IN RECENT years Old Firm encounters have been heavily peppered by sly wind-ups with various degrees of controversy between the two sets of players. Yesterday at Ibrox, all that gave way to pure, unadulterated bedlam as both teams went straight for the other’s throat.
We’ve had the myth of Andy Goram ordering the Celtic dressing-room to "smell the glove" after victory; we’ve had inflammatory flute gestures by Paul Gascoigne; we’ve had Barry Ferguson hurling ice-packs at the Celtic dug-out; we’ve had letter-box chapping between Old Firm neighbours in Newton Mearns.
The most recent episode of the battle for Glasgow’s bragging rights dispersed with all the dancing around the issue and got down to the nitty-gritty. Previous cases of handbags - in some case merely purses - being swung on the pitch gave way to as violent an encounter between these teams as there has been since the infamous 1987 Ibrox battle which saw Chris Woods, Terry Butcher and Frank McAvennie sent off and later end up in court, along with Graham Roberts, charged with breach of the peace.
It started in the opening seconds when Chris Sutton barged Alex Rae off the ball and the instantly-irate Rangers midfielder retaliated with an elbow to Sutton’s chest which was missed by referee Kenny Clark.
Then Rangers scored, prompting their as-yet unused substitute Bob Malcolm to leap from the Rangers dug-out and aim an obscene gesture in the general direction of the Broomloan Road Stand housing the Celtic support. For a player who made the front pages recently for allegedly scrawling the sectarian slogan "FTP" on a fan’s matchday programme, it looked rather bad for his would-be Playboy image when he was led up the Ibrox tunnel by police before being cautioned for his conduct.
Or perhaps it didn’t. Seems Malcolm, with his former Miss Scotland girlfriend and weekend fraternising in Glasgow city centre, is keen to live the life of a high-profile celebrity. Except he’s not all that high profile.
Rae was undoubtedly pinpointed as a target for winding up by Celtic prior to this match, and Sutton sought revenge for that earlier elbow in the 34th minute with a blatant kick at the 35-year-old. However, it blew up in the Englishman’s face when Fernando Ricksen, himself no stranger to Old Firm controversy, flighted the resultant free-kick perfectly for Dado Prso to head Rangers’ second.
The result was never in doubt after that, and Alan Thompson knew it when he mistook Peter Lovenkrands’ face for the ball and executed a downward header on the Danish winger, igniting all sorts of mayhem all over the pitch as players screamed obscenities in each other’s faces.
Unsurprisingly, Neil Lennon was at the centre of it. Thompson, his face crimson with rage, was dismissed and Rae and Lennon were booked, as was Lovenkrands, rightly, for his part in the melee.
Just as we were winding down for half-time, Henri Camara - already booked for taking out his aggression on Rae - wound his leg back for a studs-first stamp on Gregory Vignal from his position on the ground after being fouled. Why he didn’t walk too, no-one knows.
Novo should also have seen red for the second week running for two incidents when he aimed blatant off-the-ball kicks at Jackie McNamara and Stephen Pearson, and the police had to again approach the Rangers dug-out in the second half to tell assistant manager Andy Watson to calm everyone down as tempers were, again, getting not so much frayed as torn to shreds.
The possibility of violence spilling out onto Govan’s streets was hardly diminished by Martin O’Neill at the end, parading Neil Lennon in front of the Celtic support like some sort of hero. Sorry Martin, there were none of those yesterday.