As much as Neil Lennon loved the Old Firm matches as a player, his relationship with them as a manager was slightly more complicated.
In his first couple of years at the Celtic helm, the Glasgow rivals jousted on no fewer than a dozen occasions and ahead of every one of them he struggled with a sense of foreboding. That was despite the fact he had revelled in the head-to-heads as a player and had an impressive record in them as a manager.
“As a player, I really looked forward to them,” said Lennon, pictured below. “As a manager there was excitement but that was laced with trepidation. You think about the consequences either way. The best time is when the game kicks off and then you are in the throes of the game.
“The build-up is gut-wrenching sometimes. You worry about your players and how they are going to adapt to the environment, how they are going to start, and all those type of things. But once the game is under way, there’s nothing better.”
Of the 12 games he oversaw as Celtic manager, he won seven, drew two and lost three, which all add up to a pretty decent return and one which stands up well alongside many of his predecessors.
But he was always aware that every game was played in something of a vacuum, the result on that day all that really mattered. Rarely is this match given context and when it is, it is usually because the status of the must-win fixture had been cranked up to really, really must-win as everything is on the line.
Despite his 100 per cent record in the feisty derby (played one, won one), Ronny Deila finds himself in that unenviable situation today. League standings make them favourites, while the ease of the victory last term only serves as an additional, unwelcome marker.
“If he wins people will have expected him to win it. If they lose then he’s going to come under criticism,” said Lennon. “But Ronny will be as positive as he can going into the game and quite rightly so. They are on the brink of his second title in a row. And I think Celtic need this game. I think the players need the game. They need the atmosphere. They need the tension, the pressure, the build-up. That’s been missing. The senior players such as Griffiths, Brown, Lustig. Hopefully they thrive on that.”
He believes that a return of the cut and thrust will bring out the best in his former club, who have been more careful with cash in recent years but will now be expected to splash out to keep promoted Rangers at bay. But he says it would be wrong to say Celtic have struggled without their rivals.
“In the past four years they have been in the Champions League twice, last 16 once, and they are close to winning their fifth title in a row. Maybe attendances are down but they will come back next season, I think there’s no question of that, and I do think that they are in a very, very healthy financial position.
“I would imagine they will be in a very strong position to spend if they need to. With the two big teams back in the league then I think it will be an easier sell to bring players in too, with the opportunity to qualify for the Champions League and maybe playing in the Champions League.”
But rather than criticise the club for not making the most of Rangers’ problems to pull away even further, having been pushed by Aberdeen in their two most recent title chases, and failed to bag a bigger haul of the domestic cups, he believes there has, perhaps, been method to the perceived madness. Having saved some cash over the past few years, Celtic are now in a better position to invest in players to fight off any Rangers resurgence, Lennon argues.
“They may need to do that now just to win the league and then they can build from there and if they don’t make the Champions League next year then aim to certainly do it the year after that once they have had time to bed the players in. But I do think they will spend to bring some quality in because they will have more competition domestically.”
In that sense, while this afternoon’s Scottish Cup semi-final will be viewed as an indication of where the clubs are placed ahead of the renewal of league enmities, Lennon believes it is irrelevant. What it may cast light on, though, is what Deila actually considers his best team and whether he has any future at the club beyond this term.
Lennon doesn’t buy into the popular theory that the Celtic manager is still trying to figure out the former, while the board are still insisting there is no decision to be made on the latter.
But, according to the statistics, of the 52 games played in his time at Celtic, Deila has selected 49 different teams and it is likely there will be another couple of tweaks to today’s line-up.
“At this stage of the season he will know his best team,” insisted Lennon. “Chopping and changing isn’t always ideal but they seem to have the bit between the teeth. It was a decent performance against Hearts, they got the job done at Fir Park.
“The atmosphere will be new to a lot of players on both sides. It’s always interesting to see who settles the best in the first 15 minutes. I always think the first goal is pivotal.
“There is a physical approach and a mental approach to these games. My first [Old Firm] game was in a League Cup semi-final at Hampden and the first half was a blur. I got back to the dressing room, sat down and thought ‘where did that go?’ It was 100mph football.
“Then we played Rangers again that Sunday in the league and I was far more attuned to what was coming. Some of these young players might take to it like a duck to water, others might think ‘oh, what is going on here?’
“So it will be interesting to see the physical and mental approach, particularly of the young Rangers players, and how they cope.”
He says he never once saw fear manifest itself in any of his teams, stating that they were imbued with really strong players. “But sometimes you could see it in the opposition and if there was a chink, you had to take advantage of that. At the end of the day, they will cut your throat or you will cut theirs.”
Lennon recalls Fernando Ricksen’s meltdown in his debut, as Bobby Petta ran him ragged, and while admitting that the Rangers defender went on to adjust well, he serves as the perfect illustration of how difficult the initial introduction can be.
“Old Firm games do things to you that are not the norm,” he said. “That is the beauty and the rawness of it. I fancy Celtic to win it. I don’t think it will be easy but as the game wears on I think Celtic’s strength and quality will take over.”
Sky Sports will show the Scottish
Cup semi-final between Rangers and
Celtic today, and from next season
every Old Firm derby in the SPFL,