IF anyone wanted to do a pictorial study of the great Glasgow derby through the ages, all they would require to chart the recent period was to rake out various snaps of Kenny Miller.
In the jousting between Celtic and Rangers, no player has sharpened his lance in more different guises than the 35-year-old striker. The forward reflected the other day that his first experience of a fixture he is about to immerse himself in again courtesy of today’s League Cup semi-final was “almost 15 years ago”. Then he was “a young man... or, rather, a younger man”.
Rather, then he was in his first stint playing at Ibrox, now he is in his third. Or, alternatively, then he had still to become only the second-ever player who, after he had played for both clubs, returned to his first Glasgow posting. Thanks to his spell at Celtic Park, today Miller – who has netted eight times in our game’s fiercest face-offs – will become the first player in Scottish football history to turn out in these derbies across four distinct playing periods of their career.
For many, the first meeting between the teams in nearly three years is a fourth-generation encounter in all too many respects. It is degraded not merely by Rangers’ Championship status, which places them at a lowest-ever playing ebb. Arguably, Celtic have rarely been weaker in the past two decades.
The affable Miller, perhaps predictably, was keen to mount a defence of today’s Hampden product that will be placed on global view. “I remember even as a fan watching some fantastic players but you still got games that were stinkers, ground out 1-0s,” he said.
“It goes without saying that the standard of player back in the early 2000s was high. You’d be lying if you said there is the same standard as the likes of [Arthur] Numan, [Jorge] Albertz and [Barry] Ferguson. But we are where we are, in the Championship and not the top league, so I think that goes hand in hand. But the lads who go out there on Sunday will be fully focused and giving everything for the jersey the same as these guys did.
“I couldn’t comment in terms of the quality Celtic have attracted, but in terms of whether they’ve missed us [with] their performances, then I would say yes, because I think the whole league has. This game will be the biggest draw there’s been in the past three seasons – and it being an Old Firm game where it’s top league v Championship is something that’s a first as well. Celtic have definitely been able to take their foot off the gas in the last couple of years.”
The expectation is that Ronny Deila’s side will put their foot to the throat of Rangers this afternoon to inflict a real going-over. A slight injury in his first season at Rangers in 2000-01 allowed Miller narrowly to avoid the most humiliating derby league reverse in the Ibrox club’s history. Yet little more than two months after that 6-2 drubbing for a Dick Advocaat side assembled at great cost, his first sampling of the derby turned out to be the “great day” of a 5-1 win. Lopsided results when both teams contained genuine big hitters should be borne in mind by those confidently predicting calamity for Rangers this afternoon, Miller suggested. Celtic’s John Guidetti stating he fancied a hat-trick, the former Scotland internationalist described as “silly and a bit foolish”.
He also pointed to another consideration where today’s cup tie is concerned. “When you come into these fixtures, the deciding factor about favourites is home advantage. It’s ever so slight if there is a favourite.
“But this time Celtic are favourites and rightly so. But that’s not to say it’s going to be a one-sided affair. You only need to look at FA Cup ties last weekend to see that teams from the lower leagues can go to huge teams – far better teams than us and Celtic – and win. Chelsea were beaten by Bradford and Manchester City were beaten by Middlesbrough in their own backyards. So shocks happen. This is a neutral venue and we’ve got lads who have played in cup finals before, like Jon Daly and Ian Black, Waldo [Lee Wallace] Jig [Lee McCulloch], Boydy [Kris Boyd] , Stevie Smith and myself have all played in cup finals at Hampden. So we’re familiar with the place. So it’s not as intimidating as it would be going to Parkhead.”
Some bookmakers are so little intimidated by the prospects of Rangers pulling off a mighty shock that they are offering anyone brave enough to wager on that outcome 8/1. “Is that what we are? I’ll get my wife to have a bet on that,” Miller said, tongue firmly in cheek and with a twinkle that betrayed his full awareness of the ban on players’ betting.
“It’s staggering when you think it’s Rangers and Celtic and you can get a price like that on Rangers. Obviously Celtic are overwhelming favourites but the bottom line is that you wouldn’t think it’ll be as big a one-sided affair as that. We’ve played in games where it’s been 6-2 against, 5-1 for, so one-sided games can happen. But that’s not to say it’ll happen.
“The fact Celtic are top of the Premiership and we’re second in the Championship won’t be the deciding factor on how the game goes, it’ll be how both teams play on the day. Loads of things can happen. There can be red cards, strange decisions, penalty decisions that can go for or against you. Come Sunday, the eyes of the world are going to be on Scottish football again, which is great, but you just hope that people are going to be talking about the football and not anything else.”
For the permanently penurious and strife-torn Rangers, Miller is unequivocal that this afternoon’s semi-final is an occasion to be embraced not feared. “This fixture alone gives us a chance to put a bit of sunshine on the place. There has been a dark cloud over us for a while now, on the field and off the field. On the field we have not been playing as well as we would have liked to have been playing, we are playing catch-up for the league, where if you had asked us at the start of the season we would have much preferred and thought we would be at the top of the league. In terms of the club off the field it is a real chance to give our fans something to sing about.
“Apart from the fact it is a chance to get to a cup final and a real chance to put one over on your local rivals in a match where no one is giving you a chance. In that sense, we can hope to use it to spur us on. But we are going to have to be on our game, it is as simple as that. We are going to have to neutralise their threats and the good players we have are going to have to turn up.”
Miller made a habit of turning up in Glasgow derbies. Seven of his eight strikes – six in the form of doubles – contributed to victories. If he added a ninth that help earn a place in the League Cup final, the goal would top his brilliant strike for Scotland at Wembley in 2013, he maintained. This afternoon’s experience will certainly require to be something extraordinary to eclipse his favourite derby memory.
“That was my first one back, of my second spell here, the 4-2 at Parkhead. We were five or six games into the season, I hadn’t scored, so going into that fixture [there was pressure]. There was a lot of opposition to me going back that time, so to get a goal in that game and playing my part in a huge result is one I look back on as a big, big game.”
Miller has featured in 16 of these big, big games. He has ended up on the losing side only on six occasions. That proved his fate in his last such outing, four years ago last month. He thought that would be a bitter end to his derby days. In spite of all his optimism, that could well arrive today. Inevitably, though, he places an entirely different slant on his potential derby swansong.
“Who knows? Whether you are here next year or not, or whether we might actually get promoted so we do have the chance to have another shot at it, who knows what is going to happen in football? Particularly at this place at the moment. It is a game everyone is looking forward to and one I really think we should cherish. Particularly for me because I know I might never get that opportunity again.”