WALTER Smith believes the return of the Old Firm fixture will provide a much-needed shot in the arm for Scottish football, despite what he admits are “unsavoury” elements of the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic.
The former Rangers manager insists the Ibrox club’s absence from the top flight since their financial collapse three years ago has diminished the overall status and reputation of the game in Scotland.
Ahead of Sunday’s League Cup semi-final at Hampden, the first Old Firm showdown since April 2012, Smith claims the resumption of the fixture on a regular basis is just as crucial for Celtic as it is for Rangers.
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Although often blighted by sectarianism and crowd disorder through the years, it is an occasion which Smith feels brings more benefit than detriment.
He said: “It is always a frenzy around the Old Firm game, it just depends what kind of frenzy. Sometimes it spills over and there are problems that we could do without. You have to stress that there are elements of it which are unsavoury.
“But, by the same token, for all the problems it creates every now and again, I feel Scottish football needs the Rangers-Celtic fixture. The profile this game on Sunday will have throughout Europe, even the world, will be massive.
“It gets that attention and profile focused onto Scottish football again, which we are struggling to achieve at European level at present. Celtic have been left for another season to try and hold up our European profile.
“First and foremost, it is more damaging to Rangers to be out of the top flight. Scottish football has managed for the last three years, although Peter Lawwell has stated that Celtic themselves have lost a lot of money as a result.
“It has been a bad thing for Scottish football that Rangers have been outside the top flight. The likes of Aberdeen, Dundee United and others will say you are seeing a challenge from them, but it’s in a domestic circumstance only. Our clubs continue to get knocked out in the early rounds in Europe every year.
“It has been left to Celtic to carry the whole of Scotland in a European context and that is a context where we have to show that our football can stand up to scrutiny. Over the last few years, it hasn’t.
“This year we are seeing a better domestic league that is helping bring back a few people to the game but it still needs Rangers to get back into the league again.
“The sooner that happens, the better for Scotland. The Old Firm game does bring up some elements that we would rather do without but, overall, it is a big loss to us that we don’t have the Old Firm fighting for the league title every year.”
Smith added: “If Rangers had been faced with playing Celtic four times a season for the last three seasons, we might not have seen the same circumstances occurring at Rangers as they have done. I think things would have been sorted a lot quicker if they had remained in the top flight and had to play the Old Firm game four times a season.”
Smith is the most successful post-war manager in Old Firm games, winning 28 and losing just 15 of the 56 meetings with Celtic he faced over his two spells in charge of Rangers.
He reflected: “I used to love it at time up when we won. But I can’t say that it was one of those games that you really looked forward to taking part in. You felt it as a manager, there is no doubt about that.
“It doesn’t matter what anyone says, players are lucky to go out on the pitch and just play in it. But from a managerial point of view, in my career there was nothing like it.
“You go to England and there is Everton v Liverpool, Manchester United v Manchester City, I have experienced the two of them. The Old Firm game has an edge to it that is missing in these matches.
“I can’t say that I miss them. On the other hand I say they are necessary. They are necessary for everyone, except maybe the two managers.
“Anyone who gets that opportunity will get to know what it is like. As a manager, you don’t need any laxatives ahead of an Old Firm game!
“It is a first Old Firm game in charge for both Kenny McDowall and Ronny Deila. Kenny at least knows what it is like, he has experienced it from a coaching perspective. So, for him, it will not be a major surprise.
“For a lot of the people at Celtic, it will be the first time. For a lot of people at Rangers it will be the first time that they have played an Old Firm game so it will be interesting to see how they handle it.”
However Smith, perhaps unsurprisingly, doesn’t think Celtic will have it all their own way.
He said: “I don’t think the game itself on Sunday will be as straightforward as everyone is saying. Celtic are obvious favourites but I think it might be tighter than a lot of people imagine.
“Rangers’ better performances this season have actually been against Premiership teams in the cups. They have had decent results against them. In the games I have gone to see, most of the Championship teams make sure they are tight and Rangers are maybe lacking a bit in terms of creation of opportunities.
“Playing for Rangers or Celtic is not easy. You have got to be a decent standard of player. The boys at Rangers are finding that out. The lack of creation is something that Rangers have had to try and overcome over the season.
“The Premiership teams will come and play them, but the majority of Championship teams will make it a bit more awkward for them.
“Celtic will obviously come and play them. They are rightly favourites to win the game but I think it will be closer than people imagine it will be.”