Take a cursory glance at the Scottish Premier League table and it might seem as if, after a period of four years, normal service has finally been resumed, with Rangers trailing leaders Celtic as they go into today’s high noon Hogmanay derby at Ibrox.
It doesn’t take too much forensic examination, however, to discern that the points difference between the top two is 16, a yawning chasm which leads Charlie Nicholas to one unavoidable conclusion.
“We’re a long way from the Old Firm,” says the former Celtic and Arsenal striker who is now a pundit on Sky Sports.
“When Mark Warburton was piecing together his team to try and get back in the Premier League, I said that as a manager he plays a nice style of football. And that has always been the Rangers style — even under Graeme Souness they would get the ball down and pass. But in the past they had players like Gascoigne and Laudrup. They had Hateley and McCoist. And defensively they were a physical side.
“Now they still want to pass it out from the back — very similar to what Celtic do — but they don’t have the players. Left-back Lee Wallace (the skipper who is an injury doubt ahead of today’s game) is the best player at the club but they have no pace at the back. Loads of experience but no pace. They need a top-class goalkeeper, they have some nice touch footballers but they’re relying on Kenny Miller who’s 37.
“Who was the big player they brought in? Joey Barton. They’re way behind Celtic. Rangers’ budget is probably £7m (€8.2m), Celtic’s is £20m (€23.5m) plus. They’re getting no European money and there’s no money coming from the owners.
"I know this is what they’ll do: They’ll tell Mark Warburton he can negotiate in the January window and he’ll say: ‘Thanks very much but we’re already nearly 20 points or whatever behind Celtic’. And then the owners had the cheek at the AGM to say they’re really disappointed they’ve not challenged Celtic. Get a reality check, guys: You’re way, way behind as a football club.”
So has the return to the promised land simply come too soon for Rangers?
“I don’t think it’s that they’ve got back into the top flight to soon but what they have to understand is that just because you’re Rangers, with all that history and crowds of 50,000 coming back, doesn’t give you any special rights.
"Aberdeen, St Johnstone, Hearts, Hamilton — none of these teams have missed them. All of sudden Rangers come back and clubs like that are thinking that some of their players might end up signing for them. That’s a danger.”
But don’t the Old Firm need each other?
“Celtic need Rangers in the league because it guarantees four games between them but at the moment it’s not that exciting,” says Nicholas. “In fact, this Hogmanay is probably the most exciting it’s been. It’s bigger for Rangers, though that’s not the way the Celtic fans will see it. Their demand will still be to rub their noses in it and flex their muscles.
“I expect Celtic to win it. Warburton, just like Brendan Rodgers had to do in the Champions League, doesn’t want to change his style. Because if he does, what’s that saying?
"We’re not good enough? So Rangers will have to have a go at Celtic and the danger for them is that if they do play open, they’ll be taken apart. Rangers will want to show they’re getting closer to Celtic but I think that’s at least another season away.”
Meanwhile, Celtic’s false start to what is turning into a season of plenty already seems like a lifetime away in its own right, their early European misadventures this year encompassing a humiliating 1 -0 loss to Lincoln Red Imps and a 7-0 thrashing by Barcelona in the Camp Nou.
“Brendan said he wasn’t embarrassed by it but they were totally embarrassed and so was Brendan,” says Nicholas.
“Borussia Monchengladbach at home was another reality check because they battered us. But even though Celtic have really accelerated since then, he still needs to add to this team to keep making progress. And something he can always fall back on and say to the players is: ‘Some of you played against the Red Imps so never get above yourselves’.”
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