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The documentary Rivals: Rangers & Celtic looks at the problem of religious hatred between the two sides before what might still be the last Old Firm game ever

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By Matthew Harold

Sunday afternoon could mark an historical event as Celtic travel along the M8 to Ibrox to face Rangers on what could possibly be the last ever Old Firm derby between the two Glasgow rivals.

Neil Lennon’s side arrive on the Southside of Glasgow with a 21-point advantage over their bitter rivals, with everyone at Ibrox feeling the strain of recent financial pressures that have left the club in administration.

Rangers have a £9 million outstanding PAYE and VAT bill from the era of recent owner Craig Whyte (pictured right), and the threat of a £49m bill from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for Employee Trust Benefit schemes that were implemented under previous owner Sir David Murray.

The financial problems currently plaguing the Ibrox club add another dimension to what is one of the most explosive derby fixtures in the world, one laced with religious and racist hatred that the two sets of support traditionally express towards each other during these games.

With Rangers on the brink of financial oblivion 18 years after the Parkhead club nearly went out of existence, the Hoops' fans are more than eager to put the boot into their rivals as nearly 7,300 of them arrive in the Broomloan Road stand at Ibrox.

As the documentary Rivals: Rangers & Celtic illustrates, one of the most intense rivalries in all of football isn’t just about religion, Protestants against Catholics.

In fact this rivalry is a lot different as the documentary looks at a phenomenon known as the ’90 minute bigot’ - someone who can normally work alongside and associate with fans of the other team and members of the other religion without incident but who, after arriving at the ground, suddenly turns into a bigot.

This Sunday, the typical Old Firm antagonism of Unionist Protestants against Irish Catholics is likely to be in full swing as Rangers have announced that they will be selling 40,000 mini Union flags before the game for a donation of £2 to their Rangers Fans Fighting Fund in order to help the club survive.

That action is seen as provocative by the Celtic support, who will in turn display many Irish tricolours within their section of the stadium, thus giving the TV audience watching the game around the world little reason to suppose the stereotype is in need of revision. 

The documentary looks at people associated with the extremes of each side of Glasgow, and with the recent pressures on the Ibrox side, which could potentially create one of the most poisonous atmospheres in recent years if people with the same views as those interviewed in the documentary vent their feelings via sectarian chanting.

Against this backdrop, the SNP government is putting into law the Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill, which is designed to prevent the kind of singing and offensive chanting that has been associated for so long with derby fixtures between Rangers and Celtic.

The bill came about as a result of what is known as the ‘Old Firm Shame Game’, which took place at Celtic Park a year ago when the home side won a Scottish Cup replay by a single goal, Rangers received three red cards and then Rangers assistant manager Ally McCoist and Celtic boss Neil Lennon clashed after the full-time whistle.

This led to a summit organised by the Scottish government, which included both clubs, the SFA and the police, and which ultimately led to this bill being drafted in order to deal with the problem. However, supporters of both sides see things differently, and regard the bill as discriminating against ordinary supporters.

The antagonism between the two sets of supporters has intensified over the last year, with Lennon being at the forefront of the hatred, as he is currently involved in a case in which two men are on trial at the High Court in Glasgow for plotting to kill the former Hoops skipper, late QC Paul McBride and ex-MSP Trish Godman.

On the pitch, the game itself is seen as being a formality, with Celtic able to claim the title for the first time in four years should they win at Ibrox and Motherwell drop points away to Kilmarnock. And as Rangers have lost four out of their last six fixtures, confidence is understandably low within McCoist’s side.

With Rangers entering administration and being penalised ten points by the Scottish Premier League as a result, Celtic have been given the chance to claim the title on their rivals' pitch, something that Rangers achieved at Parkhead in another infamous derby, when referee Hugh Dallas was struck by a coin.

But if the Ibrox side manage to pull off what many see as the near-impossible, that would leave the champagne on ice, the jelly would in the fridge and the ice cream in the freezer.  

The documentary, Rivals: Rangers & Celtic can be viewed in full here.

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