On Saturday, December 29th 2012, two football clubs from Glasgow will take to the pitch at Hampden Park to play the unlikeliest of matches. Glasgow derbies attended by tens, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of spectators around the time of New Year have been a tradition in Scottish football for well over a century, and yet this fixture will not feature a certain world-famous team in green and white hoops. It will be an older, more historic fixture, all but forgotten prior to the extraordinary 2012-13 Division Three season, and shall provide a strange and fascinating insight into how Scottish football might have developed in a parallel universe, where Queen’s Park FC had not held on in the face of changing times and priorities to its cherished amateur status, and had cleaved to its place as the country’s pre-eminent and most innovative football club. At Hampden Park, the home of the Scottish game, Queen’s Park will face Rangers FC. Once by far the smaller club, whose 54 league titles to date were won in the intervening century since Queen’s Park’s principled refusal to lower their club to the vice of professionalism corroded their dominance of the game, Rangers will, according to reports, bring at least 30,000 “travelling” fans a few miles down the road from Govan to a club whose support would be forgiven for asking themselves “what if?”
Of course, Hampden Park has changed beyond all recognition over the years, just as the club that plays there has changed, and yet the name has always been attached to Queen’s Park, even as the capacity requirements for its use as the national team stadium have dwarfed the crowds that the club is able to draw for domestic games. There have been no fewer than three Hampdens since the club first played on a pitch bearing the name, all in different locations, though close enough for the club to have been a part of a single local community since 1873. Nowadays one can find both humour and pathos in the sight of this fine old club playing in Division Three to crowds of around 700 in an echoing, cavernous stadium, seeming in its sheer emptiness much larger than its 52,000 seat capacity. Those who never experienced it can only try to imagine what it was like to watch Queen’s Park in the days before the Maracana was built in Rio, when Hampden was the biggest football stadium on earth. Those fans who attended both Queen’s Park and Scotland matches at the ground must have been struck by the perversity of seeing over 100,000 spectators there to watch the Scotland teams who have promised so much and delivered so little, and perhaps a hundredth of that to see the amateurs in black and white hoops, who gave so much to the game.
What, exactly, Queen’s Park contributed to the game, and not just in Scotland, can hardly be overstated. The club was, in short, the most influential single club of the 19th century, and perhaps in the history of the game. This is a bold statement indeed, but supported by a brief and incomplete list of the club’s innovations in those early days. They are credited with introducing the half-time interval, the free-kick, the crossbar and, perhaps most influential of all, the passing game. The reader is invited to try to imagine the game without these inventions.
Before Queen’s Park developed the passing game, in their own colours and in those of the national team, which in those days was essentially a Queen’s select XI, both Scottish and English teams alike prioritised a swashbuckling dribbling game where one player would charge forward, supported by team-mates who would try to retrieve the ball if it was lost. It was Queen’s Park who decided that the best way to prevent their own skilled dribblers from being assaulted by the opposition’s defenders would be to keep the ball away from them in the simplest way possible, by passing the ball between each other so that there could be no one individual target for the defenders to convene upon at any given time.
The club’s superiority in the Scottish game became quickly apparent, winning the first three Scottish Cups. Though Dunbartonshire’s Vale of Leven FC broke their dominance by winning the next three tournaments in a row, Queen’s Park was still the biggest and most popular club in Glasgow, which for complex sociological reasons was the footballing capital of Scotland from the outset, and has remained so. In any case the club would regain the Scottish Cup, and defend it another two times in the early 1880s, but if Vale of Leven’s stint as the country’s dominant team was not to have serious long-term consequences for the game and for Queen’s Park in particular, their opponents in two of those three victories would eventually cast a long shadow over Queen’s, Glasgow and Scottish football in general. In that first final, it took the Vale two replays to vanquish Rangers, the young upstarts from the south side of Glasgow, formed by four teenagers in a public park only five years earlier. Rangers would not actually win the cup for another seventeen years, by which time certain complex upheavals within the game and within society had changed both forever. These changes were to provide an environment in which Rangers Football Club would flourish. They would also herald a new, less glamorous era for Scotland’s premier club.
There are certain ugly, regrettable factors in what the outsider may call the decline of Queen’s Park, if it may be called a decline, and in so far as they can be separated from other factors, brought upon the club by itself, these shall be dealt with first, and briefly. In the simplest terms, Rangers and Celtic became the dominant clubs in Scottish football because they became the dominant clubs in Glasgow, and they became the dominant clubs in Glasgow, at the expense of Queen’s Park, for two reasons. One was professionalism and the other was religion, or politics, depending on your viewpoint. When Celtic was founded in 1888, there was no ethnic or religious element to football in Glasgow, though Hibernian FC had been founded in Edinburgh thirteen years earlier with a clear celebration of their Irish origins. This had been accepted in Edinburgh, not riven by sectarian divisions as Glasgow was, and besides, Hibernian always promoted itself as a Scottish club of Irish heritage, with no religious element involved. Celtic’s origins were somewhat different. Established by a Marist Brother by the name of Brother Walfrid, the club was intended to provide charitable relief to Glasgow’s Irish Catholic poor, whose lot was a particularly miserable one in a city where many were unconcerned by their plight, and those who did offer food and shelter did so under the banner of the Protestant Church of Scotland. Thus Celtic became not only the Irish club, but also the Catholic club, and the sentiment among the Scots was that if “they” had a club then “we” should have a club too. Though at this point and throughout its history Celtic hired non-Catholic players and forbade entrance to nobody on religious grounds, the identity of the club was established in this manner whether or not it was intended.
Queen’s Park, being more successful and well-supported than Rangers, Partick Thistle and Third Lanark, would have been the natural candidate for the default club of the Protestant Scots in Glasgow, whether they had chosen such a fate or not, but by this time the baser appetites of professionalism were looming large and becoming harder to ignore. The club had been ignoring calls for professionalism throughout the 1880s, displaying their commitment to the ideals that are expressed so romantically in their club motto to this day - ”Ludere Causa Ludendi”, or “to play for the sake of playing”. When, in 1890, the Scottish Football League was founded, Queen’s Park were one of only two clubs within the Scottish Football Association to refuse their invitation to join. They were not the only club opposed to professionalism, but their fear that the league and its increased playing schedule would lead inevitably to that particular outcome was either not felt, or ignored by the other clubs. By the time Queen’s Park relented, ten years later, and joined the league, though retaining their amateur status, Rangers were reigning Scottish champions and their position as one of the two Glasgow giants was secured. The city simply could not support a third. In Queen’s Park’s first league campaign the club, which nearly 30 years earlier had supplied all eleven players to the national team to take on England, finished a lowly eighth.
When discussing an old, venerable football club with a fine history but which has seen better times, there can be a risk of lapsing into condescension and romanticism. It will be easy to forget, among all the rhapsodising about days gone by and how “exciting” it will be for the plumbers, decorators and electricians of Queen’s Park to play in front of at least 30,000 people tomorrow, and a television audience of many times more, that the players will be going out to try to win three points in a league campaign. And, though it will not seem like it, it will be a home game. A home game which, in direct contravention of their expressed ideals, the club will have been forced by circumstances to change into something barely deserving of the name. The game will be played at Hampden, but the vast majority in attendance will be Rangers supporters, many there, as always, to see their team, many too for whom this will be as far away as they are prepared to travel for an “away” game, and many more for the novelty. One can assume that Queen’s Park and their supporters will wish that the travelling circus that is Rangers’ league campaign this season will not be the only thing worth talking about tomorrow afternoon. There will be two clubs at Hampden, both with glorious histories, and if Rangers have shown us anything this year, if the very fact that this fixture is being played at all has taught us anything, it is that when empires rise and fall, what we are left with is history.
Follow Jamie on Twitter @JW_Davidson
Thanks to Tom Brogan for the image.