Aidan Smith: Old Firm spectacle exits stage left

IN THE circumstances, given the two outcomes, we should probably be glad no one billed it as Super Sunday. But by all means allow yourself to fantasise: what a day this could have been …

Stage for Sundays showpiece match was a let-down, with the Hampden pitch cutting up badly. Picture: SNS
Stage for Sundays showpiece match was a let-down, with the Hampden pitch cutting up badly. Picture: SNS

Down in Melbourne, Andy Murray was trying to win his third tennis major. He’d long since persuaded the world that a Scot could compete for the Grand Slam prizes. For his next trick he was going to make a brilliant comeback from injury, poor form, mid-career doubts, team disruption, coaching issues, you-name-it. He played gamely but couldn’t quite win, and the focus shifted 10,500 miles to Glasgow amid claims that his opponent, Novak Djokovic, had indulged in a bit of “acting”.

At Hampden, unfortunately, it was all acting. The League Cup semi-final acting like it was a big deal. The two teams acting like this was the greatest derby on the planet. Fifty-two countries around the self-same planet acting like they were interested after Celtic’s second goal was scored just as easily as their first. The pitch acting like it was a fitting stage for such a game. Twenty of the 22 players acting like this had been one of those super-charged encounters from history by congregating round the referee at the end. The goalies, sensible fellows, couldn’t be bothered.

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What a let-down. But wasn’t the revival of the fixture always going to be like that? Rangers are staggering around like a drunk at closing-time, pawing for the door, falling into the coal cellar. Celtic right now haven’t got a great deal to cheer about besides their rivals’ problems. As one pressbox wag in search of a headline commented afterwards: “Mediocre team beat lousy one.”

Stage for Sundays showpiece match was a let-down, with the Hampden pitch cutting up badly. Picture: SNS

It wasn’t even a final. It wasn’t even, if you’re being picky, the Scottish Cup. But the time for some perspective was right after the draw was made. That, though, was the cue for the hype to begin. If PT Barnum and Mad Men’s Don Draper had pooled their hucksterish black arts, then they couldn’t have flogged the game any harder than we did.

From the off, everyone who was anyone and some who were nobodies was pressed for a soundbite. Just how incredible is this one going to be? We know it’s far and away the best derby in the world – but could you quantify it to the nearest yard? And my favourite: we know it’s going to be the game which saves Scottish football – but could it, you know, work other miracles, like ridding us of some horrible diseases?

Okay, I exaggerate somewhat, but the essence of this is perfectly true: the Old Firm being paired together was supposed to lift the fitba’ nation from the doldrums of the Premiership being three big clubs short and Celtic being dumped out of the Champions League.

Actually, this wasn’t strictly accurate. Celtic may have felt sorry for themselves but this has been the most intriguing domestic season of the three comprising Rangers’ enforced absence thus far, thanks to the good showings of Aberdeen, Dundee United, Inverness Caley Thistle and Hamilton Accies. And Scotland’s continued revival under Gordon Strachan must surely have distracted even the most sworn Old Firm obsessionistas.

That’s not to say a pulsating game on Sunday wouldn’t have gone amiss. It was the 400th meeting of the clubs and more were watching on TV than tuned in for the Super Bowl. Whatever you think of the fixture, and wherever you place it in the list of cultural attractions – above or below the deep-fried Mars bar, for instance – this was Scotland on camera so you wanted Celtic to be silkier and Rangers to be more dynamic. Or just more of anything. Or for even one of their goal attempts to find the target, so BBC News didn’t have to use that clip of Lee Wallace’s wafty, wimpish effort for reasons of “balance”.

The Old Firm weren’t ready for their close-up, for this level of scrutiny. But maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for some people absolutely loved Sunday. Among a number of foreign journalists intrigued by the fixture’s revival was Stefano Boldrini of the Italian sports daily La Gazetta dello Sport. “For me, this is a fantastic game, a special game and more than just a game,” he told me as we left Hampden. “The atmosphere, created by the fans, is exceptional. One side, Irish culture; the other, English culture. One side, Unionist; the other, independence.

“I know this can bring some problems but we have nothing like Celtic-Rangers in Italy. Unfortunately, the only thing that wasn’t great about today was the football.”

Boldrini was checking on Celtic ahead of the upcoming Europa League clash with Inter Milan. Remember how Jock Stein in 1967 foxed Inter’s spies by switching his team’s positions and shirt numbers? Maybe Sunday’s “not great” game was designed to lull the Italians into complacency and was in fact great acting.