Ahead of the teams’ last meeting at Ibrox a month ago, the impressive form of Graeme Murty’s men led to many believing they could topple their treble-chasing adversaries in a one-off. One website went as far as to suggest the remoulding of Rangers in the January transfer window had created a personnel swing that meant any select formed from the two teams would feature seven players from the Ibrox side and only four Celtic performers. If Donnelly was tasked with creating such a starting XI, though, his entire line-up would hail from Brendan Rodgers’ squad.
“No, I don’t think so,” said the former Celtic striker from the 1990s, when asked if any Rangers players would “get in the Celtic team”. “You could argue the right back [James] Tavernier has been decent this season, but I wouldn’t swap anybody in Celtic’s team. They are winners at the moment. Until somebody knocks them off their perch, I wouldn’t swap any of them.”
Donnelly’s time at Celtic coincided with the only previous nine-game sequence when one of these derby combatants couldn’t get the better of the other. Between 1995 and 1997, as Rangers under Walter Smith homed in on a nine-in-a-row run of titles, Celtic couldn’t buy a win in the fixture for almost two years.
Donnelly played in eight of the winless nine consecutive derbies for Celtic – three of them drawn. The brittleness that then seemed to leave Tommy Burns’ often brightly-performing side feeling permanently bedevilled in the fixture, he detected in Rangers five weeks ago. Their 3-2 loss to Celtic on that occasion – having led twice and held a man advantage for almost half an hour, and with Alfredo Morelos missing from two yards out at the close – could only engender that.
“Celtic managed the game like champions and did really well,” Donnelly said. “Back in the 1990s, when Rangers had a hold over us, it didn’t take a lot to dent confidence. How many times did a Celtic side back then play well and Rangers would go up the park and score and you’d think ‘ here we go again’?
“That looked like what happened to Rangers. They were pegged back twice and right on half-time too. They’d be asking themselves ‘how do we beat this team?’ Celtic are behaving like champions. They also still have the quality players which Rangers don’t have.”
Yet despite that gulf between the teams, those of a Rangers disposition talked up their prospects before that league derby. Donnelly’s 1990s Celtic team-mate Tom Boyd feels they did so all-too-much, Graeme Murty revealing his players had cheered drawing Celtic in the semi-final not an admission that seemed to serve him or his players particularly well.
“I would hope so,” said the now Celtic ambassador Boyd over the possibility of the manner of that Ibrox defeat affecting Rangers in the semi. “I certainly don’t think they’ll be as cocky going into that one as they were the last time out. They won’t be cheering about the prospect of facing Celtic like they were when the draw was made. As long as Celtic turn up for this one, they have a great chance of going through to the final.”
The last time a double/treble chasing Celtic didn’t go through to a final was also Rangers’ last success over their bitter rivals. Yet, with the Rangers directors’ goal celebrations during the Ibrox men’s 2016 Scottish Cup semi-final shoot-out triumph accepted as the catalyst for Celtic’s major shareholder Dermot Desmond upping the ante to pursue Brendan Rodgers, Boyd doesn’t regret that afternoon, on reflection.
“We can thank that game for happening,” he said. “There is always a ray of sunshine when you are depressed. It didn’t feel like it at the time but the light at the end of the tunnel was that Brendan came and made an immediate impact that everyone would have dreamed of.
“Certainly that was the case with the level of consistency since he arrived – extraordinary. Celtic have still only lost two games domestically over the course of two seasons and that is a stunning level of consistency. The levels of professionalism from him and his backroom staff are managing to maintain that level.
“It might not have happened had the result gone the other way. But regardless of it all, as Scott Brown said, these Celtic players do their talking on the park.”