Whatever may be claimed of the first top-flight tussle at Parkhead in four years that puts Celtic up against Rangers, this Saturday’s occasion is certainly not a game between equals. It would insult the intelligence to suggest otherwise; to recall the titanic struggles for domestic supremacy between clubs bearing these names across all previous footballing ages.
It is refreshing that Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers has no interest in insulting anyone’s intelligence. In itself that might be a measure of how times have changed when it comes to the biggest box-office fixture this country can serve up. Rodgers’ first such derby pits his Champions League team, built with a budget that allowed the recruitment of players such as Scott sinclair and Kolo Toure and serviced by a £25 million wage bill, against opposition assembled by Mark Warburton with a third of that finance... and that last season resided in the second tier.
Forget that Rangers defied expectations against a lame Ronny Deila side to claim a penalty shoot-out victory in April’s Scottish Cup semi-final. The Ibrox men will create a surprise next weekend if they merely avoid being on the receiving end of a dispiriting defeat.
The current incarnation of Rangers cannot match Celtic for financial muscle, as the old Ibrox club attempted before suffering liquidation four years ago. Rodgers doesn’t just rest easy that his team are acknowledged as overwhelming favourites for a potentially awkward encounter. He cannot see why it would be any other way.
“I would say going into this game, there’s a bit of justification in saying [that Celtic will win]. I think the proof is there for that,” said the former Liverpool manager. “[Yet] they are always dangerous games. It doesn’t matter how well one team is doing and how badly the other team is doing.
“I remember an Everton game, they came into it when Roberto Martinez had taken charge and they were on a real high and they hadn’t won at Anfield for so long. It was deemed this was going to be the game for them. We were doing well too, but it was felt this was Everton’s time, it was going to be their day. And we won 4-0. And we were 3-0 up in the first half. We were incredible in that game.
“But I think here, with justification, people can look at the team in this very early stage, and there’s a real vibrancy and energy, there’s an aggression, and I’m happy with it.”
Rodgers is a boyhood Celtic fan from Northern Ireland. The Troubles meant he was never given parental consent to travel across the water to watch his team face up to a fevered confrontation against the club’s bitterest rivals. He is willing to draw a line between those derbies and the one his team will contest next weekend, even if there is an “Old Firm no more” fixated-faction of the Celtic support.
Rodgers is impressively astute in how he handles that issue. A subject proving a monumental bore to outsiders who allow the post-liquidated Rangers to build on the history of the pre-liquidated version simply because they – and football – have had few qualms about doing so with other liquidated clubs such as Airdrieonians, Fiorentina, Coventry City, Luton Town and Middlesbrough, to name but a few clubs that went bust and could not obtain a CVA. “I can respect that there will be different views in terms of how they [Rangers] are held and how they created the club, but for me it’s a Celtic v Rangers game and it’s a big game. It always has been,” said the 43-year-old, who has had derby experience at Anfield, Swansea City, Reading and Watford.
“I know what it means to the supporters and I know what it means to us in terms of our objectives this season. It’s important we stay calm – there will be lots written and lots said – but we’ll do what we’ve done until now, which is to work well, focus on the job and be calm on the ball.
“Celtic and Rangers games are always big games. I’ll be told during the week by uncles, brothers and relatives. I watched them on the telly and I listened to them on the radio.
“Like lots of derbies, this has its own uniqueness. Swansea-Cardiff was a unique Welsh derby, a very intense old-school derby. Liverpool-Everton, they call it the friendly derby. But I don’t think it was that. [Manchester] United-Liverpool is a derby in itself. So, this one will be a separate one, completely different.
“I’m really looking forward to it. They are very emotive – as much as you set the team up to play, my experiences in derbies are that they are not always the best football games. We will always have the notion to play well and it’s important for us that we keep this real momentum going. We’ll always ask questions of the players.”
Rodgers’ team have come up with all answers required of them as Celtic have returned to Europe’s top table for the first time in three years and proved free-scoring in racking up three straight league wins as well as disposing of Motherwell in the Betfred League Cup.
The Rangers’ visit provides Celtic with the opportunity to move seven points ahead of a team expected to be their closest challengers; though, in reality, there will be no serious impediments to a sixth consecutive title.
Matters could become a little uncomfortable for Warburton if a Celtic Park defeat leads to his side being nudged out of the leading Premiership places come Saturday evening. Rodgers may have had the Englishman as his academy director as he began his management career at Watford. And Warburton may have told this week how back then his boss would then write his drills in Spanish – which Rodgers subsequently explained was so that they were unlikely to be understood if falling into the hands of opposition.
However, the Celtic manager seeks to place professional and personal distance between himself and the Rangers manager, and so lance any suggestion that their status as adversaries at the country’s top drawing clubs has all of a sudden put bosom buddies on a war footing. Instead he presented Warburton as one of the many in the Rangers set-up with whom he has past associations.
“We worked together for seven months and before that I never knew him,” Rodgers said. “We’ve had little bits of contact since we worked together, but there are probably closer friendships in the game. He’s a friend and a colleague and in the same profession so I respect that, like I do all managers.
“He’s a good fella and I think he’s done really, really well. He’s at a club now where the expectancy is up there. Apart from these games, I want him to do well as a human being. I spoke to him early on when I came up here and then you get into the season.
“I worked with Frank McParland [Rangers’ head of recruitment] for a period of time and probably know Frank better than Mark because we worked at Liverpool. Davie Weir came to see me when I was coaching at Liverpool and he was out of the game. He spent a bit of time looking at methods and stuff. I gave Jordan Rossiter his debut, he’s a good kid, Danny Wilson I had [at Liverpool], Rob Kiernan I gave his debut at Watford. [Rangers head development coach] Graeme Murty was the right-back at Reading.
“So, it’s funny, the older you get the more people you realise you know from working at various teams.”