Has social media dulled the storied rivalry of the Old Firm derby?

Fans are clashing online and not on the terraces

Celtic, Rangers, fans,

Image: Andrew Milligan PA Wire/PA Images

A lot has happened since Rangers last hosted Celtic at Ibrox nearly five years ago.

The latter have won four successive league titles, going through three managers and qualifying for the Champions League twice. The former have suffered financial meltdown, were forced to reapply for a place at the foot of the Scottish football pyramid and had to claw their way back, not without the not-so-odd complication along the way.

As one of European football’s most storied rivalries, the Old Firm derby has never before come with such a compelling story. Celtic might be clear favourites to claim their third win over Rangers this season, boasting a 16-point lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership, having dropped points just once from 18 games, but this is a rivalry that cannot be illustrated by just the final scoreline.

The two clubs went four years without facing each other as top flight rivals, only meeting once in the Scottish Cup between 2012 and 2015. The cliché about absence making the heart grow fonder is certainly not true in the case of Celtic and Rangers; the time spent apart has seen the rivalry between the two great clubs fester instead of petering out. There’s also a certain tedious toxicity that is distinctly modern about this ancient contest.

But how much of that is genuine and how much is purely over-inflated rhetoric? Is it possible social media and all that has come with the internet age has given a false impression of the true rivalry between Celtic and Rangers?

Consider that, while the rivalry is perceived to be at its highest peak in a generation, only one arrest was made at the first Old Firm derby of the season at Celtic Park. Even at Hampden Park, a venue so poorly designed segregation is close to impossible, where the two clubs met in the semi-finals of this year’s League Cup, only 18 arrests were made in total.

With the 52,000-capacity crowd split 50-50, that is a relatively respectable count, especially when compared with the 29 arrests made at a Tyne-Wear derby three years ago, or the calling of riot police to a derby between West Ham and Chelsea earlier this season.

While Police Scotland would very much like there not to be a single arrest at Ibrox on Saturday, there would appear to be a disconnect between the vitriol of the Old Firm rivalry contested online and the rivalry in and around the stadium itself.

Unsavoury chants will be chanted, sectarian songs will probably be sung, but in terms of criminality, the ferocity of Scottish football’s fiercest derby is frequently overplayed.

Like when Brendan Rodgers was asked time and time again this week whether he was personally prepared for what he will face at Ibrox this weekend. This is a manager who has sampled some of English football’s most intense rivalries; even European football in the case of the contest between Liverpool and Manchester United.

There are certain aspects to the Old Firm derby Rodgers may well be unfamiliar with as a football manager, but to suggest a figure of such top level experience might be caught off guard by what is in store at Ibrox is illustrative of the hyperbole Scottish football is sometimes guilty of verging into when describing its greatest rivalry.

That ramped up tone is, in part, a by-product of the echo chamber the internet has provided Celtic and Rangers fans with. If footballing rivalries are now contended through social media as much as they are on the pitch, the Old Firm derby provides the perfect epitome, with the four years the two clubs spent apart the ideal case study.

Without a derby to clash at, the two sets of fans made Twitter and Facebook their shared battleground. So far, with Celtic and Rangers having met twice already this season, that vitriol hasn’t resulted in an actual battleground materialising on derby day.

Of course, such is the cultural significance of the Old Firm rivalry it’s difficult to quantify the impact the derby has across Scotland. How many arrests will be made on Saturday night, prompted by the game played at Ibrox earlier in the day, but not directly attributable to it? The police figures provided don't account for that.