Finally, after a succession of down-the-bill jousts such as v Dougie Imrie of Hamilton Accies on the opening day, Joey Barton was coming face-to-face, possibly forehead-to-forehead, with Scott Brown, his supposed nemesis.
This was a top-of-the-card clash – as high profile as it gets in Scotland in terms of stardust these days.
Barton began the slanging match long ago, remarking, in an early volley of tongue-in-cheek remarks, that he’d be the best player in Scotland. Brown? “He’s not in my league,” Barton impishly noted.
As for Brown, he suggested Barton might find it odd lining up against the team he had expressed fondness for in the past. Indeed he did, almost scoring for his once beloved Hoops past Wes Foderingham, his own goalkeeper, in the first-half.
So yes, plenty of trash talk, but was there any substance? Did sparks fly, as many anticipated – nay prayed for?
Not really. Brown was only on the park for 74 minutes. Not because, as some predicted, he’d overstepped the mark, riled by Barton’s constant niggling. Rather, he’d already done enough and was being rested for bigger tests to come. There was some additional concern about a tight hamstring.
Not unreasonably, Brown will view Tuesday night’s tussle with a certain Andres Iniesta as being his most challenging midfield joust of a three-games-in-seven-days period. In fact, whoever he is up against in Inverness this Saturday could potentially make it harder than he found things yesterday.
Barton, meanwhile, ended up playing in the middle of defence, following Philippe Senderos’ red card, which left Rangers without a recognised centre-half. Piling on the misery for Barton, he was quickly persecuted for a lack of inches – not exactly something for which he can be blamed – when Mikael Lustig’s cross soared over his head in the run-up to Moussa Dembele’s hat-trick securing goal.
Poor Joey. He hadn’t done too badly. Measured with his passes, as ever, he also brought the ball down nicely with his knee with his first touch in an Old Firm clash. But he and Brown spent the time when they were in actual midfield combat together rather warily keeping their distance from each other. Perhaps they’d been ordered to observe a Police Scotland exclusion zone.
Brown was the penultimate Celtic player to leave the pitch at the end – just in front of the hat-trick hero, the match ball in his clutches.
All three Celtic players who had been substituted had returned to the pitch after the final whistle in a faintly John Terry-esque manner, tracksuit tops whipped back off. Understandably, they wanted to revel in a win that was as emphatic as the scoreline suggests.
But it also meant Brown was bound to run into Barton in a meaningful way, finally. The Rangers player led the bedraggled contingent from Ibrox that headed to the area where their fans were, at least those who remained (a goodly proportion, in fairness).
Barton then returned to the centre circle to seek out Brown, who was with his team-mates. Barton tapped him on the shoulder and shook his hand, the pair then coming close to embracing. It was an affecting glimpse of some sportsmanship amidst the chaos though Brown later ruined it slightly with a “men v boys” jibe during a television interview.
There had been one significant coming together between the pair during play. A 50-50 aerial challenge that Brown won comfortably. It was a decent indicator of how the match went as a whole, as was a later drop ball contest – again won by Brown v Barton.
“Scott does his talking on the field,” Brendan Rodgers said, somewhat pointedly, later, while Mark Warburton, when asked specifically about Barton’s performance, wondered why this was even an issue. “You could ask me about anyone,” he snapped.
Although there have been two Hampden fixtures in recent seasons, this was the first meeting between these sides at a partisan venue since 2012. Everywhere was evidence of a busy Friday night spent preparing displays.
“They hung out the flag of war,” was one portentous message writ large across a tricolour. The Rangers’ fans version was slightly less menacing: “Three cheers for the red, white and blue.”
“Is it cold in his shadow?” another flag asked. But then this could have been asked of every Celtic manager to follow in the footsteps of the great Jock Stein, who died 31 years ago yesterday. He was depicted on the banner casting a shadow shaped like the European Cup.
“This is it Bhoys, this is war,” was yet another message, presumably for the benefit of anyone still labouring under the illusion this was actually just a football match. If anything, Barton seemed a little cowed by it all. Brown, meanwhile, was reinvigorated after a couple of recent below par displays.
Even Barton would have to accept it’s 1-0 to the Celtic skipper, for now.