All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning. Great works are often born on a street corner or in a restaurant's revolving door.                                              

                                       (Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus)

Rangers 0 Callander 0

Friendly Challenge Match, May 1872

In the summer of 2019 the Heart and Hand podcast conducted a poll to find the 50 greatest Rangers games of all time. If that poll had been conducted in 2006, it is doubtful whether this match would have made the list at all, never mind finish in 24th place. It would have garnered some votes for sure – everyone understands the importance of those first steps – however, for so long it had remained very much a statistic in dusty books. By chance, a football writer, Gary Ralston, and two keen fans, Iain McColl and Gordon Bell, had begun delving into the Rangers origins story - one they all felt had been too keenly brushed over - and crossed paths with their research in 2007. Ralston’s book The Gallant Pioneers and The Founders Trail, an interactive walking and bus tour created by McColl and Bell, suddenly brought this tale to life. What was once distant history had now been made vivid in the minds of thousands of Rangers supporters.

But what about the ‘centenary’ year of 1973? For decades, fans believed 1873 to be the year of origin. Indeed the club itself had recorded it officially for as long as anyone could remember. The reason for the error dates back to the early 1920s when John Allan, a journalist friend of Bill Struth, was commissioned to write a book about the first 50 years of Rangers Football Club, to be published in 1922. He underestimated the volume of work required to complete the job at hand and, like history students the world over would have loved to have done in the decades that followed, he simply changed the facts to suit his needs. Rangers were now founded in 1873 so that Allan could meet his deadline. The year of formation had been in the Wee Blue Book, the official Rangers handbook, as 1872 for years. In the 1923 and 1924 editions, that particular detail is missing. By 1925, it was ‘corrected’ as being 1873. It is frustrating, as McColl often points out, that Rangers lifted the European Cup Winner’s Cup in Barcelona a full century to the month that those boys first played under the name of Rangers, and it couldn’t be recognised accordingly.

Little is known about the inaugural match itself. What we do know, from former Rangers player and later journalist William Dunlop, is that it was hardly a classic. In his article ‘The Rangers F.C’, written for the SFA Annual of 1881/82, he describes it as a "terrible game" and where "both sides were quite pleased when time was called, without any definite result. If they could lay no claim to be players, at least both sides has exhibited true British pluck." In other words, they kicked the living daylights out of one another. If there was a Man Of The Match award in those days, according to Dunlop, it would have been given to the 16-year-old William McBeath. Such was the multitude of his scars, he was in bed for a week.

None of this is why the story resonates, of course. Even by the time Dunlop was writing the early history of the club, his message was one of perseverance against the odds. "Eager, earnest persistent endeavour is ultimately crowned with success," he wrote, in a sermon so typical of Victorian Britain. Only five years since their first outing on Glasgow Green, a team of boys carrying an "aged bit of leather" and needing the help of guests from Queen’s Park, Rangers were in a Scottish Cup Final where the famous Vale of Leven needed three matches to eventually triumph. (Dunlop himself scored two goals in the first replay, although one, crucially, wasn’t given). Within 20 years of their formation, Rangers were the inaugural Scottish League champions, sharing the honour with Dumbarton in 1891. At a time when thousands were intoxicated by this new craze of Association Football, new fledgling clubs vanished as quickly as they appeared, including the very first opponent Callander. The fact that a football club, born out of a quiet conversation in what is now Kelvingrove Park, between four country boys from the Gareloch frustrated at not having a team of their own, enjoyed such rapid prominence was already noteworthy in 1881. For 21st-century fans, the fact that the world’s most successful football club and a Scottish institution originated from such humble origins casts an even more romantic spell.

There was nothing romantic about the explanation for such early success. The four boys, Moses and Peter McNeil, Peter Campbell and William McBeath, set standards for dedication right from the start. According to Dunlop, the three nights set aside for practice were usually doubled, such was the enthusiasm of the members. If it wasn’t for the mandatory observance of the Sabbath, the Rangers would have been on Glasgow Green training every night of the week. Unlike rowing, which was enjoyed in tandem with the football before dissipating into the background, this was no mere hobby. It was a passion that ensured Rangers didn’t go the way of so many of their early opponents and it set a standard expected of a Ranger for the next century and beyond. In unearthing tales such as this, McColl and Bell have helped fans reconnect with their roots, especially post-2012. "Around that time people would often come up to us at the end of the tour and say thanks for giving them something to cling onto. These boys persevered against the odds at the very beginning and so too, will we now," said McColl.

The Trail’s biggest emotional impact comes from literally being able to go on the journey from Glasgow Green via the various stops touched by the nomadic existence of the club’s early decades and finally arriving at Ibrox Stadium. From a "ridiculous beginning" to our cathedral of sport, shaped as it was by the iconic eye of Archibald Leitch who gave us the main facade which is still the envy of the footballing world. Where once Peter McNeill had to cross the city to plant poles in the ground at the most desirable part of the green, a following soon developed. Dunlop noted that, "the sacred spot became the Mecca of the green, the God football being there worshipped by thousands of devotees, whose piety would not bear either a journey to Hampden Park, or the necessary subscription … Football was their Allah, and the Rangers, if not at the time the prophet, were at least their prophet." Very little would change over the next 150 years.


If it wasn’t for his tuberculosis, Albert Camus may well have been an obscure Algerian goalkeeper instead of one of the greatest post-modern philosophers of the 20th century. Despite having to give up the game at 16, Camus still held a great deal of love for football, which he felt was a "real university". "All I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football," may have been a famous misquote but he did grasp the notion that the game would teach you more about yourself than a book ever could. That it was able to "possess wisdom about life in an immediate way, not from a great distance."

Those lessons were equally prescient for the followers of the game. Camus was an absurdist. He wrestled mainly with the problem that the human need for reason and contentment is in total contradiction with the silence that comes back from the world around us. Where religion and mythology used to present comfort, there was now a deeply uncomfortable void. He famously used the Greek legend of Sisyphus, whose punishment from Zeus for trying to put Death in chains was to push a heavy boulder up to the top of a mountain, where it would roll back down and the pattern would be repeated for eternity. The only option Camus felt appropriate was to deal with the reality of our predicament and to put our shoulder behind our own particular boulder. "The struggle towards the heights," he wrote, "is enough to fill a man’s heart."

There are few interests in life more absurd than following a football team, especially as passionately as millions of us do. When you stop to consider it, delusion is a pretty fundamental part of being a football fan. Just as it is necessary for a full appreciation of the arts, the "willing suspension of disbelief" is a prerequisite for immersing yourself in the entire experience. Not that the game itself is a contrived fiction, more that the importance we place on the fortunes of professional athletes is something that, as grown adults, we tend to resist analysing too closely. These are ‘our’ teams. This is ‘our’ game. In fact sponsors, who have more to gain from spinning this mirage than most, will tell us that fans ‘are football’. We talk of ‘our’ victories and defeats despite the impact of our combined efforts requiring subatomic equipment to detect. We declare a passionate interest in total strangers and act like jilted lovers when they make the perfectly normal human decision to change employers when the opportunity suits. As Jerry Seinfeld once said, "You're actually rooting for the clothes. You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes of another city."

Our weekly ritual, started by those who crowded around Flesher’s Haugh and then handed down from one generation to the next, is perfectly encapsulated by the struggle of Sisyphus. MM Owen, in an article on the subject for The Blizzard, wrote that "supporting a team is an investment with no hope of any permanent happy ending. If we lose, we’ll have to roll the boulder back up the hill. And even if we win, even if we keep winning, we’ll eventually lose, and then we’ll have to roll the boulder back up the hill. There is no moment forthcoming when any football team, no matter how good, will solve football’s last theorem, allowing us all to pack up and go home. Such an aspiration is nonsensical precisely because it belongs in the realm of the rational. The point, as with theatre, is to keep taking to the stage even though eventually the lights will always come up and you’ll remember it was all a make-believe. It’s about imagining celebration, when the world is quietly promising you further dismay. Perhaps the only sort of faith left for a people who have traded gods and saints for playmakers and number nines."

There truly is some solace in the absurdity of following football. The vicarious hobby that allows us to share in the supreme talent of others who are able to do the kind of things we have dreamt of doing ourselves ever since we could remember dreaming at all. The joy derived from attaching profound meaning to an inflated sphere crossing an arbitrary painted line. The sense of belonging that comes with projecting an imagined community onto a team of professional footballers or convincing oneself of the belief that their sporting contest be a further manifestation of historical ones.

Never has the Myth of Sisyphus resonated more with the Rangers support than in the years immediately following 2012. The continual empty promises and false dawns that saw the boulder tumble back down the mountain as the club were forced back to square one, without even the joy of getting it to the top. No wonder then that there was an acute need to reconnect with those very early struggles that four boys faced in order to establish the greatest football club in the country. No wonder, either, that their remarkable story and those first steps, in particular, should continue to echo through the centuries.

In March 2021 the struggle back to the heights was indeed enough to fill our hearts, but only temporarily. A couple of different penalty kicks in May 2022 would have been enough to surely fill it for a lifetime. We rest now and will come back again in August, the collective shoulder put to the rock once more. I would like to think that Camus would have rejoiced in the glorious irrationality of it all. I know, for certain, that I do.