As an educational tool for young footballers, the Old Firm fixture provides the steepest of learning curves.
Ross McCrorie believes his fledgling experiences of Scottish football’s highest profile occasion have left him ready and able to take a leading role as Rangers attempt to reinforce a title challenge by beating Celtic at Ibrox tomorrow.
In the four Old Firm games he played in last season, there were mixed emotions for McCrorie. Despite a 2-0 home defeat in September 2017, he received widespread praise for his display in what was only his second first-team appearance for Rangers.
There were more plaudits for the Scotland under-21 international when he helped Rangers to a goalless draw at Celtic Park in December last year, but then a more chastening experience when he was sent off in his team’s crushing 4-0 Scottish Cup semi-final defeat at Hampden in April.
McCrorie endured more agony at the hands of Brendan Rodgers’ side later that month as part of a Rangers defence torn apart in a 5-0 defeat at Celtic Park as the champions clinched a seventh consecutive league title.
Now operating in a midfield role which current Rangers boss Steven Gerrard believes is better suited to his abilities, McCrorie is relishing the chance to showcase the enhancements he feels have been made to his game since he last faced Celtic.
“I feel confident and comfortable and I feel I’m a far better player than I was at the start of the season,” said the 20-year-old. “I feel the coaches I have behind us now have helped me improve. I have done a lot of stuff with [assistant manager] Gary McAllister who, like the manager, was a top-class midfielder himself.
“The first-team coaches Tom Culshaw and Michael Beale have also been good with me in training. Little things have been added to my game. Stuff like switching of play, my body shape and coming for the ball, just little details. I feel as if I am a totally different player but that’s just because I have gained more experience. I now want to help the team go forward and take responsibility and do as best we can.
“What did I learn from the Old Firm games I played in last season? Not to get too carried away with the highs and the lows and to always stay level headed and be confident and believe in myself.
“You can get caught up in what happens in Old Firm games but that is part and parcel of being an Old Firm player, you have got to stay level headed and focus on the game.”
Rangers have not beaten Celtic in a league fixture since March 2012 and boyhood fan McCrorie is desperate to end that barren run as Gerrard’s men look to bounce back from dropping two points at home to Hibs on Boxing Day as Darren McGregor scored a late equaliser in the 1-1 draw at Ibrox.
“It’s frustrating to have gone so long without an Old Firm victory, especially as a fan myself,” he added. “I grew up a Rangers fan and that’s what every fan wants – to beat Celtic.
“All of the boys in our dressing room have played in massive games but this is what every footballer thrives on, to play in an Old Firm game. This is why they came to Rangers, to play in these games.
“We have to have a big performance on Saturday. Celtic have good players but we have a lot of quality too. We are going to go out and play our own game and focus on ourselves. We will do our analysis on Celtic but we will see what happens.
“Every game is a must win. We are playing for Rangers, we need to win every game, especially if we want to challenge for the title.
“We were disappointed with what happened against Hibs. We need to take our chances and not shoot ourselves in the foot. We have to clear up our mistakes. It’s just the wee details we need to clean up on like stop conceding those silly goals.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened. We need to get that cutting edge back or we are going to have problems.
“We need to park the Hibs result now and focus on Saturday. We are going to go out with all guns blazing.”
Rangers have injury doubts over Connor Goldson, Gareth McAuley, Ryan Jack, Scott Arfield and Ryan Kent this weekend but McCrorie insists whatever team Gerrard is able to select should be able to finish a demanding first half of the season on a high note.
“The injuries are not an excuse,” he said. “We have a good enough squad to go and put on a show and a performance against Celtic. I am fine and raring to go. I’m happy I’m back in the side and I want to help the team as much as I can.
“We’ve had a long six months with a lot of games at home and in Europe and we still have a long season ahead. Obviously, every team can do better so we have things to improve on and we will do that.”