’s top 20 most-watched football matches of 2017.

The biggest TV audience for an Old Firm since Rangers’ promotion to the Scottish Premiership two and a half years ago stands at 734,000. That is still some way off the average viewership for a single Premier League match (897,000).

Football fans around the world will note Sunday’s game between Celtic and Rangers. It will not be ignored. There remains a cultural resonance to the fixture that still causes ripples to this day. There may not be many, if any, true superstars on the pitch, but Steven Gerrard and Rodgers, the managers of the two teams, have at least something to draw outsiders.

Of course, many fans will argue that Scottish football doesn’t need a global appeal. That it can thrive all on its own.

Indeed, the Scottish game has, in the past, been guilty of caring too much about what others think. Its tendency to compare itself to the sport south of the border has been only detrimental in recent years.

But it used to be said that the Old Firm was the one truly worldwide fixture Scottish football had. That might no longer be true.