Is the clock ticking for Rangers' Kenny Miller?
The uncertainty over his contract situation means that the next seven days could see Kenny Miller's near 17-year association with Scotland's grandest football fixture come to an end.
The striker’s status in the face-offs between Celtic and Rangers is like no other because the “beginnings” for him in a derby of world renown are essentially four fold. Three spells at Ibrox, with a stint at Parkhead between his first and second southside tour of duty, have seen to that.
His first, first debut in an encounter between the adversaries who will square up in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden this afternoon is naturally imprinted on his mind. And the circumstances that surround it reveal the generous helpings of fate that have followed the player in the fixture – Miller has scored decisive goals for both sides and, with nine goals for Rangers, boasts a one-in-two strike-rate while in the fixture for the team in blue.
“I remember my first Old Firm game well, the 5-1 win at Ibrox,” he said, of that November 2000 meeting which followed his £2 million move from Hibernian that summer. “I missed the first one [that season], a 6-2 defeat at Celtic Park. That was a good one to miss, I’d picked up a knock that day before. My first start was an amazing day, I still remember me and Barry Ferguson running away in celebration after his goal.
“I’ve got fond memories of these games. Scoring for Rangers against Celtic is up there with the best feelings you’ll have in your career. It’s because of what it means.
“Any striker enjoys goals, but more so important ones. Goals that win you matches, especially in Old Firm games.
“In big games, scoring is extra special. Some people define your career by these goals so it’s been nice to play a part in the fixture. It’ll be the same for goalkeepers like Andy Goram and Allan McGregor making crucial saves in these games. You live for these moments.”
The Ibrox derby next Saturday – the final league meeting of the season after today’s cup clash – Miller knows “could be” the last of these moments. The 37-year-old’s heartfelt desire to remain at Rangers beyond the completion of his current contract in a couple of months has not prompted new manager Pedro Caixinha to provide him with the new deal to do so.
“Six years ago I was in a similar situation, running out of contract and thought I had faced my last,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to come back again and have a few over the last few seasons. It’s Hampden again which I really enjoy, the occasion of playing at the national stadium.”
Miller’s remarkable career now sees him playing some of his best football, and at well past the age that most play professionally.
His decisive goals against Aberdeen and Partick Thistle in the past fortnight – underpinning a revival under Caixinha – were the produced of clinical finishing that has advanced with his years. The ceaselessly industrious frontman considers he is now “more composed” and less “rash” with the goal in his sights.
“If you are into football as much as I am then you are looking to keep on learning,” he said. “You maybe lose half a yard but then there other ways to make it up. It comes down to reacting to situations, reading situations. These are things that can give you that wee bit of an edge. You become more educated in the game.”
Miller is savvy enough to know just what an opportunity was missed on the back of last year’s Scottish Cup semi-final derby victory in which he led the way with an opening goal. It appeared to pave the way for Rangers’ penalty shoot-out victory that followed a 2-2 draw to effectively end the Ronny Deila era.
And not just because they were then only making their way up from the second tier, but no-one gave them an earthly of pulling that result off.
The victory was supposed to herald a major trophy to Ibrox for the first time since Rangers’ 2012 liquidation, and demonstrate Mark Warburton’s men could be contenders in the Premiership.
Instead, Rangers blew a lead in the closing minutes of the subsequent final against Hibs. It is an outcome that has seemed to haunt them this season. Not least because that semi-final victory drove Celtic upscale, with the recruitment of Brendan Rodgers, a move which has led to the Parkhead side motoring away from the rest of Scottish football.
“What’s happened to the club in the last few years has been well documented. But to get that first major honour would have been huge for us a year ago,” said Miller. “We’d been written off going into the Celtic semi-final, and you could see, not the relief, but how much it meant to the lads after that penalty went over the bar.
“It was a big day for us and unfortunately we never followed it up. As much as I think we never performed in the final, we should really have seen it out. For this group of players, in the manager’s first season, it would have been massive. We were devastated on the day not to lift the trophy but beating Celtic was still a big milestone. The opportunity has come around again this year and it’s important we use those memories to drive us on.”
Even after Rangers’ draw with Celtic last time out – under interim boss Graeme Murty, Caixinha watching on before becoming permanent successor to the deposed Warburton – their prospects this afternoon are rated no higher than a year ago.
The forward believes the “meticulous” Portuguese can identify “chinks in Celtic’s armour” because the previous four games this season have thrown up a few – Miller having given Rangers the lead in a Hogmanay derby which was eventually lost 2-1, the player cursing a chance he missed to make it 2-2.
Bubbling away in the overflowing pot today is Celtic’s 40-game domestic unbeaten record and the chase for a treble, but scuppering an invincible season for their bitter enemies can’t be the focus of Rangers, something Miller and the Ibrox men recognise.
“It’s not about us stopping Celtic – it’s about Rangers getting to a final. We want to win a cup. The bonus is, preventing Celtic doing a treble comes along with it. If we can win, the talk of that will go away. A lot was made of us ‘over-celebrating’ after the goal in the 1-1 game. But we’d scored a late goal to get a point in an Old Firm game. The celebrations were for our fans who have had a hard time this season.
“It was a positive result for us. But we weren’t popping champagne corks in the dressing-room because we got a draw at Celtic. We know Celtic have got good players who can hurt us. But we have players who can hurt them as well. It’s about nullifying their threat and looking at how we can get at them. Our focus is just on winning this game, by hook or by crook. That’s all we’re worrying about. [It’s 2009 since Rangers last won the Scottish Cup], which is a long time for this club.”
Miller played in that victory and he won’t be deviated from his desire to play until 2019 even if Rangers don’t allow him to do that at Ibrox. “I wouldn’t be wanting to stay here if I didn’t think I could play top flight,” he said, Hibs being credited with an interest in his services. “I’m where I want to be and there is absolutely no doubt in my mind I’ll be playing at a very good level next year.”