Only 800 away fans allowed in as well as a studied determination to avoid even mentioning the opposition’s name, it seems Celtic would prefer to not have to recognise their rivals from across the city at all.
And for long stages yesterday, they did not have to. There really was only one team in it – and it wasn’t Rangers, who Celtic were playing yesterday.
This has to be spelled out since it might not have been immediately obvious from the way the teams were announced. The chore of relaying information about the Rangers starting XI – or “today’s visitors” as they were referred to throughout – could not have been carried out in a more perfunctory manner.
There was also minimal respect shown to the office of referee – “Collum”. Not Willie Collum. Not Mr Collum.
The bombast was cranked up when it came to Celtic of course. “AND NOW…PARADISE. LET’S MAKE SOME NOISE FOR THE HOOPS!”
Even the manager “of the double treble winning champions” was given a name check in the team run-through. To be fair to the hosts, those relying on national broadcasters for information about the game might have been uncertain if Rangers were playing – in fact which two teams were competing was unclear in a clash more commonly framed as Brendan Rodgers v Steven Gerrard.
The identity of the two managers together with their past Liverpool connection provided a normally tasty clash with yet more punch. Someone behind the away dugout had even brought along an Everton flag for the occasion. However, a strange decision to cut the allocation of away supporters from around 7,000 to just 800 detracted from the spectacle. Indeed, for segregation purposes, there were more empty seats than Rangers fans, who were tucked away, barely seen and only sometimes heard, in the corner.
Celtic, of course, were only getting their retaliation in first after Rangers announced they were slashing their rivals’ allocation for this season’s Old Firm games at Ibrox in order to let more home fans in.
Rangers centre-half Connor Goldson even suggested this arrangement had a bearing on the result. There were too few away supporters to muster audible howls of disapproval when Ryan Jack collapsed under a challenge by Tom Rogic on the edge of the Rangers box as Celtic broke up-field for Olivier Ntcham’s winning goal.
Goldson claimed that in such situations where there are only a few hundred away supporters in such a vast, partisan arena there’s only limited pressure on a referee to give decisions in the away side’s favour.
“It is a foul,” said Goldson. “Realistically it is a foul and I think everyone who watches it will see it is a foul. But when you are away and the crowd don’t cheer for you to get a foul it doesn’t get given. But anything their crowd cheer for is always a free-kick. You have to expect it.
“When their crowd make a big noise, the referee gives them everything. When you only have a small portion of the crowd and you don’t get a noise, there were a lot of play-ons when they made fouls.”
Those Rangers fans permitted entry to an area of the stadium where sightlines are an afterthought were then barred from leaving. It summed up the often grim lot of a football supporter. All this after barely a shot on target to cheer.
“Celtic fans please leave the stadium”, urged a voice across the Tannoy system when it became clear the strategy of keeping Rangers fans behind while the ground was supposed to empty following the final whistle was not working out as planned. Yes, the Rangers fans were still there but so too were the Celtic supporters, who were not about to pass up this opportunity to goad the smaller than usual rump of away fans.
Enough had been allowed in to satisfy trolling requirements. A “You’re Not Rangers Anymore” banner was unfurled at the end of half-time. The Celtic players made their way round towards the Rangers fans at the end, Scott Brown prompting many to rush towards him in fury after some typical baiting from the skipper, who, naturally, left the field bare-chested.
Gerrard, by contrast, didn’t stick around. Having shaken the hand of each Rangers player, he turned on his heels and headed down the tunnel. He left Rodgers and the Celtic players to milk the applause before sharing a drink with the Celtic manager in his office. They might have shared a smile about the blizzard of words published pre-match psychoanalysing their relationship.
“I’m looking forward to seeing Steven today,” wrote Rodgers in his programme notes. “He’s a good guy and we worked well together at Liverpool. I don’t necessarily see it as the dugout battle, though. I see it as the teams on the field playing. Whichever coach or manager is there at the time is irrespective to me. It’s really about looking at the team and how they play and then preparing my team to win the game. That’s what I’ve tried to do in all 11 games I’ve had against Rangers in two years here.”
Make that a dozen now. Rodgers has continued his unbeaten run in Old Firm clashes. He sportingly noted that yesterday’s win was more hard-earned than any of his others because Rangers were clearly more organised and disciplined under Gerrard.
The visitors, while barely landing a blow on their hosts, did look more robust than in recent seasons. Their two banks of four were certainly very distinct in the opening half before becoming slightly more ragged in the second as fatigue set in following Thursday’s trek back from Russia.
Gerrard had clearly warned his players about speaking back to the referee. Kyle Lafferty was notably muted, Alfredo Morelos too. Perhaps this warning to rein themselves in also served to dim their effectiveness. Lafferty, in particular, was disappointing following the portraying of him as a Celtic specialist. He barely got within shooting distance of Craig Gordon. By playing both Morelos and Lafferty from the start, Gerrard further reduced his options on a very moderate looking bench.
So ordinary were Rangers yesterday that it made their achievement of getting through four knockout rounds in Europe seem even more admirable. Gerrard has achieved so much in a short time. This illustrated how much more there is still to do.