As satisfying and thrilling as the fixture has been for him so far, Brendan Rodgers didn’t need to experience Old Firm combat at first hand to fully appreciate the size of the occasion.
Long before he became Celtic manager and reeled off five wins and a draw from his first six meetings with Rangers last season, Rodgers had no doubts about just how far the reputation of one of the most famous derbies in football travels.
“I’ve been in enough changing rooms in the English Premier League where, if there’s a Celtic-Rangers or Rangers-Celtic game on, the boys are all glued to it,” says Rodgers.
“I was at Chelsea, Swansea and Liverpool, in the canteens where if that game is on, they are all watching it and know the intensity of it. They are thinking ‘Bloody hell’ and wondering what type of game it is to play in.”
Ahead of the first instalment in this season’s series at Ibrox tomorrow, the relevance of the rivalry beyond Scotland was called into question by Craig Bellamy’s withering assessment of Celtic’s dominance during a period in which Rangers’ status has been diminished by their financial collapse in 2012.
Rodgers, however, insists that any collision of Glasgow’s big two will always attract attention far beyond their own borders.
“You can’t say there’s not interest in this game,” he added. “There’s always interest, wherever you go in the world.
“The big leagues, such as England, will always get the greatest focus most of the time. We all know that. But there are also some great clubs, some huge clubs outside of those big leagues.
“They might not have the financial clout of some of those teams from the big leagues, but certainly in terms of history and prestige there are not too many bigger and better than the ones here [in Glasgow].
“This fixture is still box office, no question. If there’s a Celtic-Rangers game on, people throughout the world will want to tune into it. That’s why when you do well in one of these games, you hear the stories from America and Australia or wherever about people who have watched it. It’s a worldwide game – it is a box office game.
“Everyone knows about this fixture. You only need to have seen it to sense it and there’s been enough stories over the years of this game.
“It’s a special fixture and no matter what people will say – or write – it’s a really special game that’s recognised worldwide. The media also do a very good job of making it interesting and that always helps too!”
Celtic travel to Ibrox protecting a remarkable unbeaten run under Rodgers in domestic matches which they stretched to 56 games with their facile 4-0 Betfred Cup quarter-final victory over Dundee at Dens Park on Wednesday night. It is a sequence which has far exceeded Rodgers’ expectations and has now more than doubled the record of 26 domestic games unbeaten from the start of a season, set by Celtic’s Lisbon Lions in 1966-67, which they surpassed earlier this year.
“Towards the end of last season it was a great tonic for us,” said Rodgers. “The players don’t talk about it so much now. But it is funny, I see the achievement every day when I walk into my office. There’s a ball with ‘27’ written on it which John Clark, the great Lisbon Lion who is still here every day, gave to me. There is also a bottle of champagne marking the record which a sponsor gave me.
“Now I look at them and think ‘we are up to 56, so we have more than doubled that’. It is an incredible feat by the players and great testament to their focus, concentration and professionalism at their work. Any player, regardless of their professionalism, can have a bad day, but how they prepare themselves and how they never slacken is important.
“Of course, we come in every day as coaching staff to start from scratch and be ready, but the unbeaten run is testament in games to how they could have come off it but they haven’t. We keep pushing forwards. The players will always stay grounded too. That humility around the building is always good. When there are boys like John Clark and Danny McGrain around, they will sort them out if not!
“The champagne won’t be getting opened. It’s only there as a memento. It’ll just go away into the cupboard. Hopefully we’ll not open it for a while yet. We just keep going. We just focus on the next game and never get too caught up or worried about what people are saying. That’s key to the team’s success. We know the challenges for this season and one of the pitfalls of success is that people want you disconnected. You become a bigger target for teams and people start to talk about your players, but these are all things we anticipated during the summer, so the key for us is to focus on ourselves and let our football do the talking.”