Tuesday 20 February 2018

James Lawton: One-sided Old Firm must find new lease of life for the sake of Scottish football

Scott Brown leads celebrations after Celtic’s Old Firm victory over Rangers at Ibrox Park last April
Scott Brown leads celebrations after Celtic’s Old Firm victory over Rangers at Ibrox Park last April
James Lawton

James Lawton

Old glory often dies hard, but in football the bite can rarely have been as painful as that currently being suffered by the followers of Rangers.

Bad enough that Celtic are making something of a habit of beating them 5-1, but the latest cut goes even deeper.

This is the growing sense that a match that once galvanised a tough and passionate city has become something to watch, perhaps, rather than be consumed by.

Contributing, however subliminally, to this dwindling of compulsion is a decision of Celtic and their fans, who are convinced they are heading towards their seventh straight title.

It is to discard before today's high noon action at Ibrox Park the traditional, passionately-murmured trademark billing of the Old Firm match.

Unofficially, but like some stab in the ribs of battered Rangers fans, Celtic are saying the term refers to another age, another competitive culture.

Scan the pre-game propaganda of the club and its supporters' organisations and the chances are the reference will be to the first Glasgow derby of the season.

The implication is about as subtle as a scuffle on Sauchiehall Street of a Saturday night. It says that the Old Firm has broken up.

All that tribal fury, all that desperate, often over-spilling commitment is, it seems, being parcelled up and left in the lost property office, something unique mislaid when Rangers had their financial implosion and were required to fight their way back through the lower divisions.

Catastrophe

The job, according to Celtic prejudice at least, is still a long way from completion - and will be pushed back still further if another catastrophe is inflicted in the old fortress of Ibrox.

For Rangers, and maybe the rest of Scottish football, this broad sweep of Celtic triumphalism would no doubt rest more easily on some hard evidence that Brendan Rodgers's Scottish treble last season represents something more than domination of a desperately thin pool of football resources.

That idea, hardly helped by the 7-0 evisceration by Barcelona last season, took another body blow with PSG's 5-0 lordly stroll in Glasgow 11 days ago.

Yet Celtic, in the 50th anniversary year of Jock Stein's Lisbon Lions, plainly see Rodgers as a man of some destiny, perhaps one to make the isolation of Scottish club football from the serious end of the European game seem less profound and historically heart-breaking.

According to some local critics, Rodgers is already nudging the status of a protected species.

Certainly, there was some outrage at the club when some had the temerity to question his decision to play raw 18-year-old Anthony Ralston against the world's most expensive player, Neymar.

Rodgers saw it as potentially the making of the boy. Some worried about a demoralising, even scarring, experience.

But the coach dismissed the idea, saying: "When you put a young player into a Champions League game you have to be sure he is not going to sink.

"You can't have a shrinking violet in that arena and that's one thing he isn't. And that's why I played him. He's young but he doesn't play young.

"When you put in a young player in that kind of situation you have to make sure he's got the right personality traits."

Rodgers did allow that he was somewhat disappointed in the general team performance despite the brilliance of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani, and said that he expected his team to show a big improvement in next week's match against Anderlecht in Brussels, one tempered by the fire of one of the world's most talented teams.

Yet, there is no doubt that Rodgers is in a better position than his Rangers rival Pedro Caixinha.

The Portuguese coach is fighting for survival with a new batch of foreign mercenaries - and a desperate need to erase the ignominy of Europa League ejection by Luxembourg's FC Progres Niederkorn, who finished fourth in their league, and before the 2-0 second-leg defeat of Rangers, had scored just one goal in Europe.

In the circumstances, it is maybe remarkable that the hard-headed Graeme Souness still sees potentially epic challenges in the meeting of the Old Firm that some claim has been effectively disbanded, at least on the terraces of Parkhead.

Souness, who created the early momentum for Rangers' nine-title march through the 1990s, refuses to shut the boardroom door on at least some of the meaning of one of football's most intense rivalries.

Souness believes he has seen signs of improvement in his old club and insists, despite his years at Liverpool, that the one in Glasgow is by far the most demanding derby he has ever played in.

"Without a doubt Rangers-Celtic is the biggest derby I've ever been involved in. It is because of what it means to the supporters. You feel the tension in the city and then the elation if you have won.

Bigger

"In this sense you cannot play in a bigger game. It may be a bit rich coming from me but you've got to have a strong head, a thinking head.

"I love the game and I just hope Rangers do themselves justice and win it. They've signed a number of new players and are showing some signs of coming together.

"They need a strong Old Firm up there because then Celtic wouldn't be able to sell off their best players.

"Right now they could sell some of their best players knowing they will still swan off with another title."

It is maybe not much of an aperitif for a match that once claimed the soul of a city, and so much more recently than when Stein's Celtic were giants bestriding Europe. But, for the moment at least, it will just have to do.

The Old Firm, after all, needs rather more than a face-lift or a new business plan.

The requirement is the spirit and the genius of a time which, agonisingly, may have gone forever.

Irish Independent

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