IF PAST experience of the Old Firm fixture is to count for anything at Hampden on Sunday, few on the pitch will be able to draw from a deeper well of it than Lee McCulloch.
The Rangers captain went through a full range of emotions and dramatic moments in his 15 previous appearances for the Ibrox club against Celtic before the occasion was forced into abeyance three years ago.
McCulloch savoured seven victories and suffered six defeats in those Old Firm battles. He felt the elation of scoring a late equaliser in the New Year showdown of 2010 but also the ignominy of being sent off in a loss at Celtic Park later the same year.
If there is one lesson the 36-year-old feels he has learned above all others when it comes to handling the unmatched intensity of the fixture, it is the value of keeping your emotions in check.
“Basically, it’s about having a cool head,” said McCulloch. “Obviously the atmosphere can get the better of you.
“There are a lot of people in our dressing room experiencing it for the first time this weekend. So it is basically a case of playing with your heads and not your hearts.
“The ones who have never played in it before could get carried away with the occasion. But sensible heads are needed on and off the pitch on Sunday.
“I think the ones making their Old Firm debuts for us are well aware what to expect.
“Apart from myself, we have got Kenny Miller, Kris Boyd and Lee Wallace who have all played in the Old Firm game before. Those boys have been getting around the boys who haven’t played in it before.
“I know it has been a while, but it is just another Old Firm game. I don’t think the atmosphere will be bigger or nastier. The only thing that has changed is the length of time since the last one. So I think everybody just needs to keep their heads calm and go and enjoy it. Obviously we can only enjoy it with a win.”
McCulloch is unfazed by the weight of opinion, among pundits, punters and bookmakers alike, predicting a convincing victory for Celtic in the League Cup semi-final. He insists there is no apprehension in the approach of the Rangers players as they prepare to face the Scottish champions.
“I don’t think there is any fear at all,” he said. “There is respect but never really any fear. We just need to go and enjoy the occasion and we need to play well if we want to win the match.
“It’s a match that we are desperately looking forward to. I think it goes without saying that we are massive underdogs. But it is good that we have a mentality that we want to go and show people that we are capable of winning.
“It takes a bit of pressure off. All the pressure will be on Celtic, although we’re not going into it relaxed. We know it’s an Old Firm game and we know there is a place in the final at stake. We will be looking to get there.
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“I’m not into all of the odds and stuff like that.
“What I would say is that it is going to be really hard for us, just like it has been in the past. It is really hard to win any Old Firm game and Sunday will be no different.
“They are favourites, but it is not going to be any different, it is going to be hard. We are going to need to play well if we want to win it.
“It has got to give us encouragement that we have beaten three Premiership teams in the cups already this season. If you watch all of those games, we were deserved winners. It shows that we can do it.
“Celtic are arguably the best team in the country as they are sitting top of the league. So nobody is saying it is going to be easy.
“It is going to be a game where 11 of us need to be on top of our game in order to progress to the next round.
“It’s not really for me to say how big a gulf there is between the teams.
“We will see on Sunday if there is a big gulf. I don’t think it would be as big an achievement for us to win as many people are making out. Not in my eyes. We have beaten Celtic before so why can’t we go and beat them again?
“It would be special to win, just like it is any time you beat your rivals. I am sure Celtic would say the same. Personally, it would mean everything. For any fan who is playing for their team, to beat your biggest rivals means a hell of a lot. But it’s not easy. It’s never easy to win an Old Firm game. We are going to need to be prepared and get ready for all sorts of different scenarios.
“The Old Firm games are the biggest games in Scottish football, so I think you would be lying if you said you didn’t miss them as a player. Although I would imagine managers don’t miss them!
“But, as a player, you definitely miss the occasion, the bragging rights for the fans and the atmosphere. It’s a unique experience and personally I can’t wait until Sunday.”