A SHORT while ago, Ally McCoist was speaking about the miserable plight of his club; the debt mountain and the men who created it, the search for a buyer that was dragging on, the embarrassment and the confusion and the fear of what lay ahead.
He said that only one thing was certain about the Rangers story – they were at rock bottom. They couldn’t fall any further. Things, said McCoist, couldn’t get any worse.
As he watched this evisceration you wondered if the Rangers manager was revising his theory about rock bottom. If you have been to a coursing meeting where greyhounds chase a hare around a field in attempt to gobble the thing up, you’ll have an idea what this was like for Rangers people. From first minute to last they were coursed around Parkhead. Chased, harried and beaten badly.
Even before a whistle sounded or a ball was kicked, Celtic were letting their visitors have it. This was expected, of course. Rangers fans didn’t come here expecting love and understanding, didn’t fetch-up in the belief that the locals would go easy. No, no. They knew how it would be. They knew that for 90 minutes they were going to get it between the eyes from their counterparts, their only hope being that their team would deliver something special and give them an opportunity to do some chanting of their own. They chanted all right, but in grim defiance rather than in celebration. To say that this was a chastening day for their support would be putting it mildly.
The Celtic banners. Lord, how many man-woman hours went into dreaming them up? There was a level of genius about some of them, one in particular, a gigantic image of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with Neil Lennon in the saddle on one and Hector the taxman on board another. Your Day Is Coming was the message underneath this footballing Mona Lisa. All around it, people waved black flags and held mock gravestones, each with its own message – The End, Rot In Hell, Scotland’s Shame, Get It Up You. Not subtle, but then subtlety wasn’t in the plan. Down the other end of the stadium another collection of Celts held up signs with the word Goodbye written in a dozen different languages. This was goading on a grand scale. If there was a Champions League for revelling in the misery of others, then Celtic would be Europe’s pre-eminent club.
The game? In many ways it reflected the current state of the clubs. Celtic were organised and confident, Rangers were blunt and became more jaded and demoralised as things went on. Later in the day, McCoist suggested that this might be the last Old Firm game for quite some time, but in the case of many of this Rangers side there can be no dubiety about it. At the end, Kyle Bartley flung his jersey into the visiting supporters. We won’t be seeing him in this fixture again, you fancy. And others. Allan McGregor, Steven Whittaker, Steven Naismith, Steven Davis? The Old Firm game will surely carry on, but you have to think that it will do so without Ibrox’s most stellar names.
As a contest it lasted half an hour, the length of time it took Celtic to score two goals and bury any notion Rangers had of making it three wins out of four in this fixture this season. Celtic were sharp and ruthless and disciplined, all the things they were not at Ibrox the last time these two came face to face. Back then, Sone Aluko set the tone and scored the goal that sent Rangers on their way. Aluko was the spark that ignited Rangers, but here he was a damp squib, an honest tryer right enough, but utterly ineffective. Celtic had a plan for the one guy who makes Rangers tick and it worked beautifully.
Every time Aluko got the ball he was surrounded by hoops. If it wasn’t Victor Wanyama it was Joe Ledley, if it wasn’t Ledley it was Scott Brown. At various times it was two or three of them all at once. At one point, Wanyama robbed him of possession and Aluko threw his hands in the air in frustration. Rangers never got going as an attacking threat because Aluko never got going.
It was a long day for the visitors. Long, long, long. The opening goal came in the 17th minute and like the two that followed it was a picture, a corner by Kris Commons, who is beginning to show again what a fine player he is, nutted home by Charlie Mulgrew. If you’re looking for the poster boy of Celtic’s season then it has to be the centre-half. Mulgrew has been wonderful.
Now the theatre began anew. “Can you hear the Rangers sing?” came bellowing out from the stands. “We’re having a party when Rangers die” followed soon after, a medley that reach its high-point with a joyous serenading of Craig Whyte. “Liquidation, liquidation, na, na-na, na-na,” they sang. In reply, Rangers men sang God Save The Queen and Rule Brittania and eventually We Are The People. Celtic fans applauded them. Their irony was inescapable.
There was no respite for Rangers. Aluko wasn’t doing it for them, Rhys McCabe, so influential in the heart of the midfield at Ibrox last month, was crowded out of it. Lee Wallace, a constant nuisance bombing up and down the left flank in the last Old Firm game in the face of meek resistance from Cha Du-Ri had a different type of competitor to deal with in Adam Matthews.
As Celtic men were winning their individual battles there was a certainty of a second goal – and it came soon enough. It was another clinical thing, a quick-fire sortie created by Gary Hooper and finished by Commons when he drifted into a gap and dinked the ball over the terribly exposed Allan McGregor.
This was the measure of Celtic’s dreams, a title won and now a rubbishing of the argument by some Rangers people that their title of champions was tainted because of the Ibrox club’s travails. No right-minded person will think that now, not with the gap at the top standing at a princely 21 points, not with the pummelling that was completed when McCabe was ransacked by Georgios Samaras, who played in Hooper to thump home a third.
Long before the end, Rangers had a punch-drunk look. They had taken on the appearance of a weary fighter who had suffered too many blows. As Rangers reeled, Celtic bobbed and weaved. The difference in energy was as stark as the gulf in class.