Scottish League Cup semi-final
Celtic V Rangers
Tomorrow: Hampden Park, 1.30pm
TV: Setanta Ireland
There is nothing like the old times. When the present is so bad, the past is always a good place to turn. And turn Rangers fans gladly did last Sunday afternoon.
The occasion may have been in the name of charity — a benefit match at Ibrox for former favourite Fernando Ricksen, now crippled with motor-neurone disease — but the afternoon of nostalgia came as sweet relief to those in the stands.
Recent years have left Rangers supporters more anxious about 7am statements to the stock exchange than 7pm kick-offs in Europe.
Mike Ashley, the villain of the piece, might be wrestling with a popular group of investors who go by the moniker ‘The Three Bears’ for control of their club, but this is no fairytale for fans. It’s a recurring nightmare.
This is the backdrop they cannot escape as they prepare for a first Old Firm derby in three years, a Hampden Park League Cup semi-final clash with Celtic tomorrow that many would have preferred to avoid.
You could forgive them then for heading to Ibrox in their hordes last weekend to see heroes of old like Brian Laudrup, Ronald de Boer and Gennaro Gattuso and reminisce about the past.
It sure as hell beat facing up to the present.
Well over 40,000 packed into the place in honour of Ricksen while attendances this term have struggled to crawl past 30,000 since the opening day of the season. Then, 43,683 saw the tone set for the campaign as Hearts stunned a Rangers side who were 2/5 title favourites.
The gap between them currently sits at 13 points but could and should be more; such has been Hearts’ utter supremacy and Rangers’ startling struggles in a division where a third of the teams are semi-professional.
This writer made the trip across town to Govan a few weeks ago for a game against Dumbarton. There was undeniably a touch of morbid curiosity about the journey, one of those conscious decisions to strain the neck and gawk at a car crash.
And what a car crash Rangers 2014/15 have been. The Saturday afternoon encounter was the first at Ibrox since Ally McCoist had succumbed and scurried from the wreckage before another cavalcade came steaming around the corner to pile on up.
New manager Kenny McDowall’s first home game had been preceded by a debut at Easter Road that saw Hibernian record their most emphatic win over Rangers in, oh, just the 102 years.
The present-day atmosphere at Ibrox has been described as funereal. But it’s not quite. We’ve been at more uplifting farewells in our time. If anything it’s more akin to a gathering in a mouldy solicitor’s office to hear the reading of a will, when everyone knows there’s no good news coming.
When Dumbarton, part-timers who train on astroturf pitches twice a week, took an early lead, the microscopic flakes of patience evaporated and any pass that was a fraction of a degree sideways was lambasted in the harshest of this great city’s unique vernacular. Aided by a wicked deflection, some Dumbarton profligacy and a late penalty, Rangers were to turn things around.
What struck this observer though was just how stale the still well-paid professionals in blue looked. Amid the likes of Kenny Miller and Lee McCullough (veteran Scottish internationals both), one-time hot prospect David Templeton and prolific top-flight scorers Jon Daly and Kris Boyd, it was the Dumbarton men who impressed.
Chris Turner was an effective, if often frustrating and sometimes stupidity-prone, performer in the League of Ireland for many years before leaving Shamrock Rovers with little sense of great loss in 2012. In Dumbarton colours this day, he stood out at Ibrox.
It is for those kind of reasons — and so many more — that Rangers supporters will make their way to Hampden Park tomorrow with dread the overriding emotion.
It’s been three years since the two tribes went to war but never in their long history has there been such a gulf between Celtic and Rangers.
Glasgow’s Herald newspaper has been running a series on derbies that shook the Old Firm this week and drew a comparison between the late 80s and early 90s — when Graeme Souness and Rangers did their best Imelda-Marcos-on-Supermarket-Sweep impression while everything around Celtic was crumbling — with the current state of affairs.
Yet even in those darkest of times Celtic were at least competing in the top half of the Premiership and had one or two high-class performers to look to.
When Rangers are left looking to Miller or Boyd — one no longer hungry on the pitch, the other a little too hungry off it — tomorrow, it’s clear that these are spartan times in Govan.
Yet Celtic supporters won’t be bouncing across the Clyde in eager anticipation either. The debut campaign of manager Ronnie Deila — touted as Norway’s Jurgen Klopp — hasn’t been so much stop-start as yet to get out of neutral.
The problem, much like it has been since the day the first Rangers cheque bounced, is the absence of a real challenger, a factor surely behind Neil Lennon’s summer departure.
While the next generation of impressive Scottish managers have led a fresh revival of the New Firm (Derek McInnes at Aberdeen and Jackie McNamara at Dundee United), it’s hardly put the fear of god into those at Paradise. When Aberdeen went top of the table on New Year’s Day, Celtic were so rattled they responded by taking a week off for a Spanish training getaway.
That allowed the Dons to go four points clear and many observers climbed the pulpit to lash Celtic’s attitude. They returned bronzed, promptly won three on the bounce and now find themselves three clear with a game in hand.
Celtic are going for a fourth title in a row — a feat not achieved in four decades — yet they don’t have the swagger of an all-conquering champion.
They’re the heavyweight growing pudgy at the edges, shipping a lot more punches to average challengers than in their prime but getting there in the end, before returning to the buffet.
They haven’t made it through a knockout stage in Europe in over a decade and with Inter Milan on the way in the Europa League, they’re unlikely to do so any time again soon. Nor for that matter are any of the rest.
Because while the current financial stability of the Scottish top flight is to be commended, there can be no arguing that on the field, things have gone significantly backwards in this era of Rangers turmoil.
Scottish football had a stone-cold sobering four representatives at last summer’s World Cup, all provided by Celtic, but two of those — Georgios Samaras and Fraser Forster — were all but out the exit door before they left for Brazil.
Four years previously, SPL representation hit double figures with five clubs sending 10 players to South Africa. Go back another four years to Germany and there were 11 players plucked from seven different Scottish clubs for football’s grandest stage.
The air around Hampden tomorrow will crackle and fizzle like days past, Old Firm sulphur stunning the senses like only it can, and the place may well rock to its rafters like it used to. But there will be no De Boers, Gattusos or Laudrups, no Larssons or Suttons for that matter.
Scottish football unquestionably needs the Old Firm. But tomorrow will go a long way to proving it doesn’t need them in their current guise. There is, after all, nothing like the old times...and these are nothing like the old times.
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