Steven Gerrard had done too much good work in a short space of time to risk spoiling things by claiming everything now hinges on his first Old Firm game.
It’s only three points. Just as last weekend’s clash with Motherwell was an opportunity, frittered away in the last seconds, to claim three points. But Gerrard, even so soon in his managerial tenure in Scotland, is not naive enough to try and suggest tomorrow is just another game.
He knows there’s an opportunity, aided by reports of an unhappy Celtic camp, to land an early blow. “It’s a chance to put a marker down,” he said. “Having said that if we go and win the game I won’t be sitting here getting carried away thinking we’re the next champions. At the same time, if it doesn’t go well I won’t think the world is going to end and my team’s no good because we’ve failed the acid test.”
Gerrard only needs to look to his left from his position in the away dug out to know this is something special. Old Firm clashes are significant enough occasions. They don’t require subplots. However, tomorrow’s is set in a context that invites additional interest from elsewhere. Gerrard knows there’s little point in denying it. Sports writers from south of the Border will be beating a path to Parkhead.
It’s not always been the way. While Joey Barton’s debut two seasons ago provided additional incentive to tune in, those not normally inclined to so do so haven’t been persuaded to change their habit by the one-sided affairs of recent times. Celtic have scored nine times to no reply in the last two clashes.
Only March’s league fixture, which Celtic won 3-2 despite having ten men for much of the second half, goes down as a decent game out of five meetings last season. December’s 0-0 draw saw Rangers retrieve some pride after Celtic waltzed to a 2-0 win at Ibrox in the opening meeting of the campaign.
As well as the sense things could well be different tomorrow there’s another reason for intrigue – or actually two reasons.
To some, it’s not Celtic v Rangers, it’s Brendan v Stevie G. A former Liverpool manager up against his former captain, who, it’s been said, carries a grudge. A story that’s done the rounds is that after Rodgers left Gerrard out of a Champions League match against Real Madrid things between them were never the same again.
So it might come as a surprise to learn that Gerrard and Rodgers, pictured inset, were in touch by text as recently as Thursday night, when both their teams secured berths in the group stage of the Europa League. “You want to know the details?” Gerrard asked yesterday.
When met by looks indicating that yes we did, he added: “It was nothing major. There were not many details in it that will excite you lads. But yes, we last contacted each other last night.”
Gerrard knows it would be futile to try and pretend the identity of those in the dug-outs is not a talking point. “That’s fine,” he said. “It is no problem. I don’t think me and Brendan will magnify it any bigger because it is me and him. But if you guys want to do that, it’s no problem.
“It makes it that little bit spicier, and juicier,” he added. “It’s great for the neutrals and whoever else wants to enjoy that. But for me the focus is on my team and giving them a game-plan to get a result. We cannot focus on the magnitude or how much people want to blow this game up. For us we have a job to do and that’s get a result at Celtic Park.”
There were more fans at Glasgow airport to greet them when Rangers returned from Russia in the early hours of Friday than will be supporting them at Celtic Park tomorrow.
Celtic’s decision to cut the away supporters’ allocation of tickets in response to Rangers’ plan to do similar at Ibrox guarantees an even more partisan environment.
Only 800 Rangers fans will be inside the stadium. Over 2,000 gathered at Glasgow airport to welcome the players back after Thursday night’s 1-1 draw against Ufa. It took even Gerrard, no stranger to the passion of football supporters, by surprise.
“We got off the plane and saw it on a TV and I thought ‘oh there’s about 50, 60 fans there’,” he said. “Then we got our card marked that it was a couple of thousand. [The players] obviously put a lot of effort into the game and the night and then they had a long flight so it was great for them to get the adulation from the supporters; it was well deserved.”
Gerrard has been to “three or four” Old Firm games in the past, including last season’s final meeting at Ibrox, when he sat in the directors’ box. Who would have thought the next time the teams met he would be so actively involved.
“It’s always the atmosphere that stands out,” he said. “Both sets of supporters get right behind the team. From a neutral point of view, when I went up to enjoy the game and the occasion, the first thing that smacks you in the face is the noise and the atmosphere, especially from the beginning.
“It’s a game that I’ve always tried to catch on TV if I couldn’t get up to it. It’s a game that’s obviously renowned throughout the world and for me it’s a great experience to be part of my first one.”