Rangers captain James Tavernier addresses Celtic tide turning, facing Scott Brown and his Morelos-Kent banter

If James Tavernier can now be considered a veteran of Old Firm matches, he is most certainly one of the battle-scarred variety.

Rangers captain James Tavernier celebrates with Joe Aribo after the only goal of the 1-0 win against Celtic at Ibrox on January 2. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

The Rangers captain will make his 22nd appearance in the great fixture on Sunday having recently discovered the pleasure of gaining the upper hand over his club’s biggest rivals for a consecutive run of matches.

But Tavernier has had to endure plenty of painful moments along the way against Celtic before the tables were turned and Rangers powered to the Premiership title success which sees a 20-point gap separating the teams ahead of Sunday’s final Old Firm showdown of the season at Ibrox.

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Great start, then tough times

James Tavernier reacts in dismay as he is booked after conceding a penalty during Rangers' Scottish Cup semi-final defeat against Celtic at Hampden in 2017. (Photo by Alan Harvey/SNS Group).

While his debut in the fixture was a joyful experience back in 2016, when then second-tier Rangers beat Celtic on penalties in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden, Tavernier subsequently found himself on the wrong end of several discouraging and often heavy defeats.

Rangers lost nine of the first 13 Old Firm games Tavernier played in but are currently on an unbeaten streak of five and bidding to remain undefeated against Celtic over the course of a whole season for the first time since 1999-2000.

“The memories in Old Firm games have obviously got better for me,” reflects Tavernier. “I wasn’t long at the club when we first beat them in the cup.

“Since then, it’s been some rollercoaster we’ve been on. Over the years, though, as a group and as a team we’ve become so much stronger in these games.

Celebrations for James Tavernier on his Old Firm debut in April 2016 when Rangers defeated Celtic in a penalty shoot-out in the Scottish Cup semi-final. (Photo by Craig Foy/SNS Group).

“We’ve become a real good force within the league and in Europe. That’s been proven in the recent Old Firm games.

“It’s a case of desire and how much the boys are putting forward, how much more we want it. We want to see that again this weekend.”

Plenty at stake

While the main issue of the campaign is firmly settled in Rangers’ favour, Tavernier is keen to talk up the continued significance of the fixture as he and his team-mates look to complete only the fourth unbeaten top flight league season in Scottish football history.

Their motivation for that achievement has only been intensified by their shock Scottish Cup quarter-final elimination at home to St Johnstone last Sunday.

“We’ve had time to reflect on that and while it’s in the past now, it’s something we have to learn from going forward into next season,” said the 29-year-old.

“But you couldn’t ask for a better game to bounce back into than an Old Firm game. The boys are all raring to go for Sunday.

“There’s no such thing as a meaningless game at all when you play for Rangers. The fans want to see you perform and want to see three points go on the board.

“So we know the requirements. We need to finish the season off strong. We are here to win games and that will be our task and what we need to do in the remaining three matches.

“The message will be the same as it has been before every single game we have played this season. Nothing changes from what we have done throughout the whole season.

“First and foremost, listen to what the gaffer and management team need us to do tactically.

“Then it is down to our desire, how much we want it more. We have proven that during this season. We have to continue doing that, especially this weekend.

Domestic cup lessons

“In cup games, only one team comes out winners. It was unfortunate we conceded a late goal against St Johnstone and then lost in the penalty shoot-out.

“The St Mirren game in the League Cup earlier in the season, that just wasn’t our night.

“We played some really good football but both teams made it hard for us. It’s something we have looked back on and we know we need to address it next season and come out stronger.

“You’ve seen this season how we have managed to see out games more consistently. We just need to take that consistency into the cups next season.

“We could have been going for the treble this season. But if you’d asked me at the start of the season whether I’d rather win a cup or the league, I would have taken the league all day long.”

Sharp shooter

While Tavernier counts down to lifting the Premiership trophy aloft at Ibrox after Rangers’ final game of the season against Aberdeen on May 15, he is also still in contention for a title of his own as the club’s top scorer for 2020-21.

It would be a noteworthy feat for the right-back whose 18th goal of the campaign against St Johnstone last weekend took him two ahead of Alfredo Morelos at the top of the Rangers scorers’ chart.

Kemar Roofe (14) and Ryan Kent (12) are next on the list and Tavernier admits he has relished ribbing his attacking team-mates over the course of a campaign which saw him sit out 11 games recently because of a knee injury.

“I’ve had a laugh and a joke with Ryan and Alfredo especially, right throughout the season, even when I was injured,” he added.

“That gave them time to catch me up! I’ll try and do my best to be top scorer but I obviously also want to see Alfredo score plenty of goals.

“If I can help the team by contributing to that then I’ll be happy. That’s been our mindset all season really. All the boys have chipped in with goals on the big occasions.”

Farewell to Brown

Tavernier, meanwhile, played down the significance of going head-to-head with Scott Brown for a final time in Old Firm matches before the Celtic captain leaves to join Aberdeen this summer.

“It’s been like coming up against any other opposition player, really,” he said. “I certainly know the players quite well now. You just play against them, just play the game.

“It’s not something I can comment on really. It’s his last game and it’s our last game against them this season.”

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