Greek striker rises to the occasion when Celtic play Rangers and insists the fixture is bigger than Manchester derby which he also experienced
HE rates the fixture among the top three derbies in the world and admits the intensity of the Old Firm match is a shock to anyone new to the scene. Even last year, more than three years into his Celtic career, Georgios Samaras claims the Glasgow derby still had the capacity to stop him in his tracks.
Asked for his favourite memory from the plethora of head-to-heads he has played in since his arrival in 2008, it wasn’t a major shock that he chose one from last season. After all, the Parkhead and Ibrox clubs played each other seven times and Rangers won just twice. It’s also not often a player travels to the other side of the city to score twice and beat their biggest rivals 2-0 on their own turf.
But, surprisingly, that wasn’t the match that stands out in the Greek striker’s memory. “I’m going to say the 3-0 last year, not only because we won but because it was the first time I saw the fans do the huddle and it was the first time in my career that the fans and the atmosphere took my focus from a football game. I was just looking at the stand and the ball was somewhere in play. It was just a split second and then I realised but that has never happened to me. I am always focused on the football and try to ignore what is around me but that was the first time I caught myself looking at the stand instead of the ball. The atmosphere was something unique.”
Which is why there is no such thing as a meaningless Old Firm match. During Samaras’ stint in Glasgow title races have been tight, the final run-in creating the drama before finally separating the winners from the losers. But, while the two big Manchester clubs meet tomorrow night in what is being billed as the likely English Premier League title decider, up here Celtic play host to Rangers this afternoon with the destination of the SPL trophy and flag long since decided. Even in terms of European places, Celtic’s spot in the Champions League next season is settled, as is Rangers’ non-involvement. There is little other than pride at stake. That and the adulation and celebrations afforded the victors by their own fans.
For Samaras, that is enough, to still give it precedence over virtually every other football head-to-head around the globe. “Of course, when you play this game, it is the best game you can play in this country and maybe in the world. It is a big derby all around the world and for some people it is not just a football game, it is more, and I think everybody realises that.” Yet many cities have their derbies. He grew up in Greece where big names such as Panathinaikos and Olympiacos collide and served his time at Manchester City, when they were in the shadow of United. But even against such a backdrop, the intensity of the Old Firm clash still stunned him, says Samaras.
“It was a surprise because I had come from Manchester United v City and they are in the same city, but here it was all much more. Everybody in the UK realises that this one is bigger than everything, bigger than the rest.
“Celtic v Rangers is in the top three derbies in the world. Boca Juniors against River Plate, Real Madrid v Barcelona, and Celtic/Rangers. That one [Manchester] is just about football matters but here it is the whole community, religion, politics. . . everything is part of the game and you can see it in the passion that the fans have and you can see how much depends on it. For them, it’s not just a football game, it’s more than a football game.
“For us, as football players, what we want to do is go on the pitch and enjoy it and try to play good football and create chances and score goals and win a game. That is the reason I said before, it is just another game for us. We give it the same preparation and do the same things we do in other games. There’s nothing special to do.”
Everything that is special about the fixture is experienced on the park, when the rivalry reaches fever pitch and the thought of losing is as big a spur as the dream of winning.
This time around a Celtic win would help increase the gap over a club whose off-field issues have threatened to overshadow Celtic’s on-field triumphs. Jibes about a tainted title have irked the Parkhead players, staff and fans who, quite rightly, point to the fact that, even without the ten-point deduction, Rangers would still be trailing them by eight points.
“I really don’t care if Rangers dropped ten points because we were already in front. They weren’t in front when they lost the points, we were already in first,” says Samaras, a player who seems to thrive on the rivalry and atmosphere of these games. His pride is in the fact that Celtic controlled their own fortunes, turning around what at one stage was a 15-point deficit to get to the position where they had already leapfrogged Rangers by the time administration hit them.
“Yeah, that’s a big thing. Everybody believed in October and everybody was saying that the SPL trophy was going Ibrox way and that the title race was finished, but the character we showed and the run of unbeaten games we did, that’s something that only happens once in a while. I said before, we turned this around with nobody helping us.
There is no doubting the part the draw at Rugby Park in October played in that turnaround. “It was the second half against Kilmarnock, we were 3-0 down and we turned around the game and that one point – because we didn’t even win – but that one point and that 45 minutes meant that we started to believe as a team and the confidence got higher and higher and we started to win games and we were looking for the next game and the next game and the wins were coming, easy and hard, but that one point was the turning point.”
But there was another match that counted. The 1-0 defeat of Rangers at Celtic Park in December. “Yeah, because we were one or two points behind before that game and then we were in first place. Always it’s the general games, especially around Christmas time, that are important for the title. I think the most important was the 45 minutes against Kilmarnock and then that game against Rangers.”
But then again, every match against Rangers is important. Even the ones that are supposedly meaningless.