Only derision is directed from the Celtic support towards anyone who dares to suggest that their derby encounter at Ibrox next Sunday has the potential to impact on the destination of the title.
Rangers may have cut the gap between the Glasgow clubs to six points with a resounding 4-1 win away to St Johnstone the other night, but Brendan Rodgers’ men could yet go into the derby with a nine-point advantage over their city adversaries. A decision will be made today over whether Celtic’s home fixture against Dundee, which fell victim to the white-out this week, will be played at Parkhead on Wednesday.
Anything approaching a nine-point lead at this stage of the season doesn’t get overturned, the Celtic faithful have been scoffing. A conviction underpinned by the legitimate belief that their league leaders can call upon a far more talented squad than an Ibrox side recast and rejuvenated under Graeme Murty.
This same support were scoffing when Celtic thumped Rangers 3-0 on their own patch in February 2011, and in doing so opened up an eight-point lead over a toiling Ibrox side. It did not prove an advantage they were able to turn into a winning position in the championship that season.
This season will be the first since then that there has been even any vague jostling for the title as the top-drawing Glasgow clubs have faced each other in their third league derby.
In 2011, there was a very different backdrop to an encounter that was one of seven contested between the pair. Walter Smith’s men went into the match five points behind their hosts, having played two games fewer, in a match that was sandwiched between two incendiary Scottish Cup confrontations.
Two weeks earlier the sides drew 2-2 in a fifth-round tie at Ibrox. By the time of the replay Celtic had taken control in the title race. They also prevailed in the second cup match, the so-called “shame game” at Parkhead, which they won 1-0 as Rangers had three men red-carded and Celtic manager Neil Lennon and Ibrox assistant Ally McCoist had an infamous spat at full-time.
Lennon’s challengers then seemed to have the measure of Smith’s team which appeared to be ailing as they pursued three in a row.
The power shift between the Glasgow clubs felt like it was rubber-stamped as Celtic eviscerated their rivals with a three-goal league win on 20 February to put the destiny of the title in their own hands for the first time that season. Smith declared it was “as poor” a derby display by his team as he had seen since he had returned to the club four years earlier for a second spell in charge.
The tone was set 17 minutes in when Gary Hooper, pictured, touched the ball past David Weir and left the veteran defender for dust before lashing the ball low into the net.
In his BBC radio commentary David Begg described the striker’s outpacing of the 41-year-old as being “like an express train going by an old puffer”.
It seemed emblematic of where the two teams were in their evolution. The average age of the Celtic side was 23. For Rangers it was almost 28. Moreover, Hooper, who added a second 11 minutes later, was among a clutch of arrivals with whom Lennon had reinvigorated Celtic that season. The coup de grace of a 69th minute third was delivered by another, Kris Commons, signed the previous month after Celtic out-muscled Rangers financially to acquire his signature.
The skint Ibrox side struggled to bolster their attack and late on in the window signed David Healy and brought in El Hadji Diouf on loan from Blackburn Rovers. The every touch of the controversial Senegalese forward was booed during the 3-0 defeat in what was his first appearance at Celtic Park since spitting on a fan while playing for Liverpool there in 2003.
The apparent pivotal nature of Celtic’s second derby win in eight weeks – a Georgios Samaras double supplying a 2-0 win at Ibrox in the new year clash – was reflected in the press reaction.
The Scotsman’s headline declared “Hooper’s double delight as Celtic stride toward title” while the BBC settled for Celtic having taken “a significant step towards the title”. Lennon preached caution as he expressed “pride” in the “emphatic” win in a game that was “an acid test” for his players. “We are taking nothing for granted,” he added.
Celtic had no reason to take anything for granted. The following weekend they lost 2-0 at Motherwell to end a 17-game unbeaten run. Smith rallied his patched-up squad by winning 12 and drawing one of their last 14 league games – as well as edging out Celtic in the League Cup final.
The one league draw was the 0-0 stalemate in the post-split derby fixture at Ibrox. Despite Georgios Samaras having a penalty saved, Celtic left Govan knowing wins in their five remaining fixtures would clinch the league. But a shock 3-2 defeat in a re-aranged fixture at Inverness ten days later did for them. And demonstrated it can be unwise to scoff at the possibility of titles taking wholly unexpected twists.