The grand old football clubs of Rangers and Celtic have got tangled up in some ludicrous scrapes over the years. In 1909, plans to complete the Scottish Cup final were abandoned when fans of both sides, sensing a second money-spinning replay had been cynically contrived, burned down the ticket booths at Hampden using cheap whisky as fuel. The infamous full-scale pitched battle between fans and polis at the 1980 final palls in comparison, though only just. In 1999, the referee Hugh Dallas was quantitatively eased to the floor by a targeted injection of the pound sterling. And in 2011, Lennon and McCoisty stood on the touchline making sweet music in the keys of eff and cee, a full and frank exchange of views, eyeball to eyeball, nose to nose, which led to questions being asked in parliament.

There are others, too, plenty of others, but let us cut to the chase, because nothing compares to what happened at Ibrox on 17 October 1987, a brouhaha of the highest order, and arguably the best-remembered match in the entire history of Scottish football. Domestically, any road. The game, fair’s fair, isn’t seared on the national consciousness with a waxy seal of quality like the Lisbon Lions triumphing over Inter, or Rangers winning the Cup-Winners’ Cup, or Aberdeen lifting the same trophy after seeing off Real Madrid, or any of Dundee United’s many glorious victories over perennial losers Barcelona, or the national team’s rare sweet successes against England and regular bittersweet failures against England. But all of those contributions to the Scottish canon occurred on the continental and international stage. Domestically, when it comes to the bread and butter of the league, this is almost certainly the one. Whether we like it or not.

Whether it deserves to be celebrated is another matter altogether. Its fame endures simply because several fully grown adults spent the afternoon behaving like teething bairns, flailing around in a style rarely seen outside the playground playpen. And of course the depressing sectarian undertones – never too far from the surface at the best of times – are impossible to ignore or argue away. But it’s well worth another look, not least because – to paraphrase the old music-hall joke – at a couple of points during the fight, a half-decent football match broke out. And in any case, it’ll be a sorry day when the guilty pleasures of a widescreen slapstick skirmish such as this can’t raise at least a wry eyebrow, maybe even a smile.

This didn’t appear out of nowhere, a thorny rose blooming amid a vacuum. There was a century’s worth of animosity, of course, but the roots of this particular stramash were less than two years old. Rangers – specifically Graeme Souness’s Rangers – had been working up to something like this.

It was the culmination of a perfect storm of nonsense. In March 1986, Rangers and Celtic drew 4-4 at Ibrox and the home manager Jock Wallace danced into the executive lounge after the match to perform a loud impromptu rendition of “The Sash My Father Wore”. Members of the board were less concerned with the tedious sectarian triumphalism than the fact their manager was so happy after a farcical high-scoring draw in which his team failed to hold onto a lead against 10 men. More ambition was required. And more ambition, with the old-school Wallace shipped out in favour of fashionable new player-manager Graeme Souness, was what they got.

Perhaps too much ambition. For the former Liverpool midfielder Souness arrived with the intention of taking “one of the biggest clubs in British football” back to the top. They hadn’t won the league title in eight seasons. They’d only won three of the last 22 titles, an unthinkable return for a club historically considered as one half of an effective duopoly. Their state-of-the-art Ibrox stadium was more than half empty most of the time, so abject were the team. It would take plenty of effort to haul Rangers back into position and Souness was certainly not afraid of getting his hands dirty. A fact that would become very apparent very quickly.

Souness’s steely determination would be a factor in driving Rangers to their desired success, but also to excess. His team would become the cartoon baddies of Scottish football, desirous of playing football in the right style – how could they not, with absurdly talented winger Davie Cooper and statesmanlike midfield glider Ian Durrant in the team – but fully prepared to mix it if needs be. Souness had once observed that the all-conquering Liverpool team of which he was the linchpin was programmed to play, but was primed to fight if required. And that they’d win, whatever method of engagement the opposition chose. It was a philosophy he wasn’t ready to reconsider any time soon.

The Souness rebrand began when it began. He made his debut as both player and manager against Hibernian at Easter Road on the first day of the 1986-87 season, and picked up a booking after 23 minutes for a needless tackle on Billy Kirkwood. Momentarily regaining his equilibrium, Souness sashayed down the middle of the park 11 minutes later, dropping a shoulder with insouciant ease to make himself a little space. Sheer class. At which point he was charged off the ball by the Hibs winger Stuart Beedie. The red mist came down once more and by way of retribution he raked his studs down … well, Beedie’s leg, hopefully? But sadly he was mistaken. Confused by a second player sporting Beedie’s thoroughly contemporary mullet, Souness instead opened up George McClusky’s knee, a wound that would require nine stitches. The new Rangers manager was sent packing. He sauntered off with a chilling, borderline psychotic calm, leaving a 21-man melee going off in his wake. Eight other players, four on each side, were booked.

After the game, which Rangers lost 2-1, journalists wondered whether Souness would be fining himself for letting the team down. “That’s not my way of discipline.” He also announced that he wouldn’t be fining any other players who happened to get themselves sent off. Conversation over. (Though it wouldn’t be the last time he would have to field the question during the campaign.) Souness was banned for four matches, fined £5,000, put on a disciplinary notice by the SFA and informed by Scotland’s solicitor general, Peter Fraser QC, that prosecutions would be advised for on-field offences. A harbinger, albeit one that was breezily ignored, with extreme prejudice.

Rangers were knocked out of the Uefa Cup in December by Borussia Mönchengladbach, somewhat unluckily it has to be said, on away goals after thoroughly dominating the German side at the Bökelbergstadion but failing to score. Cooper and Ted McMinn sparkled on the wings in their very contrasting styles and both were kicked from pillar to post for their troubles. But Rangers were also putting it about. Ally Dawson was extremely fortunate not to walk after eight minutes for a knee-high lunge on Michael Frontzeck. “At the time, I thought an early dismissal would have been too drastic,” recalled the referee Alexis Ponnet. “I hoped things would calm down. I was wrong.”

Souness was lucky to escape a red card for a comprehensive clatter on Thomas Krisp, who was left lying on the touchline like a pile of dirty washing. Stuart Munro was sent off for kicking the left-back Andre Winkhold during a tussle, while Cooper, aggrieved at being hacked to the floor one time too many, walked for dissent. Cooper claimed he asked the referee if he was afraid of booking Germans, and that Ponnet replied, “I am German” before sending him off. Ponnet, who was in fact Belgian, insisted Cooper called him a “dirty German”, a dubious observation which earned him a second yellow, thoroughly deserved for offences against basic geography, if nothing else.

At the final whistle, Terry Butcher had to be restrained for raising one or two discursive matters with Ponnet. “I have refereed a lot of Scottish matches in my career, but I have never seen one like this,” the beleaguered official later sighed. “Both teams went out not to play football, but to kick each other.” Souness, however, was perfectly content with his team’s behaviour and once again confirmed that he would not be disciplining anybody, certainly not in financial terms. The argumentative Butcher was singled out for special praise, suggesting his actions “reflected the way he has come to be involved with the club”. Another ominous harbinger, as Butcher would later further illustrate his newly discovered fierce loyalty to Rangers during an interview in which he famously announced “Celtic! You hate ‘em so much!” and revealed that he’d thrown his favourite Simple Minds cassette out of the car window upon discovering that the singer Jim Kerr was a regular at Parkhead. (Whether Butcher had been enjoying the contemporaneous bombast of “Alive and Kicking” era Simple Minds, or mining the group’s early, subtle, krautrock-tinged experiments in new pop, has never been satisfactorily ascertained.)

Rangers were fined £5,300 for that farce, and another one was quick in coming. In mid-January, Souness’s team allowed themselves to get awfully het up by a struggling Hamilton Academical side which had won just two of their 27 league games that season, were propping up the Premier Division in some style and as a result had been suffering the ultimate indignity of being patronised week in, week out on national television by Jimmy Greaves. The tone of a performance of wanton lunacy was set when Butcher slid in recklessly on Bobbie Barr, out of control, both feet in the air, studs up. On STV, the commentator Jock Brown nonsensically argued that Butcher had “taken the ball cleanly”, a dismal soundtrack for grim viewing; there’s a point at which Barr, prone and clearly in shock, opts to look down and check on the state of his leg, before being deafened by an inner monologue screaming “AW NO!” He leans back in anguish, his fate sealed. Barr was stretchered off, a clean break.

The new signing Graham Roberts was fortunate to escape a red card for kneeing John Pelosi in the kidneys, but did eventually walk after shouldering Albert Craig to the floor, a yellow apiece for those party tricks. Durrant then flipped the hapless Craig into the air like a greasy fried egg and stomped off for his early bath. Exactly what Souness had said to his men before the game is sadly not on the record, but it must have been quite a spiritual rouser. Whether the rhetoric was well-timed or not is for others to judge, but it should be noted that this particular fixture had been rearranged, crowbarred into the schedule so Souness could sit out another suspension, with a view to picking from a full complement of players for an upcoming game with Aberdeen. The best laid plans… Again, Souness said no action would be taken, instead blaming the referee for letting things spiral out of control.

Hamilton gained revenge less than a fortnight later by knocking Rangers out of the cup at Ibrox, a shock of Berwickian proportions, Adrian Sprott and all that. Rangers responded to that grievous insult by thrashing Hearts 5-2 at Tynecastle, ending the Jambos’ 32-game unbeaten home run. A fine response befitting an increasingly impressive football team, though for the record Souness, Dave McPherson, Jimmy Nicholl and the already-risible Roberts were fortunate to escape reds for challenges various, all merely seeing yellow instead.

But it’s easy to knock. And Souness’s approach was working. Rangers had been a thundering irrelevance since the advent of the eighties, but now they were in with a shout of their first title since 1978. Souness had also wasted no time in lifting his first silverware: within a couple of months of his debut, Rangers had won the 1986 Scottish League Cup after a tempestuous 2-1 victory over Celtic during which Mo Johnston was sent off, responding to his dismissal by ostentatiously crossing himself for the comedic benefit of the Rangers support.

The elusive title was landed at Pittodrie, though few remember the firmly planted Butcher header that sealed the deal. Souness ensured his season would be bookended by red cards, two absurd lunges on Aberdeen’s Brian Irvine earning another spectacular dismissal. But this had been some effort by Souness and his men in the period between those particular atrocities. On the BBC, the savagely under-rated Archie Macpherson hailed an “incredible achievement”, opining that, having seen Wallace’s Rangers a mere 12 months previously, “they looked as though they could never win anything within the next five years… and here they are, having won two of the three domestic trophies”. The Rangers chairman David Holmes – the man most piqued by Wallace’s myopic Sash celebration, and thus the prime mover in the Ibrox revolution – spent most of his post-match interview with Macpherson running through detailed plans for the immediate and effective absorption of carbonated French wine.

The champagne rush didn’t last long. The outgoing champions Celtic had become almost an irrelevance within a mere 12 months, such was the ferocity of the Sounessian whirlwind. Second place was nowhere, not when Rangers were storming to their first title in aeons, anyway. And they weren’t having it. The manager Davie Hay was sacked and replaced with the returning legend Billy McNeill, a three-time title winner during his first stint as Celtic boss, but coming off the back of a spectacular season south of the border which had seen him relegate both Manchester City and Aston Villa. The very early signs during the second reign of Caesar suggested more of the latter than the former. Celtic followed several embarrassing pre-season performances against lower-league Swedish opposition by going down 5-1 at home to Arsenal in a showpiece friendly, their heaviest loss on their own turf for 27 years.

No wonder, as star turns Johnston, Alan McInally and Brian McClair had departed during the summer. But Celtic were going into their centenary season and McNeill was in no frame of mind to succumb without a fight. His determined mindset was perfectly illustrated by his combative response to the loss of his entire strike force. McInally’s departure was met with a shrug as he “wasn’t familiar with him”. Johnston’s goals would be missed, but McNeill insisted he “isn’t necessarily a severe loss” as “his off-the-field behaviour isn’t something I would want to have to cope with. Don’t forget he only came to Celtic in the first place because Watford thought he was too hot to handle.” Only the departure of McClair to Manchester United raised hackles. “It was straightforward larceny! We were done, no doubt about that. How could any tribunal possibly expect us even to try to replace somebody like him with £850,000? The other upsetting thing about McClair and Johnston was that they both claimed to be Celtic supporters who would do anything for the club as long as the money was right. The directors made the money right – they were going to break the bank to hold them – yet they still went.”

McNeill responded to the misery by signing the up-and-coming striker Andy Walker from Motherwell for £350,000 and the supposedly past-it attacking midfielder Billy Stark on the cheap from Aberdeen. The effect was immediate. Walker scored twice and Stark once on debut in a 4-0 league win at Morton and a pattern was set. The pair linked up marvellously with a rejuvenated Mark McGhee. In their first three league games, all wins, Celtic scored nine times, Stark with two, McGhee with three and Walker with the other four. A loss at Dunfermline gave McNeill a little pause for thought, but as Rangers had lost two of their first four matches, Celtic would still be the happier side going into the first Old Firm match of the season, at Parkhead.

They were certainly the happier coming out of it. Stark scored what proved the winner early on, then on the hour was wiped out by Souness, who, having already been cautioned for dissent, walked for the third time since coming to Scotland. The Rangers boss became involved with referee David Syme and a linesman in the tunnel after the match, calling Syme “a big fucking poof”. He capped off a marvellous meltdown by tendering his resignation to Holmes, though he later calmed down enough sheepishly to withdraw it.

But the pressure was clearly back on Rangers. McNeill and Celtic had realised a spectacular turnaround in fortunes and by the time the second Old Firm match of the campaign came around in October they were already four points clear of their city rivals, two shy of the early leaders Hearts. A win for Celtic would surely see Souness’s side out of the title race before October was through. And so it was do or die for the champions. Jock Brown – knowing full well that, with English teams out of Europe in the wake of the Heysel ban, all the hottest action was occurring up north these days – trilled excitedly into his STV microphone as Celtic got the ball rolling at Ibrox, “It’s undoubtedly Britain’s match of the day!”

It was on.

This game has a reputation as quite the rammy nowadays. And with good reason. Then again, here’s the immediate response of the esteemed Sunday Times journalist Bob Ferrier: “The puzzle was that the match, in spite of the tensions of this age-old fixture, was never particularly vicious or vindictive.” As ever, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. This match might be a grotesque nonsense, but it’s not quite the extreme outrage than its legend could lead one to believe.

Despite Celtic’s goal-rich start to the season, McNeill hadn’t taken anything for granted. Walker, McGhee and Stark might have been racking them up, but another striker wasn’t going to hurt, so in came Frank McAvennie from West Ham United (who initially wanted £1.5m, but settled for £750,000). He arrived in Glasgow on the same day Richard Gough swapped White Hart Lane for Ibrox in a £1.5m deal. Both expensive new arrivals would make quite an impression on this game. McAvennie had made his debut against Hibs a fortnight earlier, 24 hours after joining the club. He was patently unfit for that one, but soon got up to speed, scoring his first goal for his childhood favourites against Morton and thus went into the game at Ibrox in determined spirit.

Perhaps too determined. Early on, Tommy Burns hoicked an agricultural garryowen into the Rangers box from distance out on the left, forcing Chris Woods to palm over the crossbar. As the keeper flew through the air to deal with the difficult ball, McAvennie bowled into view and Nat Lofthoused him into the net. A fevered tone had been established from the off, a state of affairs additionally illustrated back up the field: Burns had been extremely fortunate to evade a full-blooded sliding scythe by Durrant, who had been hysterically skittering across the turf with combative intent while the Celtic man had been mid-hoof.

McAvennie had, perhaps unwittingly, lit the famous Rangers short fuse. Trevor Francis tried to inject a bit of class into proceedings by gliding in from the right and sending a skidder towards the bottom corner which Allan McKnight did well to parry. But his measured interjection counted for naught. The next meaningful passage of play would occur at the other end, in the Rangers area. On 16 minutes, Chris Morris sent a low cross into the box from the right. Jimmy Phillips slid in to guide the ball back to Woods, who gathered. In came McAvennie, late, more cheeky agitation on his mind. Cue bedlam, as first the striker, then the keeper, raised hands, throwing them around in a freeform fashion.

Woods grabbed McAvennie by the throat with one big paw, pushing him backwards. Butcher stepped in, bouncer style, shoving McAvennie violently in the chest. Woods moved in to continue the debate, but before he could get involved again, Roberts silently ambled up and, stealing in from the side, calmly introduced his fist to McAvennie’s coupon, executing a sharp, snide rabbit punch before slipping away. McAvennie, then Woods were sent packing, despite arguably being the least aggressive pair involved in this particular hoo-hah.

McAvennie departed the scene quickly, on the advice of his teammate Peter Grant, for now playing the peacemaker. But Woods stood rooted to the spot in disbelief, blond, statuesque, before eventually stripping to the waist and giving Roberts his shirt and gloves, a pleasing homo-erotic counterpoint to all the tedious macho posturing. Butcher escaped with a booking, while the crafty Roberts was free to go about his new net-minding task without any censure whatsoever. In the stand behind, one Celtic supporting gentleman turned to the home support and repeatedly performed a bras d’honneur, the no-nonsense up-yours gesture of fist and forearm, a perfect response to the old-fashioned dukes-up shenanigans being played out on the field.

Roberts was immediately in the thick of the action, coming to the edge of his area to parry a shot from Grant, who had been sent clear on goal. However, he failed to repeat the trick when Mick McCarthy, another new signing from Manchester City, launched a basic clearance upfield on 33 minutes. Rangers, on the attack seconds earlier, were left light at the back and Walker skittered down the inside-left channel before drawing Roberts off his line and threading a marvellous low shot under the keeper into the far corner.

Two minutes later, Stark, in the centre circle, chipped a pass out right for Walker, who immediately wedged one back down the middle for the onrushing Grant. Butcher, tracking back, got to the ball first with a telescopic leg, but only succeeded in arcing it over the stranded Roberts and into the empty net. Grant celebrated by crossing himself, in and of itself a banal and insignificant act, but one which would guarantee him plenty of wearisome post-match hassle.

Celtic’s goals had been decent – a lovely finish from Walker, a crisp move to force the second – but Rangers had clearly lost both their shape and the head. (A writer’s exercise: how would things have panned out had Souness been on the pitch?) On 63 minutes, John McGregor launched a long ball into the Celtic box. Butcher contested it with McKnight, then, as the two tangled on the floor, lamped the keeper upside the head for no discernible reason. A straight red, to go with the yellow he’d received earlier. It was surely all over.

But if this match was to become a classic, it needed a footballing narrative of note; by itself, a fight wasn’t enough to cut the mustard. And here it was. Within 60 seconds, Rangers – down to nine men, with a defender in goal – hauled themselves back in it with an exquisite piece of football. Derek Ferguson wriggled free of a Celtic pincer movement in the middle of the park and slid the ball forward for Gough, who in turn shuttled it on for McCoist, making good down the inside-left channel. The striker smashed a shot off the left-hand upright and into the net. A marvellous goal amid the mayhem.

Celtic should still have glided home, but their efforts to put Roberts under pressure with high balls were weak and half-arsed. McNeill had opted to stick rather than twist in the second half, sending his team out with a safety-first mindset, and he wasn’t minded to change the plan. Celtic suffered some bad luck – a Stark header looped over a stranded Roberts and twanged off the crossbar – but in truth they hadn’t done enough to earn any of the good stuff. And sure enough, Roberts having otherwise held firm, the grandstand finish came on 90 minutes. Durrant sped past Anton Rogan down the right. The resulting cross was headed back out to the wing by McCarthy, but Durrant picked up possession again and looped in a second. McKnight came for the cross, flapped, and missed. Gough, in the role of emergency striker and loitering in the middle, scuffed the ball home from six yards as he fell backwards. Bedlam, bedlam, bedlam.

All that was left during the short period of injury time remaining was for Roberts, inflammatory gestures second nature, gormlessly to conduct the Ibrox choir in a rendition of the Sash. Ah well, Jock Wallace will have been proud, at least.

Jan Kiesiel, assistant manager of the Polish side Górnik Zabrze, was in the stands to run the rule over Rangers ahead of an upcoming European Cup tie. “I have never witnessed such scenes in Poland,” he observed, before dryly adding, “We do not have boxers in our country.” It was certainly a squalid affair and one which rattled on for months. “This has to go to the top of the house,” spluttered Jock Brown on Scotsport, which is exactly what happened. Butcher, Woods, Roberts and McAvennie were all hauled before the beak. Butcher and Woods were found guilty of conduct likely to provoke off-field bother and fined £250 and £500 respectively. The case against Roberts was not proven, while McAvennie was found not guilty.

A shameful business, but then the denizens of the Broomloan Road Stand got their money’s worth that day: four goals, three red cards, two haymakers, one last-gasp comeback, all on a plate, right in front of them. It might not have pleased the pious, but it was thunderingly good entertainment. Despite it all, it had been a great match.

By dint of the comeback, secured while down to nine men and with a clown in goal, Rangers felt they had won this particular battle with Celtic. But Celtic would win the war. Rangers, severely depleted now by suspension, nevertheless lifted the League Cup the following weekend, prevailing in a roller-coaster final with Aberdeen. But they could never quite haul themselves back into the title race, losing both of the season’s remaining Old Firm fixtures. Celtic romped to the championship and completed a double in their centenary season with a victory over Dundee United in a Scottish Cup final remembered more these days for the glorious pelters copped by a shocked Margaret Thatcher than for McAvennie’s last-gasp winner.

The following season would see Rangers win the first title in what would become a record-equalling nine-in-a-row run. Souness would be long gone by the time that particular achievement was in the bag, but it didn’t matter. He’d already made an indelible mark on the Scottish game, energising the league with a memorable team of cartoon baddies who surely earned their place in the rogues gallery – an essential sub-section of football’s rich tradition – alongside the likes of Estudiantes, Revie’s Leeds, the Wimbledon crazy gang, the Brazil and Argentina teams of the late 1940s, and Goikoetxea’s Athletic of Bilbao. Knock them if you like, but the league in Scotland has never been quite as entertaining since.