The first Old Firm clash at Ibrox since March 2012 and, as was to be expected, absence hadn’t made the heart grow any fonder. “Put these bastards in their f**king place,” urged one Rangers supporter, full of festive cheer, prior to kick-off.
The trouble was, and you sensed most Rangers fans were sorely aware of this, even defeat would leave Celtic exactly where they already were – first. That’s their place, for now and for the foreseeable future. Nothing that happened yesterday in Govan offered any succour for those Rangers fans still clinging to the hope things might be different in 2017.
The win ultimately secured by Celtic, which was far more comfortable than the scoreline suggested, simply underlines their superiority, stretching their lead over the Ibrox club to 19 points. Never mind where this fixture takes place, Celtic are bringing far more quality to the party right now, worthy though Rangers’ efforts were.
So Brendan Rodgers could savour his first ever visit to Ibrox, enjoy the ornate details of the Bill Struth main stand, marble staircase and all. Losing his Ibrox virginity only yesterday, at the age of 43, is another surprising detail from Rodgers’ career to date. His first visit to Hampden Park was for the League Cup semi-final victory over Rangers in October, and his tour of Scottish football grounds continues to progress with barely a hitch. Goals by Moussa Dembele, with a superbly controlled volley, and Scott Sinclair overturned Kenny Miller’s opener, which was just the third time Celtic have trailed domestically this season.
Rodgers strained a calf muscle while celebrating what proved to be the winner, but was still determined to shake the hand of each Rangers player at the end as he hobbled around the pitch. He had words of comfort for Barrie McKay, perhaps Rangers’ top performer.
These were received with grace and even reverence by McKay, which seemed a long way from the kind of treatment meted out to Celtic’s manager on the team’s last visit here. Neil Lennon actually watched most of the second half from the Ibrox media room on that occasion, after being sent to the stand by the referee en route to leading his side to the title, the first of what will surely now become a run of six.
As far as the Rangers fans were concerned, at least that afternoon ended with a home victory. The home supporters were conscious that even a much-desired win yesterday would be slightly spoiled by Celtic fans still being able to lord it over them, at their own home too.
But such concerns hadn’t prevented them enjoying that last Old Firm clash here, which was played in the shadow of Rangers’ darkest hour. A 3-2 victory, secured against the backdrop of approaching financial catastrophe, was how Rangers bade farewell to successive years of hosting this fixture, stretching back to 1888.
The near five-year hiatus has of course been punctuated with games between the sides elsewhere. But yesterday still felt like an event, the last bridge to be crossed before normal service could really be viewed to have been resumed.
Part of the normal service is of course the eternal bickering between their fans, the endless need to claim some kind of moral superiority over one another. It’s depressing reporting that the minute’s silence to commemorate the 66 deaths at the 1971 Ibrox disaster went as well as could be expected – indeed, probably better. It’s a low bar.
A couple of shrieks, someone whistling a tune, a rejoinder from the main stand enclosure of “I hope you die!” Just the usual calling cards of inveterate, incurable attention seekers. It’s difficult to conceal such idiots and easy for observers to mention them. But the 50,000 or so others who stood solemnly to attention cannot be overlooked in these circumstances. The game itself was played in good spirits and was a glorious reaffirmation of what’s good about this particular fixture. It was also a delicious throwback; when was the last time anyone saw two drop-balls in the same game? Better still, they were both fiercely conteste.
But Rangers were not going to put the ball out of play when they raced forward for the first goal, with Joe Garner lying stricken on the turf. Kenny Miller steered in James Tavernier’s cross. It was the goal their blustery, energetic start deserved. Scott Brown, the Celtic skipper, was then booked for dumping Tavernier on the ground with a challenge from behind. It was all going Rangers’ way. When Clint Hill crumpled to the turf soon afterwards, Rangers were rather quicker to send the ball out of play.
Rangers were snapping into challenges, Brown spooked to the extent that he passed the ball straight out of play at one point – much to the home fans’ glee. But the midfielder was commendably able to put a booking as well as this shaky moment behind him, growing into the game to become one of its dominant influences, along with match winners Dembele and Sinclair, for whom Rangers have no player of equivalent standing.
Brown was one of the last to leave the pitch at the end, stripped to the waist having hurled his top into the away stand. He says he hasn’t missed Rangers, nor visits to Ibrox for Old Firm games. But he wasn’t celebrating like this after last Wednesday night’s victory over Ross County.