Football’s bitterest derby takes place in Glasgow this Sunday, when Celtic take on Rangers in the first ‘Old Firm’ clash of the season. The two powerhouses of Scottish football have won a total of 103 League titles between them, and not since Aberdeen lifted the title back in 1985 has any other team been crowned Scottish Champions.
The Old Firm derby runs much deeper than local pride, this is a rivalry born out of the religious and political fault line that runs through Scotland’s biggest city. This time a new ingredient has been added to the mix, as Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard gets his first taste of the Old Firm match as Rangers manager. He comes face to face with his old Liverpool boss, Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers.
One Team Dominance
Since Rangers’ financial liquidation and subsequent banishment to the bottom of Scottish football’s pyramid back in 2012, Celtic have dominated the Scottish Premiership. Yet is seemed that the lack of domestic competition appeared to be diminishing the quality of Celtic’s football. The arrival of Brendan Rodgers in 2016 completely changed that. Moussa Dembele and Scott Sinclair proved inspired signings, whilst Rodgers’ renowned coaching skills gave a new lease of life to veteran midfielder Scott Brown. That wouldn’t be his only rejuvenation with the squad, as he made stars out of Tom Rogic, Leigh Griffiths and Stuart Armstrong.
In Rodgers first season, Celtic went unbeaten through the entire domestic season, winning all 3 domestic trophies. Last season proved almost as good as another treble was secured, although Celtic continued to struggle in European competition. This summer has been dogged by rumours of Rodgers’ unhappiness with transfers as Armstrong was sold, although the club did sign Odsonne Edouard to a permanent contract after a successful loan last season. Meanwhile, the club’s European fortunes fell even further when they exited the Champions League in the pre-qualifying stage.
Gerrard’s Rangers Revival
Rodgers appointment two years ago coincided with Rangers return to the Scottish Premiership, after four seasons of scrambling back from the basement of League Two. Upon their return, Rangers found themselves further behind Celtic than at any time in living memory. Not only did Celtic win every trophy Scotland had to offer, they also recorded 9 wins and 2 draws in the 11 Old Firm matches played, scoring 30 goals and conceding just 7. Rangers humiliation was completed when Celtic crushed them 5-0 in April, their heaviest Old Firm defeat since 1957.
Rangers needed a counter-strike and made one by appointing Liverpool and England legend Gerrard to his first managerial post. Gerrard used his Liverpool connections to sign promising youngsters Ryan Kent and Ovie Ejaria on season loans and wisely brought in former Scotland captain and Liverpool teammate Gary McAllister as assistant manager. Rangers then made shrewd buys in experienced goalkeeper Allan McGregor, as well as centre back pair Ryan Goldson and Nikola Katic. Gerrard has brought a new confidence and drive to a moribund club, already notching a notable achievement in guiding Rangers through 4 pre-qualifying rounds of the Europa League where they will enter the group stage draw alongside Celtic.
Best of Enemies?
Rodgers and Gerrard enjoyed a respectful working relationship at Liverpool, but there have been hints of rivalry bubbling under the surface. In his autobiography, Gerrard was critical of Rodgers’ tactics in the crucial clash with Chelsea in the 2014 title run-in. The game is ultimately remembered for Gerrard’s slip and Liverpool’s 2-0 loss ultimately costing them the Premier League title.
Gerrard made no secret of his desire to enter coaching, but was never offered a position on Rodgers staff and finally ended his Anfield career in May 2015, to finish his playing days in LA. Five months later Liverpool sacked Rodgers after a poor start to the new season. His replacement Jurgen Klopp had no qualms about bringing Gerrard back and in January 2017 he joined the staff at Liverpool’s academy. When Gerrard departed for Glasgow in June he did so with Klopp’s blessing and in the knowledge he’ll likely return to Liverpool when he’s completed his mission at Ibrox.
A new dawn in Scotland?
The Scottish Premiership season has started with a surprise early leader; Hearts. The Edinburgh side pulled off a shock by beating Celtic, thanks to a Kyle Lafferty goal, only days later the Northern Ireland international signed for Rangers. But Hearts remain the only club with a 100% record after three games. Celtic sit second on 6 points whilst Rangers have twice conceded injury time goals, converting 2 likely wins into draws and sit a point behind Celtic alongside Aberdeen and Hibernian. Celtic remain the favourites but the start has hinted at a closer league.
Old Firm clashes are synonymous with ferocious tackles, red cards and bags of goals. Gerrard’s Rangers are yet to lose from 12 games in all competition, but discipline has proved a problem, highlighted by their finishing Thursday’s Europa League play-off with only nine men! Rodgers meanwhile needs to arrest a perceived slide against Rangers. The outcome on Sunday will have huge ramifications for both men and their teams.
Celtic vs Rangers (Sunday 2nd September, midday BST)
Picture Credits: Sky Sports, The Scotsman