As a petrol head, Rangers’ James Tavernier would be forced to accept that in too many of his derbies his team have been akin to a jalopy being lapped by a motoring Celtic justifying their pole position. But the Ibrox captain of late senses that changing.
A full-throttle-hitting Rangers go into this afternoon’s fixture with better traction over recent times than the six-times champions. And the 26-year-old senses that the change is welcomed by spectators craving the very unpredictability missing from a Formula 1 dominated by a Lewis Hamilton that claims Tavernier’s loyalties.
“In Formula 1, Mercedes are always taking off with the title, and you always want some competition, no matter what you are,” he said. “I’m watching the testing from Barcelona and I’ve heard that Ferrari and Red Bull are right behind him, so that is going to make it interesting. You always want a challenge for that title, so it’s only healthy for Rangers and Celtic to challenge for our title. If it’s this season, it’s this season, but if it’s next season it has to be healthy for Scottish football.”
The push and pull of a two-team tussle Tavernier believes can ultimately raise standards for both. “We’ve had to up our game and since joining this league and with the season Celtic have had we’ve had to up our game. If we keep upping it, they will as well, so it’s only healthy for the Scottish league and the neutrals.”
Yet Tavernier isn’t expecting the Premiership campaign to revolve around what happens at Ibrox this afternoon. The confrontation will be the first of three meetings between the sides in the next seven weeks as a consequence of the pair being drawn together in next month’s Scottish Cup semi-final. For all the hype about today’s face-off, the Hampden clash represents Rangers best opportunity of striking a notable blow against their adversaries in this campaign when Celtic hold a six-point league advantage over their city rivals despite having played a game fewer. Tavernier, then, see the title as Celtic’s to lose and is dismissive of Brendan Rodgers’ contention that the pressure is all on the home team at Ibrox this lunchtime.
“I don’t believe there’s as much pressure on us as there is on them at the minute, because they have obviously got the title in one hand at the minute and it is up to them if they slip,” he said. “We have to make sure that we are breathing right down on them.”
Tavernier accepts that they could have Celtic feeling a little air on their necks by winning today not only through having raised their levels profoundly under Murty but because the champions have dropped off from the exceptional standards they set in claiming a unique treble last season. After 28 games last season, Celtic had 79 points. At the same stage this season, they have 64 points. A year ago Rangers had harvested 50 points from 29 games, now they have 58 points at that juncture.
“They’re at the top of the table, they have the most points,” he said. “Since Graeme Murty took over here, I believe we’ve accumulated more points than them, we’ve been on a really good run. But they’re coming off a season where they went undefeated, which is a remarkable thing.
“Then again, maybe it’s hard to do two seasons in a row, you see teams like Chelsea winning the Premier League in England, and then the next season differs from that. But Celtic are still picking up points, even if we are right behind them. “You saw against Hearts [with their 4-0 defeat] they can be vulnerable and going into the game we have good belief – but I imagine they do as well. It’s an Old Firm game, anything can happen.”
Yet, for Tavernier, in the course of nine games against Celtic, one thing has never happened: he has never been on a winning side over 90 minutes. That, of course, fails to take account of the success he toasted in his first experience of the fixture, which came nine months after he joined from Wigan in the summer of 2015. Victory for a then Premiership-team-in-waiting Rangers that day came through edging out Ronny Deila’s Celtic in a penalty shoot-out that settled the 2016 Scottish Cup semi-final.
With Rangers becoming a top flight team the following season, Tavernier admits to enduring some grim afternoons. Not in the last meeting between the pair, though, with Rangers leaving the pitch at Celtic Park in December cursing missed chances in a scoreless draw.
“The lows are difficult to take, the manner in which we’ve lost some of them especially. The two 5-1s, one in front of our own fans, and the one that was our first back in the Premiership that came under Mark Warburton, they were tough,” said Tavernier, whose Celtic record reads one win, two draws and six defeats. “But the last game we played, we take confidence from that into this one.”
Enough confidence for Rangers players’ reaction to last Sunday drawing Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final for a third straight year to have been dressing-room cheers. Tavernier deftly seeks to deflect from any suggestion this smacked of the Ibrox team being dangerously cocksure.
“I thought it was because of the music I put on after the game, the track I put on, which was God’s Plan by Drake,” said the player whose form has led to him being recognised as the best right-back in the country right now. “You always play want to Celtic, that’s the biggest game of the season, as many games as you can play against them the better because they are the games that really test you and a lot of people are watching. I thought it was my track but if it was down to the draw, it’s healthy for both clubs to get each other.”
There are plenty who would suggest the fixture should in fact come with a health warning.