NO AMOUNT of homework, or warnings, pep talks or observing can ever prepare a player for his first Old Firm match, according to former Rangers captain Barry Ferguson, which is why he is surprised that a newcomer to the fixture has already been making rash promises.
Celtic striker John Guidetti has admitted that he fancies his chances of a hat-trick in his first taste of Old Firm fury in the League Cup semi-final at Hampden on Sunday, but Ferguson believes the match is too much of an unknown quantity for anyone to be so sure of themselves.
“You do your talking on the pitch, not off the pitch. That’s the way I like it done,” said Ferguson. “Be respectful and if you’ve got things you want to do on the pitch, do them. Don’t speak out because you can end up with custard pie on your face.”
Given the importance of the fixture and its ability to bestow legendary status on any player who rises to the occasion, every player dreams of making an impact but Ferguson believes that is easier said than done.
He had grown up immersed in all-things Rangers, he had watched his brother inducted into the group of players who have come through what is one of the world’s more notable fixtures and was in thrall to the spectacle but, when he stepped out into the fray for the first time, he says he blinked and missed it.
“I probably touched the ball five or six times and I was poor. Everything flew past me,” added Ferguson. “You honestly don’t know what to expect. I played in some games where it just flew past me and then the whistle went. I was left there thinking, ‘I didn’t even turn up there,’
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because I hadn’t been involved whereas in other games it was great.
“It’s a strange game. I had a mixture of emotions in the game and the emotion you want is a winning one. If you get that, the fans have the bragging rights and that’s what you want. It’s not just for you and your team-mates, it’s for however many thousand fans are there supporting you too. You shouldn’t forget that. Pundits have their say but I never took that into account because you need to actually be involved to realise what it’s all about.”
Which is why he believes the fact that so many of the current Ibrox players have experienced the hype and the reality of the Glasgow derby could help them overcome their underdogs tag on Sunday.
Ferguson’s first head-to-head with Celtic was a 0-0 draw in Dick Advocaat’s first season as manager, and the second was a 5-1 defeat at the hands of their Parkhead foes as Old Firm debutant Lubo Moravcik put Rangers to the sword. But if the first experience passed in a haze, there were plenty highs to counter subsequent lows, ensuring the match could never be usurped in his emotions.
When he headed south Ferguson was warned that the Birmingham derby would be explosive but he said it never edged close to the intensity of the Glasgow version. “I got told it was going to be mental and it was just like a normal game. After it there were a few riots but apart from that it was normal. You can’t hear yourself talk when you’re in an Old Firm game. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still passionate down there but this is a different ball game.”
And Ferguson says the experienced heads in the Rangers dressing room know that. “I’m sure they’ll have a massive influence on the dressing room. They will let people know what it’s all about. But form goes out the window and it doesn’t matter what league you’re in. Old Firm games are about who wants it most on the day. It doesn’t matter if Celtic are top of the league and playing well while Rangers are going through a sticky patch. There were times going into Rangers-Celtic games where we were having a hellish time and we won the game.
“I know a lot of people say it but form and whatever league you’re in don’t matter. It’s a whole different ball game.
“The atmosphere surrounding it and the week building up to the game are different. A lot of people are thinking it’s going to be an easy ride for Celtic but I don’t think so. It’s about who wants it most at the end of the day and that’s what will happen on Sunday.”