‘Lennon reacted to one decision after another like a man who had a hedgehog in his tracksuit’
The Scottish Premier League might be a tired old mess, but there is no questioning the Old Firm’s ability to constantly reinvent itself as one of the most electrifying of all derbies. It has challengers, of course. All around the world there are crazed rivalries in this game but yesterday, Rangers and Celtic upped the ante. It was as if there was this subconscious acceptance that their reputation for producing craziness was under threat, so they delivered a game of unending incident and a post-match reaction from Neil Lennon that stirred the blood.
Celtic had one player sent off (wrongly, probably) and then another. They lost a goal – and then their manager. Lennon was dismissed during the half time break as he sought answers from Calum Murray about some of the decisions he had made. Lennon told his story later on and struggled to keep his anger in check.
He watched the second half in the media room because security advised him he wasn’t safe sitting in the stand. “This is the country we live in,” he said.
Things should have petered out at 2-0, but not yesterday. No, no. Rangers had a man sent off and Celtic scored, then scored again. In the space of two minutes the nine men had pulled it back to 3-2 against the ten men. For the briefest moment the hallucinogenic possibility of a three-goal comeback became possible. Celtic never quite got there, but this was weird stuff. You had the bizarre spectacle of both sides celebrating, Rangers giving it large out of joy and relief at beating their uppity enemy and delaying their title party – “So f****** easy!” they roared – with the Celtic element mustering some defiance in the knowledge that their day will come soon enough, probably on Sunday at home to St Johnstone.
What this thunderous occasion lacked in quality it made up for in lunacy, the tension of the day typified by the one-man drama that was Neil Lennon. You should have heard the Celtic manager on Friday. He was the model of decorum, an ambassador for peace and tranquillity. He said he was deliberately talking down the significance of the contest for fear of inflaming it. He, more than anybody, knows what can happen when people lose the plot on days such as this so he was calm and considerate and said he was asking his players to be the same.
He meant well, but this was Lennon at Ibrox, an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. It took about a minute for the atmosphere to bring him to the edge of his technical area, for his fine words of Friday to drift away on the breeze. How could it be any other way?
Lennon emerged to protest about a decision and got booed. Lennon protested again and once more the chants went up. He was in the vortex by then, sucked in as we knew he would be. He wasn’t happy with his team, wasn’t happy with the referee, Calum Murray, most of all. He reacted to one decision after another after another like a man who had a hedgehog in his tracksuit bottoms.
Rangers were ahead by then, put in front by Sone Aluko who began this game like he’d been eating the Rangers history books all week and knew all about what was at stake here. Aluko was hungry for the ball. He didn’t just want it, he demanded it and when he got it he ran with it and Celtic didn’t know what to do about it until it was too late. Eleven minutes: Goal. This is not how it was meant to be.
Even by the standards of this fixture the scenes were extraordinary. Despite being behind, when you looked at the Celtic end, a riot of green and white flags with the Tricolour waving between them, you could have been at an All-Ireland hurling final at Croke Park. When you took in the rest of the scene you might as well have been at Wembley in 1966 such was the coverage of Union Jacks.
And the Union Jacks remained hoisted. Sure, Celtic threatened in the immediate aftermath of Aluko’s clever opener, but what failed them last week against Kilmarnock at Hampden failed them again here. They couldn’t finish when they most needed to. Georgios Samaras had a chance, so did Anthony Stokes.
Neither could convert. Their misses – or more accurately, Allan McGregor’s saves – were important because it gave a team that has been devoid of confidence for so long a reason to believe. They got stuck in. They set the tempo. Around the 20-minute mark, Scott Brown got possession of the ball on the right touchline and tried to go by his man. In the blink of an eye, Lee Wallace, Carlos Bocanegra and Steven Davis had robbed him. Seeing the totem of the Celtic team sacked of the ball was a psychological high for the home support. They rose as one. Small things like that mattered on the day.
And big things, too. Approaching the half hour, Cha Du-Ri walked and Lennon fumed and the combustibility of the occasion was writ large. Lennon charged into view, hopping, gesticulating, registering his outrage verbally and physically. The calm of Friday must have seemed like an eternity ago.
Murray had no need to send Cha off. Even Ally McCoist called it a soft red. It was a poor decision and it hamstrung Celtic who were already struggling to stay with Rangers at the time. The controversy carried on, though. Soon after, Lee McCulloch took a somewhat theatrical fall near the Celtic dugout and like a greyhound from the traps Lennon was out again, looking to Murray and to the Gods and asking them what they were playing at.
Come the break, we watched for his reaction and there wasn’t one. That was interesting in itself. As the players filed past him, Lennon stood his ground, hardly moving a muscle. Clearly he was waiting for Mr Murray.
The two of them disappeared up the tunnel and only one of them came back out. We’re going to hear a lot more about what went on down in that tunnel in the coming days, week, months and, God help us, years, too.
Lennon will still have been at the fever pitch of his fury when Victor Wanyama went into a tackle with Steven Whittaker with his studs up. Another red and more red mist.
When Celtic fell two goals behind it looked done. When Lee Wallace added a third it was as if the home support let go of all the angst and strife of the last few months and released it into the Ibrox sky. Not since they came from behind to beat Celtic 4-2 on the same ground last September have we seen Rangers fans celebrate with such abandon. There was talk that some members of the various consortiums vying to buy the club might have been in the stadium somewhere, not on official invites but incognito.
None of what happened here would have come as a surprise to the Blue Knights, but if the men from Chicago and Singapore were in the stadium it would have been priceless to see their faces. This was raw and untrammelled emotion. The Old Firm lack many things but they still do blood and thunder better than most.
The little kicker at the end of the story was engrossing, too. A third red card, this one for Rangers, and the sudden sight of Celtic finding themselves as an attacking force. Scott Brown put away a penalty. Thomas Rogne nutted home a header. All over the place the Rangers fans gulped hard and looked at their watch. Good news at last. Time was up.
For once in these occasions, the loser has the benefit of a safety net rather than a gallows, but it wouldn’t have felt like that to Lennon. He’ll have a championship party to look forward to soon enough. And a date with the SFA to go with it.