Rangers supporters had a barracking bonanza on Saturday. They had all sorts of former Celtic players in the Hibernian ranks to direct their rancour towards, and in Neil Lennon and Anthony Stokes arguably public enemies No 1 and No 2.
It says everything then about how damaged they are by the club’s liquidation of 2012 and the need for Rangers to reform in the lowest senior tier that, on a day of pyrotechnics on and off the pitch, the verbal hand grenades initially being lobbed in the direction of former Rangers player Steven Whittaker were as loaded as those chucked in any other direction.
Whittaker will never be forgiven by the Ibrox faithful for refusing to have his contract carried on when the old Rangers went out of business, the player saying then that he “owed no loyalty to the new club” and that “there is no history there for us”.
The recent history, and the growing enmity between the Easter Road club and Rangers, gave the occasion on Saturday a fearful but intoxicating intensity. It was one that Whittaker, and the rest of the team that Lennon has assembled, stood up to with flying colours in recovering from the loss of an opening goal to master their hosts, a highly contentious red card for Ryan Jack at 1-1 aiding their cause.
Whittaker, pictured, kept his composure in the cauldron as others didn’t, with shoving matches breaking out at various points, and Stokes, Dylan McGeouch and Graham Dorrans all living on the edge before Jack made contact with the forehead of the Irish striker who had motioned towards him.
The experienced Whittaker was entitled to be proud of his contribution across an afternoon in which Hibs showed their mettle. The summer signing from Norwich City perhaps had earplugs in.
“It’s just the pantomime of football and the way the fans see it, but there is nothing I can do about that. I can only affect things on the park and that’s what I tried to concentrate on,” he said.
“The manager stressed it was important that we all stayed on the park. There were a few incidents that maybe got out of hand but we managed to keep 11 on the park and that helped us in the end.”
Lennon himself hardly kept his composure in producing a version of the old get-it-right-roon-ya gesture after turning to face the Rangers supporters in the main stand after a brilliant solo effort by Simon Murray had cancelled out a third-minute opener by Alfredo Morelos.
The arm up with the other across was similar, indeed, to what former Hibs manager Pat Fenlon produced as he was taunted by Hearts fans in their 5-1 Scottish Cup final win. That earned Fenlon a two-match ban, while, when lawn bowler Alex “Tattie” Marshall did much the same as Scotland beat England in the Commonwealth Games, he was celebrated for his passion.
However innocent he feels, Lennon has allowed the focus of a huge win to be taken from his side. The grumbles of Pedro Caixinha about Lennon’s conduct and a perceived lack of respect he feels the officials are showing for him because he is not from the UK didn’t seem to carry much weight, mind.
Moreover, only when you sit in the main stand can you have a true appreciation of the visceral hatred that Rangers followers have for Lennon.
Hibs’ 2016 Scottish Cup final win and the on-pitch fights between fans after it, allied to Lennon’s presence, will ensure the clashes between the two clubs will have a serrated edge.
Referee John Beaton struggled to blunt that on Saturday, but Rangers are fooling themselves if they don’t see that Hibs had turned the encounter before Jack’s 38th minute dismissal. The Easter Road side, with what Lennon would call “warriors” in such as John McGinn, Efe Ambrose, Whittaker and Stokes, won’t be soft touches – as Rangers still appear to be in certain areas, judging from the goals they lost.
“With experience, you can try to manage the game a bit better,” said Whittaker. “You are used to situations you have been in throughout your career. Younger players who are maybe playing at this level for the first time, you can help them through the situation. It’s good to have that in the team. It’s a good balance we have at the minute. We’re looking really forward to this season.”