Whatever the circumstances when Rangers face their Glasgow neighbours Celtic the game is inevitably full of all the usual animosity and hostility that accompanies this famous old fixture; but at Ibrox on October 17, 1987 things escalated so badly that some even questioned the future of this, most poisonous of derby games.
As it turned out nine man Rangers secured a well-deserved 2-2 draw against their 10-man rivals in a thrilling encounter that day, but the game was somewhat overshadowed by a number of violent and bad-tempered encounters which punctuated the clash and saw three red cards, more than 60 arrests and resulted in four players appearing in court.
Billy McNeill’s Celtic were four points clear of Rangers who, under Graeme Souness, boasted a number of high profile English imports in their ranks, as the two met in the bright autumn sunshine that October day; but the game resembled more of a relegation dog fight than a contest between two teams vying for the league championship.
It didn’t take long for things to turn ugly and after just quarter of an hour Celtic forward Frank McAvennie barged into the Rangers goalkeeper Chris Woods as he was dealing with a Jimmy Phillips back-pass.
Woods ended up trading blows with McAvennie while grabbing him around the neck as Rangers and England captain, Terry Butcher, intervened to shove McAvennie away; by this time Graham Roberts had also become involved.
A punch was then thrown which resulted in McAvennie hitting the deck as all hell broke loose, not just on the field of play but in the stands too. Referee Jim Duncan had little choice but to show Woods and McAvennie the red card while Butcher was probably lucky to only see yellow along with Roberts.
Both teams being reduced to ten men did little to spoil what was fast becoming an enthralling encounter and after 35 minutes the visitors found themselves 2-0 up thanks to an Andy Walker strike and an unfortunate Terry Butcher own goal; but if anyone thought that was the end of the drama, they were very much mistaken.
With Rangers now fielding the feisty defender Graham Roberts in goal in the days before substitute ‘keepers were being named among the substitutes, the match took an even more dramatic turn in the second half - though not before yet another sending off.
As Celtic goalkeeper Alan McKnight came out to deal with a high ball, he and Butcher clashed on the floor and the Rangers skipper appeared to kick out as the two grappled. Despite the mêlée his actions didn’t go unnoticed by Mr Duncan and Butcher received his marching orders, joining Woods and McAvennie in the dressing room.
But if anything, being reduced to nine men only galvanised Rangers and just minutes later Ally McCoist found himself free in the box and fired the ball home off the post to give Rangers hope as Ibrox reached boiling point going into the closing stages of one of the most bad-tempered games ever seen, anywhere.
There were still plenty of opportunities for the Hoops to secure all three points, though, only to be thwarted by stand-in ‘keeper Roberts, who time-and-again kept their efforts at bay and often in the most unorthodox of ways.
And with just a minute left on the clock there was still time for one final twist in a game which resembled a crime thriller rather than a sporting classic, as Richard Gough netted a last-gasp equaliser following yet another goal mouth mix-up.
To make matters worse and to enflame an already toxic atmosphere, in the closing seconds of the match Roberts, in the Rangers goal, took the opportunity to conduct the Rangers fans in a chorus of sectarian chants aimed at their counterparts at the other end of the ground, although he later claimed he hadn’t realised what the fans were singing.
The final whistle was greeted by a mixture of wild celebrations from the Rangers fans and howls of derision from some of those who were disgusted by what they had witnessed as the Celtic players ran for the tunnel; but the end of the game didn’t bring a curtain down on one of the most infamous encounters ever seen in Scottish football.
Rangers ‘keeper Chris Woods, along with Graham Roberts, Terry Butcher and Scotland international Frank McAvennie would eventually be charged with “Conduct likely to provoke a breach of the peace,” and a referee’s report into what happened that day was also ordered by the SFA.
All four contested the charges against them and were present during their trial the following spring as the Scottish game was dragged through the courts for all to see. The cases against Roberts and McAvennie were not proven, while Woods was ordered to pay £500 and Butcher received a £250 penalty.
“Saturday will go down as the day the Old Firm clashes almost died of shame,” wrote Jim Reynolds in The Herald the following day. “I wonder if these players, especially those who have come from England, fully understand the powder-keg situation they are in every time they take part in an Old Firm game. If not, then it is time for someone with a sense of responsibility to spell it out in full.”
Derby day in Glasgow is often accused of promoting all that is bad in Scottish football with this being one of the worst examples on record. And of course subsequent encounters have proved that the ill-feeling shows little sign of abating anytime soon, even if they haven’t quite reached the levels of October 1987 and the Old Firm’s game of shame.
This article first appeared on The Sportsman on October 17, 2017