Neil McCann on clinching title for Rangers at Celtic Park

Neil McCann, right, with fellow Sky Sports pundit Neil Lennon. Picture: Peter Devlin
Neil McCann, right, with fellow Sky Sports pundit Neil Lennon. Picture: Peter Devlin
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Neil McCann remembers sitting on the team bus as it made its way to Parkhead, absolutely convinced that he would be celebrating a victory that day. He was right.

With two goals and a performance that was as flawless as any he mustered in his 17 Old Firm games, he helped Rangers wrap up the 1998-99 league title.

But while the significance of that win ensures it will live long in the memory, the surreal feeling that it was a foregone conclusion also sticks in the mind of the former Rangers winger.

“There was no dubiety about it. Dick Advocaat spoke to me on the Thursday and said he was playing me through the middle,” McCann recalled. “It was the first time I’d done that at Rangers. I’d played there for Jim Jefferies at Hearts but ask any wide player and they like playing through the middle, coming off and getting a bit of drifting, it’s fantastic.

“I had one of those games that every player will experience once in their career, when you think nobody can touch you.

“On the bus travelling in, I was sitting next to Ian Ferguson and it was a really weird feeling because we knew we were almost going to become immortal, in terms of winning the league at your greatest rivals. That will never be forgotten.

“Sitting next to Fergie, I was saying to him ‘We’re winning today. We’re winning the league today’. Everybody was of the same opinion. It was a really weird situation,” he says of a game he describes as his “greatest memory in a Rangers jersey”.

That kind of certainty is rare in an Old Firm match but McCann believes Celtic will have travelled to Hampden last season buoyed by the same belief and it was vindicated as they eased to a comfortable League Cup semi-final triumph over the Ibrox side.

However, he doubts either side will be blessed with such assurance ahead of this afternoon’s return to the national stadium.

“Since Rangers have been gone we’ve missed them badly and I’m excited about this one,” McCann said. “I was excited about the one last year as well, although I think we knew then that Rangers weren’t in a good place and there were many contributing factors as to why that wasn’t going to be a close contest.

“This, in my opinion, will be different and that should add more excitement for everybody. Last year was a strange, low-key affair and there were so many issues going on behind the scenes.

“Kenny McDowall was an interim manager – and then you look at the actual playing squad and the results Rangers were having around that time, so they were both operating on very different levels. It was nice being able to go to an Old Firm game but it didn’t have the same electricity of the ones I played in.”

McCann enjoyed nine wins, three draws and five defeats in his Glasgow derby outings. The 41-year-old’s involvement these days is restricted to that of a Sky Sports pundit and he has seen enough of both sides to fuel his faith in this match as a tighter tussle.

“It’s not often you know which team is going to win before a ball is kicked,” he said. “But this is very different. I do feel that Rangers have improved enormously under Mark Warburton.

“Have Celtic improved since that win last year? I see all the games – and Celtic fans may agree with me through gritted teeth on this – but their team isn’t playing that well and their form provides a balance in this tie that wasn’t there the last time.

“Celtic, on their day and with top marks for everyone, would have too much for Rangers. But they’re not there, while Rangers are playing some very attractive, aggressive football. Against that, though, Rangers are very vulnerable at the back, especially through the middle. That’s where Celtic hold the ace in the shape of Leigh Griffiths.

“I think Ronny Deila will play the way he always does. Mark Warburton has surprised me a couple of times, though. I remember, when Sky covered a game at Easter Road earlier in the season, Mark saying that Rangers wouldn’t change for anyone – and then came out and played three at the back.

“Having said that, I don’t think he will change his tactics for this game. The only thing he should seriously consider is who he deploys in front of the back four because we’ve all seen Celtic defending against Premiership teams and counter-attacking with a big punt up the park. All of a sudden – bang! – Griffiths has destroyed their defence and that’s maybe the one issue Mark will look at, possibly by telling Andy Halliday to hang on to Leigh and not let him go for the whole game.”

McCann believes the gung-ho approach of Rangers’ full-backs could be exploited by Celtic, but only if they get the personnel right.

He said: “Ronny Deila has an enormous decision to make concerning who he plays wide on the left of midfield. I think Patrick Roberts will play on the right, although I don’t know how he’ll fare against Lee Wallace because he won’t have faced anyone like that before. He’ll give Lee all sorts of problems in the final third because he has such quick feet but he’ll also need to work at tracking back.”

But the key decision for Deila, he says, will be who he trusts to patrol the left wing. He questions Colin Kazim-Richards’ temperament and says Deila will probably opt for Stuart Armstrong.

“He has one of those Rolls-Royce engines, where he can go from front to back to help out. I honestly don’t think Mackay-Steven has got enough bite in him for this occasion with Tavernier. I don’t know how much he’d fancy going all the way back. It’s going to be a key battle on the left-hand side.”