By Brian P. Dunleavy
Sunday’s Old Firm clash at Celtic Park harkened back to many of the teams’ encounters in the late 2000s.
A decade ago, with the fact that no other team in Scotland would ever mount a viable challenge to the league title firmly established, late-season matches between the two bitter rivals would often feature a lot of tepid football. Both sides seemed to be playing not to lose, reckoning that as long as they didn’t drop points to the rest of the league, they could secure the title.
Take the 2008-09 season, in which Rangers won the league by four points. After the clubs split victories in the first half of the term, with the men from Ibrox winning one 4-2, their late-season battles ended 0-0 and 1-0 (to Rangers). The next season, Rangers won the league by six points. It’s no coincidence they took two of the Old Firm derbies that term.
Indeed, the quality of play suffered enough that some around the sport were calling for league reform (with some suggesting that the top flight be expanded to include as many as 20 teams), just so Celtic and Rangers wouldn’t have to play each other as much.
Apparently, the thinking was that familiarity doesn’t only breed contempt; it also spurs mediocrity.
Of course, things aren’t that simple. Yes, with Rangers back in the Prem, the two sides will meet four times this season in league play alone, with two more matches in cup competitions, including next month’s Scottish Cup semi-final. However, even with many long-time Celtic supporters claiming the “thunder” at Celtic Park on Sunday was a bit muted, the atmosphere surrounding the game is still a unique spectacle, even when the football isn’t.
There is a famous game in North American college sports, in which Harvard is said to have “beaten” long-time rival Yale 29-29 in an American football game in the 1968 season. The tie cost Harvard’s rivals Yale the Ivy League title that year.
No, Sunday’s 1-1 “victory” by Rangers won’t derail Celtic’s title hopes—the league is a forgone conclusion—but that didn’t stop the Ibrox side and their supporters from celebrating as though it did in the southeast corner of Paradise after the final whistle. Graeme Murty succeeded in finding a tactical approach to stymie the Bhoys. The result was an unremarkable display by both teams (apparently, neither side got the memo The Full Scottish was in attendance, in the vicinity of the Jungle), but it was good enough for Rangers to salvage some pride in advance of a new manager taking charge.
With Celtic 25 points clear at the top of the table, and 33 points ahead of third-place Rangers, the feeling heading into the match was that the Hoops would play their brand of free-flowing, attacking football and run up the score. Andy Walker, among others, had famously said as much—and only served to provide Murty’s men with “bulletin board” material.
Rangers, instead, maintained their shape and didn’t allow Scott Sinclair, James Forrest and Moussa Dembele any space. If anything, Celtic’s goal, from Stuart Armstrong, came against the run of play.
A portent of things to come in the Scottish Cup semi-final? Hardly. While Sunday’s match may not have been the best advertisement for the Scottish game, the Old Firm tends to feed upon itself, and the subplots will only thicken over the next month or so. In fact, Brendan Rodgers has already issued a challenge to his team to play better in that next derby game.
All of which is why those calling to cut back on Glasgow derbies in the Scottish schedule were missing the point.
Really, it’s almost as if the football itself doesn’t matter.