Excited Rangers supporters expect Niko Kranjcar to be on fire when the new season kicks off – but that very nearly happened when he made the brave move of crossing the divide in his native Croatia.
Reared by Dinamo Zagreb, the talented midfielder stunned the supporters in January 2005 by moving to bitter rivals Hajduk Split after falling out with the Zagreb hierarchy. Needless to say, his first match for Hajduk against Dinamo was an incendiary occasion and he was fortunate to escape unscathed when furious fans threw flares at him and jeered his every move.
From that point of view, the prospect of taking part in the Old Firm game is not something that fazes the 31-year-old who, thankfully, is no longer the hated figure he was just over a decade ago. Indeed, it is something that positively invigorates the former Tottenham and QPR player.
As a kid growing up, initially in Austria where his father Zlatko played for Rapid Vienna, and then Zagreb, he learned of the great football derbies of the world.
Kranjcar said: “When you have been through what I went through you can handle anything that any game throws up at you.
“Dinamo Zagreb v Hajduk Split is definitely pretty full on – especially if you move from one to the other and then you go back home!
“I had a couple of flares thrown at me and they missed me by inches. I couldn’t hear my own thoughts when I had the ball. It was interesting.
“Thank God it’s over and it’s not going to happen again. It’s good now. I still enjoyed my time in Zagreb. It was a situation that was well documented over there at the time.
“I definitely won’t be intimidated by the atmosphere in the Old Firm game. But I am looking forward to it. It is a game that you really look forward to.
“I always associated Rangers with Dado Prso and obviously Nikica Jelavic is a close friend. But I don’t need them to tell me what Glasgow Rangers is about.
“I grew up in a football family in Croatia. Yes, we didn’t follow Scottish football, but you hear about the Old Firm.
“I was a football fanatic when I was a kid and heard about the biggest derby matches in the world. One was the Old Firm game and the other one was River Plate against Boca Juniors in Argentina. You don’t need people to tell you what Rangers means.”
Kranjcar spent the latter part of last season with New York Cosmos in the NASL, the second tier in America, but it was essentially a means to gaining full fitness after a fruitless final season with Dinamo Kiev in Ukraine.
He always had the goal of returning to Europe to play at a higher level and Rangers ticked all the boxes for him.
He said: “It was a decision about my football ambitions to win things, win trophies and play at the highest level. I am sure I can achieve that here. When I terminated my contract in Kiev, it was towards the end of January. I was also coming off the end of a winter break and hadn’t trained for two months.
“Going to New York was a great opportunity for me to join a team that had just started its pre-season. My goal was to get fit, see how it would go in the States, but to use it while waiting for the summer window in Europe to open up.
“As I said, I didn’t think I would have done myself justice had I gone to a European team after leaving Kiev, especially as the club seasons were shorter because of the Euros.
“I wanted to get really fit and back into the rhythm of playing games. I achieved that by going to Cosmos.
“When I heard about Rangers, that was the most attractive one. There were contacts from England but nothing concrete.
“I wanted to have a good go at playing at the highest level again, winning games and winning trophies.
“I love the game. I love playing football. It is still something that makes me happy and also frustrates me as well, because you want to be the best you can be.
“I am delighted and thankful for the opportunity I have at the moment. It is a privilege and an honour to be part of the Glasgow Rangers team.
“But I have said before that it is also a big responsibility. Once you sign for a club that has so many fans you absolutely have to dedicate every bit of yourself to being the best you can and to achieving things with the club.”