Red Right 88

In Cleveland, hope dies last

A Clevelander talks Celtic football

In European soccer, there are several storied rivalries, but any discussion of the best rivalries has to include the one between Celtic FC and Rangers in the Scottish Premier League.

Founded in Glasgow’s East End in 1888, Celtic FC has been hugely successful within Scottish football. In 1967, Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup, famously beating Inter Milan 2-1. They were runners-up to Feyenoord.

Celtic, which has won 42 league titles, 35 Scottish Cups and 14 League Cups, is well on its way to claiming another championship this season, holding an 18 point lead with six games remaining. (Update: Celtic clinched the league title on Saturday with a 6-0 win over Kilmarnock)

Rangers were founded in 1872 in Glasgow and the two clubs, separated by just four miles, have shared a great rivalry over the past 124 years.

Rangers are currently in administration however, and with debt that could top £134 million, the club is in danger of going bankrupt and possibly ending one of the best rivalries in soccer.

Interested in learning more about the rivalry, we turned to Sean McLaughlin, a lifelong Clevelander and Celtic fan, who was gracious enough to sit down for a virtual Q&A about the club.

Sean, who you can follow on Twitter @SeanMcL216, is a member of the Celtic Supporter Club that meets on match days at PJ McIntyre’s on Lorain Avenue in Kamm’s Corners. The club can be found on Twitter (@clevelandceltic) and on Facebook.

Q: How does a lad from Cleveland wind up a fan of Celtic FC?

Sean: Over the last five years or so I’ve become more and more interested in soccer. I’ve followed the U.S. Men’s National Team and the World Cup and wanted to start following it at the club level.

I began to search leagues and teams to see if I could find a club that I could take on as my team. While the history and skill levels of teams like Liverpool, Manchester United and Barcelona are second to none, I didn’t feel any certain connection.

I had a former co-worker who had family from Scotland and he described the passion that the supporters have in Scotland and the excitement that is the Glasgow Derby. After doing some research on Celtic and learning the proud history of the club, I knew it was the team for me.

Celtic was founded in 1888 by Brother Walfrid, an Irish priest in the impoverished East End of Scotland. Celtic was founded to raise funds to help feed the poor Irish immigrants who were arriving in Glasgow after being uprooted by the Potato Famine.

I’m very proud of my Irish heritage so the club with its colors, songs and history immediately struck a chord with me.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Twitter as a way that I connected with other supporters and our local Cleveland Celtic Supporters club. After staying on the fringe and learning the history and the atmosphere, I quickly became an ardent supporter.

Q: Have you ever seen Celtic play in person?

Sean: I’ve actually never seen Celtic play live but I hope to one day see them in person. There are rumors going around that they will be touring this summer with one possible match being Chelsea (of the English Premier League) vs. Celtic at Yankees Stadium. I’m also hoping someday to visit Glasgow to see Celtic play a home match at Celtic Park, or as the supporters so aptly call it “Paradise.”

Q: There are several big rivalries in soccer: Liverpool vs. Everton. Manchester United vs. Manchester City. Real Madrid vs. FC Barcelona. What makes Celtic vs. Rangers so special?

Sean: This is a grudge match that transcends sport to include politics and faith.

There are so many things that make this rivalry one of the best in the world. The fact that the clubs share the same city and their stadiums are just a few miles apart is just a start. The political and religious tensions of Northern Ireland and Scotland are also at play. Rangers’ fans have long been seen as the team of the Protestant faith and the supporters favor the United Kingdom and usually are Unionists. Celtic has been seen as the Catholic team and its supporters favor Republicanism and a united Ireland. While not seen in many other parts of the world this lead to tension, racism, and sectarianism.

There is also an underdog mentality when it comes to Celtic. Rangers are looked upon as the establishment team in Scotland, with Celtic being the team whose supporters are the undesirables in Scotland. Celtic fans also have long been known for what is sometimes called “Celtic Paranoia.” This includes believing the league, its officials, executives and even the referees give Rangers an unfair advantage in calls and all other facets of the game.

Q: Can you put the rivalry into context for a Cleveland audience?

Sean: It’s actually kind of hard to do that. Imagine the Browns playing Steelers but instead of a 120-mile difference there is only a 4-mile difference and they are sharing the same city. The fans bitterly dislike each other and sing songs about the other side for the whole game.

In an NFL game fans can sit amongst each other with only a small amount of chance of violence. When it comes to the Glasgow Derby the fans must be kept apart.

Celtic manager Neil Lennon and players Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt, who are all from Northern Ireland, have all recently received bullets and IED-type devices in the mail believed to be sent from an opposing supporter. It’s this type of fervor and extremism that transcends the game itself.

You can take any sport in America’s best rivalries and they pale in comparison to a Glasgow Derby.

Q: With Rangers in severe financial trouble there is talk the team may actually fold. Can Celtic really survive without its biggest rival?

Sean: The short answer in my opinion is yes. Celtic has had a sound business plan and is currently in no financial or legal trouble. They’ve done well the last couple of years in picking up young talent at a reasonable price and selling them on at a profit. They’ve also been lowering the team’s overall debt.

This is a stark contrast to Rangers, who have been avoiding paying taxes and possibly running illegal payment schemes to bring in top level players that they normally could not afford. This “financial doping” that won them so many titles and accolades over the last 20 years is now catching up to them, and possibly forcing them to dissolve and have past championships revoked.

While Rangers are currently in Administration with liquidation seemingly on the horizon, I do believe, though, that Rangers will survive in some form. This may be as a new company, or by allowing the current club to stay with major financial repercussions and loss in points in the league standings.

Talk in Scotland is that even if Rangers liquidate and start as a brand new company, they may be allowed back into the Scottish Premier League. They would not have to start in the lower leagues and move their way up like most new clubs. This only goes to reinforce Celtic supporter’s beliefs that the governing bodies in Scotland would favor Rangers and, if the roles were reversed, such golden parachutes would not be in place.

Q: Celtic and Rangers have combined to win 96 of the 115 championships in the Scottish Premier League (and its predecessors). No other team has won since Aberdeen in 1984-85. Can the SPL survive the loss of Rangers?

Sean: I believe the best interests for the Scottish game is if Rangers are liquidated and then have them start in the lowest division and work their way up. Allowing them back into the SPL after years of financial doping would be a travesty, in my opinion. I think while the effects of losing Rangers may be felt in the short term, in the long term it would only help the league.

In the three to four years it would take for Rangers to come back up to the top flight, you would be able to strengthen the other clubs who could earn money with berths in the Champions and Europa League that they normally would not have access too. This would not only help them in keeping their quality players, but also in investing in their youth programs.

Q: If Rangers were to fold and the English Premier League opened a spot for Celtic, would you want to see them accept?

Sean: I would think that Celtic would jump at an opportunity to go south of the border. The English Premier league is easily one of the best and most recognized leagues in the world, and the chance to make the money that comes with being in the EPL would be very appealing to Celtic.

I don’t think that this will ever happen, though. I can’t see the mid-tier teams in the EPL voting in a club like Celtic.

Q: What is it like to actually root for a team that wins? We’ve been a little short on that in Cleveland for the last 48 years.

Sean: As a lifelong Cleveland sports fan I can sympathize.

The thing to remember though is that Celtic has had its rough patches. While they are very successful right now and likely to win the league and possibly the Scottish Cup, it hasn’t always been easy. Celtic has also experienced dry spells as well of not winning. One of the most famous examples of that is when Rangers won the league nine years in a row (1988-89 to 1996-97). With the state of Rangers right now, and the fact they were using money they couldn’t afford to pay back, it makes that stretch worse since the playing field was seemingly unfair.

All in all I think that Cleveland and Celtic fans can share their outlook of being a constant underdog.

Q: What is the scene like for soccer fans in Northeast Ohio? Do you run into other fans or supporters?

Sean: I’m very lucky that there is a Celtic Supporter Club here in Cleveland. Every weekend you’ll usually find at least 10-20 Celtic Supporter at PJ McIntyre’s in Kamms Corners to watch the match. PJ’s also has all the soccer channels as well, so it’s a common occurrence to have supporters in from EPL clubs to watch their matches.

Q: We’ve been hearing since the 1980s how soccer is going to take over America. While it is certainly more accessible now, do you think America is embracing soccer?

Sean: I think as the years have gone along the American public is starting to embrace soccer, slowly but surely. The success of the U.S. Men’s & Women’s National teams in the last two decades has been bringing people in, and the MLS is growing year in and out as well. I’m sure the youth movement over the last couple of decades has helped.

You are also starting to see more coverage and highlights from ESPN and Fox. Five to 10 years ago, it would have been unthinkable to even see scores come through on the bottom scroll on ESPN. Recognition by the big networks in the U.S. will only help spread the word.

To truly grow, though, they need to reach out to sports enthusiasts who weren’t brought up with it. I’m a prime example of this. I never played or watched much but have grown to appreciate soccer. I’m like a lot of people and a fan of the big four sports in North America, but I’ve come to add soccer as a fifth sport. It will take converting fans like me to truly make it take off.

Q: The U.S. Men’s National Team has grown in popularity over the past few years. Do you think we’ll ever see the U.S. win the World Cup?

Sean: I really do hope that one day we can celebrate a U.S. win in the World Cup. I think what makes it tough is that there are so many sports played here that get all our great young athletes. Compare that to countries like England, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Brazil, etc., where soccer is a top-level sport and playing for your country’s soccer team is the highest level you can achieve in sport.

Q: Are you going to follow Euro 2012? Who do you think will win?

I have been following Euro 2012. My first team will always be the U.S., but I also do pull for the Republic of Ireland squad. They’ve been playing phenomenally lately but it will be hard to defeat your traditional powerhouses like Spain, Italy, England, Germany and the Netherlands.

(Photo by Getty Images)

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