Mark Warburton’s ‘just another game’ remark beforehand certainly wasn’t shared by the fans during a raucous Hampden semi-final, writes Aidan Smith
Just another game? The custodians of this fixture, its cheerleaders and chroniclers, couldn’t wait for the first big incident, accompanied by the first primordial roar from the slopes suggestive of the earth cracking, to prove Mark Warburton wrong.
Every now and then, a spacecraft full of chuckling aliens drops down from Mars, or a manager comes up from Brentford, and tries to rubbish the Old Firm match. If not actually rubbish it, then question whether it really does hold the secret to life’s inner meaning. Or if not that, propose that some people might be getting a wee bit carried away in their dutiful devotion.
Just another game, Warbs claimed. Possibly this was a defence mechanism to protect his players, eight of whom were Old Firm virgins at Hampden on Sunday. So what, you wondered, did these guys – and the four first-timers in the Celtic team – make of the doomy ack-ack-ack of the police chopper’s rotor blades as it circled the stadium beforehand?
As sweet sounds of spring go, this wasn’t larks rising. Inside, the Larkhall Loyal boys had hoisted the biggest flag of many at the Rangers end. At the Celtic end, meanwhile, the players in hoops went to say hello to the fans after warming up and the screaming pierced the air. It was as if they were the best footballers in the world who’d just been freed from captivity, rather than the team which had strolled to another title while their support mostly dozed. Just another game? Nothing like.
And then the tie started and things got really different from other games. Up went the Celtic banners from under a belching firecracker fug: “Denial is the first stage of grief… R*ngers then… Zombies now… Hun scum forever.” The Celtic end’s hatred was better choreographed than that of the Rangers end, where the banners took longer to unfurl but eventually read: “Zombies are fictional… Paedophiles are real.”
The team in the light blue, though, started slickly enough. Kenny Miller had already told the world – and the world was watching, Sky TV boasted – that he was far from finished with terrific control in the box, Craig Gordon saving on that occasion. The touch from Scott Brown to set up his goal was dismal.
The Rangers fans erupted and then they bounced. “You’re not Rangers anymore,” jeered their rivals. Well, some mob or other had just raced into the lead. Warburton tried to get a message to Andy Halliday standing just inches away although you wonder how it could possibly have been heard. Maybe he was saying: “I was wrong. This isn’t just another game. Tell the rest of them.”
For Rangers to win, everyone agreed, they needed to score first. Now they could sit in, get accustomed to the madness some more, and play on the break. Celtic tried to respond via the dancing feet of Patrick Roberts. When Leigh Griffiths banged a shot against a post the little winger seemed certain to equalise. But it was as if the collective gasp of the Rangers hordes behind the goal put him off, further evidence of the power of the fixture.
By the end of the first half even occasional bomb-scares like Rob Kiernan were stroking the ball with confidence.
A blast of Rule Britannia from one end was thunderously booed by the other but the Celtic fans also kept back some catcalls for Ronny Deila as he headed down the tunnel at the break.
Whatever this supposed dead man walking said to his team brought an immediate response, with Erik Sviatchenko’s straightforward header underlining the weaknesses in Rangers’ central defence. Game on – or not. It was engrossing enough for the rest of the regulation 90 – and obviously never as quiet as the other semi the previous day when Hibernian and Dundee United finished at virtually walking pace in their search for a goal – but there were moments when nothing very much happened and the crowd didn’t sing, not nasty songs or anything.
Was Celtic vs Rangers “just another game” after all? Eleven against 11 unless Terry Butcher, Frank McAvennie and Graham Roberts are playing and then, dramatically, not playing? The other Roberts, Patrick, would occasionally enliven what passed for Old Firm longueurs but he had a rival in the tiny dancer stakes in Barrie McKay. Both men were throwbacks to a distant tanner ba’ age in the fixture and after McKay’s stupendous strike in extra time it looked like this semi would have itself a diminutive hero in contrast to Hibs’ XX-Large Conrad Logan. But Tom Rogic pulled Celtic back into it and set up the spot-kick finale, only to miss horribly with his penalty and send Rangers, the better team, to the final.
Just another game? The Old Firm match is part of Scottish mythology, like the Loch Ness Monster and the deep-fried Mars bar. We know it’s highly questionable but can still be protective of it. We wanted Warburton to be shocked and stunned by it, in a good way, and at the final whistle that’s exactly how he looked.