Paul Hartley knows what a lost cause looks like in a title race. Eleven years ago, he was a member of the Celtic squad which found themselves seven points behind Rangers with only seven games left to play.
During that dramatic conclusion to the 2007-08 campaign, the Ibrox side also had a game in hand. While Rangers faced the added commitments of their progression to the finals of both the Scottish and Uefa Cups during the run-in, the prospect of Celtic winning all seven of their remaining fixtures still appeared unlikely.
“It’s going to be near-impossible,” admitted manager Gordon Strachan at the time. Yet, a few weeks later, Hartley and his team-mates had collected 21 points out of 21 – including two victories in Old Firm matches – to clinch the title ahead of Walter Smith’s side on the last day of the season.
It would take a turnaround of similar proportions for Rangers to salvage their title hopes this season. Steven Gerrard’s men, having failed to build on their 1-0 win over Celtic at Ibrox in December, go into Sunday’s Old Firm showdown at Parkhead ten points behind the champions with eight games of the Premiership campaign remaining.
“I can’t see it happening for Rangers,” said Hartley. “They need to beat Celtic twice and hope that Celtic also slip up against somebody else. I can’t see Celtic losing three or four of the remaining matches.
“But you never can tell – nobody gave us a chance 11 years when we won our last seven to do it. We were seven points behind on the weekend we lost 1-0 at home to Motherwell and although we had the double-header with Rangers to come, we still needed them to drop points elsewhere.
“All Rangers can do is focus on Sunday. Just win the next game, don’t try to think about winning five or six on the bounce or whatever. This is the ideal opportunity for Rangers just to think about winning the next game. It’s going to be fascinating on Sunday.
“Rangers know they need to win, Celtic know they can afford a draw. Rangers can’t set up defensively and play for a draw. They have to win it. They are pretty much in the same scenario as we were back in 2008. They can’t shut up shop, they have to go there for the win.”
Hartley has fond memories of Celtic’s pivotal back-to-back victories over Rangers in 2008 which provided the momentum for their late charge to the title. The former Scotland midfielder recalls an early declaration of intent in the first contest, a 2-1 win secured by Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink’s stoppage-time goal, as a significant turning point.
“Barry Robson set the tone in the first minute with a sharp elbow on Christian Dailly, then I had a strong tackle on Lee McCulloch,” he said.
“That’s what sets you up in those games – it’s not a brilliant piece of skill or whatever. That first challenge can really set the tone for who goes on to win it.
“So if Rangers are going to have any chance, they might have to do that early on Sunday. That’s what they did in the last game at Ibrox, they were on the front foot right away. You could see Celtic were spooked by how Rangers started.
“Andy Halliday went in with a great tackle in the first minute or so. All he did was knock the ball out for a throw-in but it set the tone and gave everyone in the Rangers team and support a lift.”
Sunday will be a return to Old Firm combat for Hartley’s former team-mate Neil Lennon, whose hopes of being named permanent Celtic manager this summer could depend on whether he completes the groundwork laid by Brendan Rodgers for a third consecutive domestic treble.
“He is coming into the job after a manager who has won seven consecutive trophies, had a certain style of football in how Celtic won games and a different personality in how he conducted himself in the job,” added Hartley.
“So Neil is now under the different pressure of knowing he can’t afford to let this slip. That would be a disaster for him if Celtic lost the title.
“He knows he’s under pressure not only to win the title, but to win the treble again. He will give himself a great opportunity of getting the job if he does that. But I think he will just be focusing on the game on Sunday and then seeing where it takes him.
“He’s someone who’s been there as a player, coach and a manager – he knows what the Old Firm game is all about.
“Neil gives it everything – you saw his reaction when they got that stoppage-time winner at Dundee the other week. He was running to the corner flag and I hate to think what he’d do if Celtic get a last-minute goal on Sunday – you could see the aeroplane being done again!
“However, there’s nothing wrong with that. Neil’s a passionate person and he knows what this match means – he also knows that losing it is the big thing.
“As a player, he was a leader and a good captain for the Old Firm games. He was strong and very emotional in the dressing room and if you weren’t doing your job properly he’d let you know all about it.
“When Celtic lost at Ibrox in December, that was probably the first time in a couple of years this group of players had that amount of stick for a performance in the league. Rightly so, because Rangers were by far the better team and it could have been a lot more than 1-0.
“So Celtic will want to try to get one over Rangers in terms of their performance level but, most importantly, just in winning the game.”
l Paul Hartley was speaking at a William Hill Foundation media event for the Scottish FA Mental Health and Wellbeing League which runs until the final at Lesser Hampden on 25 May.