There were a number of groundhopping options available to me on the weekend of November 16th, with two very appealing fixtures in the FA Women’s Super League making me wish I could split my body in half and witness both.
In Liverpool, the first-ever women’s Merseyside derby was taking place at Anfield, while in the capital, a similar piece of footballing history would be made, as Tottenham Hotspur’s flashy, new stadium hosted the inaugural women’s North London derby.
Huge crowds were expected at both venues as part of Women’s Football Weekend, where some of the women’s teams would play at their club’s main stadium while their male counterparts were away on international duty. Either FAWSL match would have allowed me to tick off a major UK ground but I also wanted to be part of – and show my continued support for – women’s football during a marquee event.
However, I had to shelve all these plans when the draw for the Scottish Challenge Cup quarter-final took place, as Wrexham were due to play Rangers’ youth team at the third-biggest stadium in Scotland: Ibrox.
As the fixture coincided with a week off work, the girlfriend and I decided to have an extended stay in Glasgow – while I lined up two extra games, including a Glasgow City Ladies match during Women’s Football Weekend. This is part one of our Glasgow groundhopping journey (which is actually just my solo journey, as Saffron had to work and joined me the following day).
A unique occasion
I stepped off the train at Glasgow Central and was hit by a wall of bitterly cold air. Rather than dump my over-sized bag of jumpers at my Airbnb gaff, however, I had to immediately cold-foot it across the city to Ibrox as kick-off was only an hour and a half away. Thankfully, the nearby subway system was cheap, easy to use and provided a direct route to the district of Ibrox, with its stadium namesake right around the corner.
I began learning a lot about Rangers as I walked up to the ground. I never really thought the political side of the Old Firm was going to be quite so apparent so I was surprised to see Union Jacks draped on the side of industrial estate fences. But I quickly gathered that the club’s protestant allegiances meant they were a Unionist football club.
Integrated into the stadium appeared to be a number of 70’s-style apartments, which I wasn’t too keen on, but the murals to Gers heroes such as Ally McCoist and Paul Gascoigne were something special.
On a lap around, my excitement levels grew when I heard the Wrexham fans singing inside the Sandy Jardine Stand and I decided to go withdraw some cash in order to buy a couple of keepsake programmes from such a unique fixture.
However, instead of soaking in the atmosphere, I ended up spending much of the pre-match hauling my luggage around quite rundown streets trying to find an ATM that didn’t con you into spending £1.99 to withdraw your money.
When I eventually took out a Scottich tenner, I hastily returned to the stadium and bought a couple of Rangers Colts posters folded up and disguised as programmes. They were only a quid each, to be fair. Plus, I got two free Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer bars from the now infamous Cup sponsors. The prospect of Saffron and I sharing a bit of average confectionery was the kind of true romance that I craved in Scotland.
I entered the away stand, which was bizarrely guarded by riot vans and police on horses, and headed straight to my seat. About 1,000 Wrexham fans were packed in the corner of Ibrox so I abandoned trying to find my actual allocated seat and took in the amazing setting of a 50,000-capacity stadium surrounded by excited and vocal Reds fans near the gantry entrance.
Out of the Cup
Once the match started, things deteriorated very quickly. The boisterous noise in the away end dissipated as Rangers’ kids run us ragged. Their movement and passing were a level above what Wrexham were producing, despite us fielding first-team players such as Devonte Redmond, Jason Oswell and Leighton McIntosh.
The first half possession stats must have been at least 80% to the home side as they missed some good chances but went into the break a goal up thanks to Jamie Barjonas’ composed finish inside the area.
Wrexham had fleeting spells of pressure just before the opening goal and midway through the second half but Rangers doubled their lead when Christian Dibble spilled a shot from Barjonas and allowed frizzy-haired substitute Nathan Young-Coombes to nip in and score in front of the wild, flag-wielding home support in the adjacent corner.
Arron Lyall and Kai Kennedy could have added gloss to the scoreline late on, which would have been merited based on their team’s performance, but they now go into the last four as strong contenders to win the trophy that the senior side won in 2016.
As well as getting knocked out by a youth team, I didn’t enjoy the bitter atmosphere in the ground.
For some reason, there’s always been a connection between Celtic and Wrexham. As I expected, some fans brought Celtic flags and scarves to goad the Rangers support, while some actual Bhoys supporters were also in our end. There wasn’t much significance to this until the last 20 minutes when a lot of people got bored and started finding entertainment in the Old Firm’s sectarian rivalry.
Instead of singing enjoyable songs asking if you’ve ever seen Steven Gerrard win the league, there was a lot of hatred being chanted about Rangers fans getting ‘battered everywhere they go’.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a provocative atmosphere. But not when it has nothing to do with things on the field. And especially when, as a result, I have to be held back from leaving the ground and then be part of police kettling in order to reach the subway.
To be fair, I can’t blame the fans for the hour and a half it took us to get back to the city centre. Treating 1,000 Wrexham fans like we were a crowd tenfold that amount felt like a gross overreaction. It meant many of us missed the Wales game against Azerbaijan which kicked off straight after and I was also severely late meeting my Airbnb host.
But we did all save £1.75 on the subway home, so I suppose that’s us compensated.
Alongside the result and performance, I was left disappointed by the crowd inside Ibrox. In my head, based on the international break and the eagerness to play the game in a bigger ground, I expected the stadium to be at least a third full but there were only around 5,000 fans in total – a tenth of the capacity.
That being said, I really liked the energy from the bouncing Rangers fans in the corner. It provided a glimpse into what the place would be like on a regular matchday and added to the aura of our surroundings.
For Wrexham, I think we got what we wanted from the Scottish Challenge Cup – a bit of extra money and a never-before-seen away day. The youth team players who featured at Ibrox and helped us get to the last eight will have long-lasting memories, as will the travelling supporters. Bring on Ebbsfleet away!
Rangers Colts 2
Scottish Challenge Cup
Ground rating: 8/10