Rugby Park is a venue where league titles have been both won and lost in dramatic fashion by Celtic since the turn of the century.
From their agony in missing out on goal difference on the final day of the season in 2003, when a 4-0 win in Kilmarnock was rendered irrelevant by Rangers’ 6-1 drubbing of Dunfermline, to Shunsuke Nakamura’s stoppage-time clincher four years later, Celtic fans have experienced the full gamut of emotions at the East Ayrshire stadium.
As the eight-in-a-row champions travel down the M77 once more tomorrow night for the resumption of Premiership action after the winter break, Rugby Park has the potential to play a fateful role in another title race.
Just last season, Rangers slipped up with a 2-1 defeat at Kilmarnock in their first post-break fixture to surrender the initiative to Celtic, whose dramatic 90th-minute winner on the same pitch a month later was seen as a key moment in their successful defence of the Premiership crown.
Currently just two points ahead of Rangers, who have a game in hand, the onus is firmly on Celtic to hit the ground running at Rugby Park.
“There are certain grounds that you go to that you know will be sticky, but we need to go and do whatever we can to get the three points,” said Celtic midfielder Callum McGregor.
“We understand that, we’ve managed to go there in the past and get big wins like we did last year, which came at probably the right time.
“We know what it’s like to go there and win, and obviously we know we have to go and win the match again this time.
“That was probably a big moment in the title race last year, when Scott Brown scored so late at Rugby Park. We went right to the death and we managed to get the winner which took us eight points clear of Rangers at that stage.
“It’s important just to try to win these games. Sometimes in the second half of the season, maybe the quality of the football goes out the window a little bit. As long as you’re winning the games, that’s all that matters.
“Both Rangers and ourselves have been going strong so far and both teams will be looking at getting a good run together after the winter break to see where it takes them.
“Obviously, we’re no different, we want to win every game. There’s a responsibility to win every game at Celtic anyway.
“Us coming back, we know the break in Dubai has been good for us in previous years and with that freshness after the break, we’ve managed to go on a bit of a run.
“We want to try to do that again, and come the end of the season, we want to be the ones at the top of the league.”
Celtic eased their way back into competitive action on Saturday with a 2-1 Scottish Cup fourth-round victory over Partick Thistle at Firhill.
McGregor scored what proved to be the winner, claiming his seventh goal of the season despite Thistle manager Ian McCall’s assertion it should have been credited as an own goal due to the deflection the shot took off defender Thomas O’Ware.
“It was good to be back because even after a couple of weeks, you start to miss playing so being on the pitch again and getting rid of the rustiness was a useful exercise, especially since we got back to winning ways,” added McGregor.
“Ian McCall was giving me a bit afterwards, wasn’t he? It’s my goal, as far as I’m concerned, though. Maybe he didn’t see it properly from his angle but my shot was on target so it counts as mine.
“Maybe he’s disappointed because he was hoping to get it to 1-1 at that time but if you have the chance to shoot from the edge of the box then you take it and if it goes in with a deflection, it doesn’t matter. Getting into the next round was the most important thing but it’s always pleasing to get on the scoresheet as well.”
Celtic face a trip to take on Clyde at Broadwood in the next round, a repeat of the fixture which saw the Parkhead men suffer a shock defeat in the competition on Roy Keane’s debut back in 2006.
“I was at the club at the time in the youth system, but I was probably just a wee bit too young to remember the actual fallout from that tie,” said McGregor.
“Obviously you remember the result and everything that came with it, but I don’t remember too much about the game to be honest.
“Certainly this time around we’ll not be wanting any shocks. We’ll be treating the game like any other, we’ll prepare properly, earn the right to play and the right to win.
“I remember it was Roy Keane’s debut in that game, and it just shows you that in club football, there can be shocks.”