In the Ibrox tunnel nine days ago, amid the hustle and bustle of post-match activities, Andy Halliday stood with his back to a door and politely answered reporters’ questions.
He had just helped his side to a 4-0 victory over Dundee, coming on for a quietly effective 28 minute-cameo during which Rangers scored three goals. The conversation was inevitably framed by the forthcoming Scottish Cup semi-final meeting with Celtic.
Halliday fielded queries about whether he could expect to start the following weekend having presumably played his way into his manager’s thoughts. Obviously he couldn’t say he hoped he wouldn’t. Instead he mentioned something about experience always counting for something in such games and how he was always prepared to answer the call, were it to come.
But it never sounded like he truly believed it would. After all, a near 30-minute appearance against a tiring Dundee, who had held Celtic to a goalless draw four days earlier, was no real indication of preparedness to face the Scottish champions in the intensity of a cup semi-final.
Halliday’s previous outing was nearly a month earlier in a Scottish Cup canter over Falkirk. He had made only ten appearances since coming back from Azerbaijan, where he failed to establish himself in what proved an unhappy loan spell at Gabala.
Halliday expressed some disappointment about not having been handed as many minutes on the pitch as he would have liked since his return. “It’s up to the manager [whether I play on Sunday] – I have not played many games this year,” he said, reasonably.
He is a boyhood fan, yes, and played the last time Rangers managed to beat Celtic, on penalties two years earlier. But whether these are the necessary credentials of someone required to go up against Scott Brown and Olivier Ntcham in the heart of midfield, hmmmm.
It seemed more likely Halliday would have to settle for a place among the substitutes. And he will wish he had been on the bench yesterday as he joined his team-mates in looking utterly bewildered as Celtic took an immediate hold of proceedings. Halliday got there soon enough, sadly. Just 40 minutes in. Hooked during the first-half of an Old Firm fixture. He will wish he had never come home from South Caucasus, where he was exiled under Pedro Caixinha.
It is especially hurtful for such a well-known, heart-on-sleeve Rangers fan, hence the heated response as he made his way to a seat in the open dugouts they have at Hampden, which, cruelly, are in full view of everyone.
There was confusion as to whether Halliday was reacting to a fan’s criticisms or was letting off steam at Murty. Being subbed off before the interval is reckoned to be one of football’s greatest humiliations, out-stripped only by being substituted after coming on as a substitute. Whoever was the target for Halliday’s ire, it was all getting very grisly for Rangers.
In the match programme, Jimmy Nicholl, the Ibrox assistant manager, revealed his mother was making an appearance at an Old Firm match for the first time. This was despite her son actually playing in several during the mid-1980s.
“My mum has followed me throughout my career,” he said. “She’s a Greenock woman and Morton fan. Hopefully it will be a great occasion for her and everyone because that’s what happens when Rangers play Celtic.”
This was no place for an 84-year-old. Children, too, might have been advised to shield their eyes from the slaughter. The only comfort is that it could have been a lot worse. Rangers were simply relieved it didn’t reach five.
The fact Rangers players cheered when hearing they had been drawn against their rivals – what were they supposed to do, let out a long, anguished moan? – was used against them, by Brendan Rodgers among others. Joy was certainly not appropriate here. Nor was there a reason for it. It was one long, drawn-out scream; Murty’s Scream, so to speak.
This was less a defeat and more an existential cry of despair from Rangers, who lack direction, leadership and quality.
The balloons that swirled and then gathered in the corner of the pitch in front of the main stand seemed to cause Celtic more problems than the opposition. They were at least loosely arranged in formation. Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon collected a cross in the 44th minute and there was some genuine debate about whether it was the first time he had touched the ball.
On the touchline, Murty refused to hide. Some claim he has now failed what represented his final interview for the full-time post but, surely, it was already clear what he needed was some time back where he started the season, as head development coach at the Rangers Academy. He will cherish the experience of leading Rangers in two spells. However, his lack of qualifications for the job at the present time was only underlined yesterday.
Murty made the difficult decision to take off Halliday five minutes before half-time. It was not a move that mattered greatly in terms of the game – Rangers were already done.
But ensuring such public ignominy befell the player was bound to have consequences.
Murty could have waited until the interval. But these were extreme circumstances. He had to be brave. Then again, Murty was the one who pinned his hopes on Halliday, whose rustiness was clear to see as well as understandable. It was the manager’s call. The midfielder simply was not ready for this. Another brutal truth is he is not good enough to be considered a game-changing influence.
Halliday swapped places with Josh Windass but a fat lot of good it did Rangers. It was re-arranging deckchairs on the Titanic time.
Where’s the captain of the ship? Most of the usual characters who occupy the posh seats on such occasions were sighted. Alastair Johnston, the United States-based Rangers director, was present, just behind Rod Stewart, who commanded attention by standing up and gesturing 4-0 with his fingers.
But there was no sign of Dave King, the Rangers chairman. Says it all really.