Saturday, 11 November 2000

A rivalry that makes the Old Firm seem friendly

                                                                                                                            By Bernard Thompson
Irish Times online edition
It's that time of the season again in Scotland. The country's most bitter rivalry resurfaces with a league match that brings together the two sets of fans who reserve a special degree of contempt for each other.

The teams in question are, of course, Rangers and Aberdeen.
Black and White?: Controversy rages on about this tackle

For more than a decade these two sides have maintained a level of hostility that would make the relationship between Celtic and Rangers seem to be tame in comparison.

It would be naďve to say that the Old Firm fans have developed a healthy regard for each other - football related murders remain too fresh in the memory for that. But the antipathy between followers of the Dons and the Ibrox side regularly plumbs depths that would shock and bemuse most outside observers.

In preparation for Sunday's match at Pittodrie, another unsavoury incident occurred, on cue, with the likely result being a Rangers visit to the Granite City that will be brimming with vitriol.

This week, Aberdeen officials were forced to make their excuses for an unregulated forum, on the club's official website, in which fans had made distasteful remarks about the tragic deaths of two Rangers supporters in a weekend road accident. It was just the latest in a series of antagonisms that have often puzzled onlookers searching for its origin.

Although Aberdeen's visits to Glasgow had been highly charged affairs since the days of Alex Ferguson, commentators usually cite 1988, and the injury of Ian Durrant, as the birthdate of the real hatred.

One of British football's most promising midfielders at the time, he suffered at the hands of Neil Simpson, who seemed to stamp on Durrant's knee as he went in for a tackle. Durrant's recovery was slow and painful and he was never to achieve the same level of performance that had preceded the injury. While Rangers fans rallied round him, Aberdeen supporters felt that Simpson was unreasonably vilified during the protracted court case that followed, resulting in a Ł225,000 award of damages.

As a result, Aberdeen fans indulged in regular taunts, relating to Durrant's misfortune. The player himself recalled, in his autobiography, that when pictures of his new baby son appeared in the newspapers, an Aberdeen fan sent him a copy of a photograph with a bandage drawn on the child's knee.

There have been numerous other incidents. David Murray was forced to distance himself and Rangers from an unofficial fan magazine that had used its pages to urge Rangers supporters to "pay a visit" to an Aberdeen pub, which was a notorious haunt for the North-East clubs' fans. The management of the bar in question had announced to the media that they had installed new perspex urinals, which would have Rangers videos playing behind them.

More recently, Murray was forced to take action with regard to the Rangers' official match programme describing an element of the Aberdeen support as "scum".

Another occasion saw a well known Rangers-supporting comedian being attacked on the Ibrox pitch, as he led the home supporters in a song on one of Aberdeen's visits to Ibrox.

The upshot of this has been a degree of paranoia surrounding both sets of supporters where the other side is concerned. Aberdeen's poor performances against Celtic over recent years have led to absurd accusations from Rangers fans of them "lying down".

Those with this conviction seem unaware of the fact that the Dons' competitive performances against Rangers are probably directly inspired by the acrimony that such claims cause.

On the other side, Aberdeen fans complained that when David Murray urged Rangers fans to buy orange Netherlands shirts for last season's Scottish Cup Final against Aberdeen, it was a direct incitement to violence. And the decision, by the SFA, to refuse Aberdeen an equal share of tickets for the same match did nothing to improve relations.

There have been lighter moments. Dick Advocaat, oblivious to the history of ill-feeling between clubs, made the mistake of claiming there was little difference between playing Aberdeen and Greenock Morton, when stating his case for a 16-team league. The remark was received with customary indignation.

However, the incidents which can be greeted with amusement have been few and far between. The aforementioned goading on the Internet is more typical.

If Aberdeen manage to secure a result on Sunday which will further damage Rangers defence of the Championship, a gleeful reception from the Pittodrie followers will be guaranteed. However, in the climate of hatred that exists between the clubs, it is never certain that the talking points will concern the football.

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