Faith and friendship help bond Rangers’ Nikola Katic and Celtic’s Filip Benkovic

Celtic's Filip Benkovic and Nikola Katic are friends off the park. Pic: SNS/Craig FoyCeltic's Filip Benkovic and Nikola Katic are friends off the park. Pic: SNS/Craig Foy
Celtic's Filip Benkovic and Nikola Katic are friends off the park. Pic: SNS/Craig Foy
There is likely to be depressingly little evidence of enlightenment impacting on the religious divisions between Rangers and Celtic at Ibrox this afternoon. If the two supports revert to type, sections of the 49,000-plus home legions will sing chants that amount to anti-Catholic, just as elements among the 800 visiting fans will shout epithets that are simply proxies for Protestant slurs.

Yet, to listen to Rangers defender Nikola Katic is to be encouraged that a 21st century ecumenicism exists within the bitter rivalry between Scotland’s two heavyweight clubs.

In recent weeks we have not only been mourning the passing of two iconic footballing figures following the deaths of European Cup-winning Celtic captain Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers, scorer of the winning goal against Inter Milan in their 1967 triumph . We have mourned the passing of the era in which McNeill and Chalmers operated, one wherein friendships and fraternising between Scotland’s ancient adversaries wasn’t looked upon as alien. McNeill counted Rangers captain John Greig as a confidante, while Chalmers regularly played golf with Ibrox goalkeeper Peter McCloy.

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In reality, even as recently as when Scott Brown and Kevin Thomson remained close while performing for the Glasgow antagonists, such friendships have existed. However, Katic offers a sign of progress in normalising the clubs’ relations in a fashion that has never been expressed before.

As a young player from Croatia, he has naturally gravitated towards countrymen in Glasgow for company away from the pitch since his £2 million move from Slaven Belupo last summer.

That has meant he and team-mate Borna Barisic hooking up with Celtic’s on-loan Leicester City defender Filip Benkovic and his Parkhead defensive partner Jozo Simunovic.

As fellow members of the Croatian under-21 side that will compete in the summer’s European championship, Katic seems particularly close to Benkovic. Close enough for them to be together as recently as this week, with the Catholic pair then undertaking their religious observance together.

“I was in church with Filip on Sunday,” the 22-year-old offered when asked the last time he had been with Benkovic away from football. That shouldn’t have seemed like an arresting statement, but the fact if felt like one betrays how twisted the enmities between the clubs can make minds.

Katic and Simunovic could be integral performers in both boxes in today’s final derby of the season when Steven Gerard’s men host the newly-crowned eight-in-a-row league champions.

Both centre-backs have battled through periods out of the team to become in-form game-changers for their sides in recent months.

The Rangers defender concedes he needed a period of adjustment in settling into Scottish football and Scottish life. That included assessing whether there required to be parameters in how he associated with Celtic-playing pals. Happily, even if the religious and cultural divisions can seem extreme, Katic realised he had no requirement to keep his distance from Simunovic and Benkovic.

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“When I arrived, I knew Jozo and Filip from the national team and we were friends. [But] the first two months I just spoke with Jozo. I didn’t know if it was the right thing or not [to socialise] but as soon as Borna arrived we started to go out,” he said. “We are still friends but out on the pitch I am only looking out for Rangers.

“I don’t care who is Jozo and who is Filip and they don’t care who is Niko. So I will give everything to stop him on the pitch and help us to win.”

Off the pitch, professional concerns and considerations give way to normal conversation topics versed by young men who have known each other throughout their formative years.

“When we are out, football is off the table,” Katic said. “We talk about women, about countries, about holidays.

“We ask each other how the game is, ‘I played good’, [for] two minutes and then we move on. I have not tried to get any secrets. There is too much football throughout the year, you can get tired of it sometimes and so we find other things to talk about.

“It was important to have friends in Scotland because this is a big club and at first I was alone. We always support each other mentally. Jozo has more experience then me, so does Borna, so I am the young lad. They helped me when I was out.”

And in the nature of their relations the four can help us feel that the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic need not feel like a poisoning influence.