It was my first game at Celtic Park for Rangers, a baptism of fire. It was also the first time I played through the middle for Rangers. I scored two in the 3-0 victory. Dick Advocaat had pulled me aside as I left the bus before training on the Thursday morning. He said: “You played through the middle for Hearts, didn’t you? Well you’re playing there on Sunday!”
Despite the fact we dominated the league that season playing 4-4-2, he was prepared to go to Celtic Park, where Rangers lost 5-1 earlier in the campaign, and change the formation and tactics in order to gain an advantage.
Rangers only needed a point to win the league. But Advocaat decided to be bold and different. I played through the middle with Gabby Amato. Rod Wallace, an out-and-out striker, was in behind us at the top of a midfield diamond. We knew we were the better team at the time and we were going there to win the league.
Despite the high stakes Advocaat was prepared to alter the tactics by playing me through the middle, which I had never done before for Rangers since joining from Hearts in December. In that game at Celtic Park, where I was playing almost like a traditional centre-forward, I felt unstoppable.
Players might have a handful of games in their career when that happens. It was one of those games where you feel like you are running on air.
The point is it was Advocaat’s inspiration and bravery, on the biggest stage, which gave us the tactical upper hand in a head-to-head that we hadn’t won yet that season.
I believe it’s important to be flexible when it comes to football. Sometimes a manager has to say: “it’s not working” or “today it’s time for something different”.
This brings me to Mark Warburton and his dilemma today, both in defence and attack. Someone asked me recently about the way he plays: is he being stubborn or is it a belief that his way will be vindicated? I think it’s the latter.
They are still wide open at the back, with the promotion of both full-backs into forward areas. I fear if they do that today they could be heavily punished.
In attack they have become a little predictable. Don’t get me wrong, they blew teams away at times last season. But we are in a new season and I feel teams and managers are wise to it.
I believe they could benefit sometimes if Warburton mixed things up slightly. James Tavernier looks as if he wants to put the ball into the box early, Harry Forrester too.
This week, as I’ve been preparing for Sky Sports’ coverage, I’ve been studying a lot of what Joe Garner did at Preston North End. Preston were a lot more direct. They got a lot of balls into the box quickly.
He might not be the biggest but Garner attacks the ball very well in all different manners. I would like to see Warburton start with him – maybe even going with the two up at times, Garner and Kenny Miller. I don’t think he will, because throwing a curveball like that has not been his style.
Rangers have the ability when they have possession of the ball to really give Celtic problems. But, recently, other teams have had their measure. Despite the new signings, they are not as high-octane as they were during the last campaign. I know Martyn Waghorn has been out injured, as has Jason Holt. The new signings have slowed them down a bit – Niko Kranjcar is not up to speed and hasn’t really gone beyond the striker from that No 10 role, not yet at least.
Celtic showed Rangers no respect in the Scottish Cup last season. “We are going to turn up as we are Scottish champions and wipe the deck with you”. They didn’t. Rangers were dynamic. They had fluency, options and space to play in.
I will be surprised if Rangers leave Celtic Park with a victory this afternoon. But the flip side of that opinion is Rangers are at their most dangerous when playing against a team who are open and not camping in, so it could happen.
Celtic played expansive football under Ronny Deila, but slightly disjointed in my opinion. Celtic under Brendan Rogers, though expansive, are more robust and look a lot more solid and unified.
While a lot of the talk is about the potential absence through injury of Leigh Griffiths, I think that overlooks a player who has been integral to how Celtic play. Happily for Gordon Strachan, he is another Scot – Kieran Tierney.
The left back has become vital in the way Rodgers plays his system. When Celtic are not in possession of the ball they go into a flat back four and get really tight but when they are in possession they change. The two centre-halves shuffle across with the right full back to form a wide three, allowing Tierney to bomb up the line. He is almost playing as a wide left player.
This has an impact on Scott Sinclair, allowing him to go inside and become a more central threat whilst still maintaining width in the team. The way Tierney interacts with Scott Sinclair on the left could be potentially decisive. It could have huge significance on how Tavernier plays for Rangers on the right flank.
Sinclair has made a massive difference to Celtic – he and James Forrest add pure speed. It frightens the life out of defenders.
The atmosphere, too, can affect a player. I know there have been two Old Firm games in the last two seasons but this is the first one for more than four years at a partisan venue.
I don’t believe you experience an Old Firm game properly until you’ve played in one at Celtic Park or Ibrox. I always feel the stands at Hampden are a bit too far away to feel it. It’s a different ball game at Celtic Park and Ibrox. If you are too precious, too soft mentally, or just don’t have the heart, it will eat into you and you will disappear.
You are more aware of it if you play in a wide position. You can almost feel the tension from the stands. It could be intimidating if you weren’t strong enough to deal with it. I wasn’t popular, to put it mildly, having gone there in my first season at Rangers and scored those two goals that won the league at Celtic Park – the first time Rangers had done that.
I was pretty high up in the Celtic fans’ list when it came to public enemies and took a lot of stick from the stands. But the truth is, I enjoyed it!
Rodgers has no experience of being involved in the fixture and whilst he has experience of being a fan and understands what it means, you don’t really get it until you are standing there and about to walk on the pitch, trust me.
l Neil McCann will provide expert analysis for Sky Sports 2’s coverage of Celtic v Rangers, today from 11.30am.