An alienated Glasgow Derby; but a derby nonetheless. The view from down South as Burnley fan Will Lancaster previews the biggest game in Britain this weekend for The Celtic Star…
Continentally recognisable as an absolute bloodbath, derby day in Glasgow has built up a reputation over the years as one of the globe’s most passionate fixtures. On the pitch, it is the fiery tackles, wild celebrations, inevitable bookings and moments of magic that have become synonymous with the many memorable matchups the two sides have conjured up in the past.
Players of past and present have dreamt of the Glasgow Derby being the fixture to write themselves into Hoops’ folklore when they don the green and white jersey, and for some that dream has become reality; Shinsuke Nakamura’s swirling effort and Henrik Larsson’s nutmeg and chip of the 2000’s come to mind.
Off the pitch, it is much more than just aggressive tackles. It is the exponential pre-match buildup of hatred, the constant bickering across the city over who will prevail victorious on the day, and the division between entire households and friendship groups that adds heat to the cauldron that Celtic Park turns into against theRangers.
Derby day at Parkhead is more than just arguing with theRangers’ fans, of course; it still has the same structure as any other matchday, but simply much more intense. Alongside the now-symbolic pre-match Green Brigade march, there is no forgetting the 10am pint of Tennent’s, the sense of optimism walking through the turnstile and You’ll Never Walk Alone drowning out the away end that gives the Bhoys’ fans that extra bit of motivation before their side goes into battle at the fortress.
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Yet, for the first time in history, there will be none of that recognisable ritual for the Celtic faithful on Saturday lunchtime; they will have to watch the match from the comfort of their homes due to COVID-19 regulations. Instead of the 60,000 Hoops’ fans roaring their side on for 90 minutes in pursuit of their tenth league title in a row, there will be an eerily dystopian backdrop to the stands – especially the North Curve of the ground, which will be a shadow of its usual boisterous self – and the Green Brigade not making a racket as they do so well is bound to influence how the players warm to the game.
This is a sensationally alien situation for all involved; Celtic fans would say they are used to derbies which technically aren’t genuine due to Rangers’ controversial reformation anyway, but this takes it to a whole new level. Infact, this will be the first ever Glasgow derby without Ibrox fans being present, and Celtic’s first since their only absence at Ibrox in April 1994 – when then Rangers’ chairman David Murray barred Hoops’ fans for the fixture for damage done to 384 seats after a 2-1 win the October previous.
The frustration being pent up inside Scottish households over the weekend will be insufferable with fans being confined to their living rooms, unable to offer at least some form of support to their heroes; be it vocal or visual.
In essence, it may do certain fans some good; we have all come across fans that think they’re the next Jock Stein on a matchday; and they will perhaps take offence to this, knowing full well that no matter how much they shout at their televisions, Neil Lennon and co are not going to be able to hear their fortnightly repeated cries of ‘give it the wide man’, ‘get him off he’s rubbish’, or my personal favourite – ‘why do they bother’ – which constantly fall on deaf ears.
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Due to this lack of noise, what both managers will be looking to get out of their players the most come Saturday lunchtime is their innate ability to psych themselves up for the top-of-the-table clash. With no twelfth man to roar the Bhoys’ on, Rangers will find it much easier to get the ball on the floor and play fast, attacking football without the constant jeers of Celtic fans; this will give them an advantage, and so Neil Lennon will be hoping players like captain Scott Brown can provide invaluable experience in terms of grit, determination and leadership in order to drag his side onto victory, whilst Callum McGregor will also be called upon to make the difference in securing all three points and firming up a title run in order to become the first club ever to win Ten-in-a-Row.
However, it will be without the guile and ability of many of Celtic’s key players. The most crucial absentee could be star striker Odsonne Edouard, who has contracted COVID-19 on international duty with France’s under-21 squad. Edouard’s potential unavailability would be a major blow to Celtic; having scored six goals in nine games against bitter rivals theRangers, his understanding of how to torment theRangers’ defence will be a loss for Neil Lennon.
If Edouard, who is now back in Scotland and can train at Lennoxtown tomorrow, does not make the starting eleven then Celtic’s Irish manager has a decision to make. He will most likely turn to the free-scoring Albian Ajeti, who having scored five goals in six Premiership games this season will seamlessly fit straight into the starting XI; however, it would be his first Glasgow Derby and therefore the more experienced fan-favourite Leigh Griffiths could be preferred.
‘Griff’ returned to the fore with a crucial last-minute winner against St Johnstone a fortnight ago after missing almost the entire calendar year of 2019 – alongside the start of the current COVID-ravaged season – due to injuries and personal reasons. Rightfully delighted with himself after proving to be the difference in Perth, the Scotsman will be looking to stake a claim for the starting XI berth ahead of Ajeti and young Pole Patryk Klimala.
The in-form Ryan Christie also misses out after coming into close contact with former Celtic midfielder Stuart Armstrong over the international break, which means playmaker Tom Rogic will most likely fill in behind the striker spot for the Hoops’. The skillful Australian international is another player who knows how to put the ball in the Rangers’ net, having scored five goals in just twelve appearances against Steven Gerrard’s men. To add to the virus woes, Israeli duo Hatem Abd Elhamed and Nir Bitton will also have to isolate after coming into contact with COVID-19 whilst on international duty themselves.
And to rub salt into the wound, Christopher Jullien – the last Celtic player to score a winning goal against theRangers’ in the memorably hard-fought League Cup final 1-0 win in December 2019 – could miss out after being missing for the past three weeks with a back problem.
It will prove to be a hard battle against a resolute theRangers side, however there should be enough quality in the starting XI to secure a win given the improvements in squad depth over the summer to leapfrog the blue side of Glasgow to the summit of the SPFL and with a game in hand.
A number of Glasgow Derby debuts could be awarded by Neil Lennon, too. Most notably, boyhood supporter Shane Duffy is in line to make a first ever career appearance against Rangers. The Derry-born defender signed on a season-long loan from Brighton for £2m and has started life incredibly in Scotland’s second city; having scored twice already for the club. Talented playmaker David Turnbull and Uruguayan winger Diego Laxalt could also play a part in the derby, with Laxalt in line to be thrown in at the deep end for his Celtic debut.
In terms of their bitter opponents, it could be argued that Celtic’s biggest test before every derby is how to deal with Alfredo Morelos; it is fair to say the tricky Colombian knows how to find the net. However, given his quite bewildering (and hilarious) misfortunes every time he catches sight of a Celtic goalkeeper – Craig Gordon, Scott Bain, Fraser Forster and hopefully Vasilis Barkas, it is becoming more of a running joke throughout the city that he will never break his hoodoo, even amongst theRangers fans.
If ‘El Bufalo’ fails to score on Saturday, his barren run against Celtic will make it thirteen games without a goal against the Bhoys. There may not be 60,000 Celtic fans to give him jeers every time if misses a knife-edged chance, but you can guarantee they will all be in stitches if the eventuality happens.
His ill-discipline may also play a part in the game aswell; having been sent off twice in his five league appearances at Parkhead, Glasgow’s answer to Luis Suarez will need to keep his tempers from flaring on a much more audible pitch. Elsewhere on the pitch, tricky Liverpudlian winger Ryan Kent will be a handful for young Dutchman Jeremie Frimpong down the right-hand side of Celtic’s pitch, and ‘Broony’ will be tasked with marking the lively Ianis Hagi in the number 10 role.