Thursday 22 March 2018

Old Firm boys back in town

Celtic and Rangers both hoping to profit from the return of Scotland's headline act

Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers will give his players a tactical
Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers will give his players a tactical "refresher" course ahead of Saturday's visit of Rangers Photo: Jeff Holmes/PA Wire

Roddy Forsyth

The boys are back in town, clad in green and blue - and the impact has been reverberating long before today's high noon kick-off for the first Old Firm league derby since April 2012.

The punters have been animated as never before, according to SPFL sponsors Ladbrokes, who announced that they expect a colossal 2,000 bets per minute to be placed this morning.

The bookies also revealed that one Celtic supporter had already put £10,000 on Brendan Rodgers to deliver victory over Rangers in his first experience of the world's most enduring derby.

The convulsive sequence of the Old Firm clash has been interrupted forcibly only three times in its 128-year history and on two of those occasions it took world wars to punctuate the hostilities. Today they resume after the third hiatus, caused by the financial meltdown of Craig Whyte's ramshackle regime at Ibrox in 2012.

A few dreamers thought that Rangers' re-emergence in the fourth tier of Scottish football might presage a revolutionary era in which prizes and influence would leach away from Glasgow. In fact, the most positive consequence of Rangers' weakness was a redistribution of silverware in the Scottish Cup and League Cup, to the benefit of such sides as Ross County, Inverness, St Johnstone and Hibernian.

Otherwise, however, the Scottish game lost its headline act, to the dismay of league administrators, broadcasters, sponsors and pub licensees, although it must be said that there was equivalent relief among the staff of A&E units in and around Glasgow.

The most obvious beneficiaries in football terms were Celtic, whose resources guaranteed that they would cruise untroubled towards a sequence of titles which now extends to five in a row.

Not that Celtic were immune to the dilution of interest in the Scottish title campaign. Season-ticket sales fell and the atmosphere inside Celtic Park became infected by lethargy, exacerbated by the fact that a board under no pressure from the other side of the city took a chance on Ronny Deila, a man whose experience in the Norwegian backwoods of Stromsgodset did not equip him to attain a place in the Champions League group stage.

Within two months of his arrival Rodgers has delivered on that front and fans can look forward to encounters with Barcelona - the first of which is in the Nou Camp on Tuesday - Manchester City and Borussia Monchengladbach.

Rangers, of course, have not been complete strangers to their arch foes over the past four years, having lost to Celtic in a Scottish League Cup semi-final in 2015 and beaten them at the same stage of the Scottish Cup in April.

Both of those encounters, however, took place at Hampden Park, a neutral venue where the equitable distribution of tickets cannot have prepared Mark Warburton for the cauldron he and his squad will face at a Celtic Park today.

The ambience will be intensified by the fact that Joey Barton - one of a large contingent of Ibrox newbies - thought it amusing to use Twitter to wind up Celtic's combative captain, Scott Brown.

Rodgers has no first-hand experience of this fixture but he knows that it is imprudent to try to reignite the smouldering embers of this rivalry by hosing them with petrol and he sensibly set out a job description for Brown when he said: "What you see now with Scott is a 31-year-old man with maturity - a guy who understands the consequence of what happens on the field.

"You have seen many a time over the years that a guy who was really aggressive when younger - full of beans and competitive - learns how to handle that a wee bit better. That is what I see in Scott. He knows his responsibility in the team."

A hamstring problem might deprive Rodgers of Leigh Griffiths, Celtic's top scorer, but the prevailing belief is that the champions have sufficient in reserve to see off a Rangers side whose start to the season has been unconvincing. Rangers have failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their opening four fixtures and have conceded first in three of them.

Warburton has bridled at the suggestion that his players are significant underdogs and he has been able to cite the Scottish Cup upset, when there was a league between the teams. He is also entitled to suggest that allowances must be made for the arrival of 12 summer signings.

That said, Celtic Park is not the location anyone would choose to blood too many newcomers.

Rodgers, meanwhile, has another point to prove, with regard to his time at Liverpool, "I made the people happy there, for a period of time," he said.

"After Liverpool, it was not just about any club, it was about the right club." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Celtic v Rangers, Live, Sky Sports 2, 12.00pm

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport