Why Celtic and Rangers daren't lose Saturday's derby
If ever there is a game not to lose in a Scottish top flight campaign, it is the first derby fixture for the Glasgow leviathans.
Since Aberdeen lifted the title in 1985, Celtic and Rangers have carved up the league honours; 18 championships going the way of the Parkhead side, while their bitter rivals have claimed 17. For 31 of the past 35 years, the pair have been vying for top-flight supremacy – only Rangers’ 2012 liquidation and tumble down the leagues has denied Scotland’s football landscape four of the biggest league clashes each season. And only in five of those years has one of them lost the first derby and still gone on to win the title.
Ahead of the clubs’ inaugural confrontation in this campaign – and indeed, as the result of the Covid-19 curtailment of last term, their first head-to-head of 2020 – Neil Lennon and Steven Gerrard have been warned. Not least because Celtic’s quest for an historic 10th straight title will ensure all possible portents are picked over endlessly.
As a marker, the first iteration of the storied fixture in a season is decidedly weighty. Yet, even more so in campaigns, like this one, wherein both clubs warm-up for the shakedown on hot streaks.
This is the seventh time since their duopoly was cemented that the first derby hasn’t rolled around until as late as October. In only three of those seasons, as is true now, were the pair unbeaten when going toe-to-toe for the first time. Curiously, four of those seasons – 1997-98, 2002-03, 2007-08 and 2010-11 – ended with the destination of the title only being decided on the final day.
To Rangers rather than Celtic, not losing the first derby is more significant than actually winning it. Seven of these fixtures have been drawn. The Ibrox men went on to capture the championship in six of those seasons. Only in 1985-86 did a first-up derby draw not prove an impediment to Celtic clinching the title. Pertinently, though, in that campaign the jousting was not between the Glasgow clubs for the ultimate prize. As Celtic pipped Hearts, Rangers failed to finish in the top four of that season’s Premier Division.
It was such humiliation that ushered in the Ibrox arrival of Graeme Souness. And the big spend that accompanied an era Walter Smith transformed into a record-equalling nine-in-a-row run. There was only one season-opening derby anomaly during this sequence. On August 27, 1994, Tommy Burns’ Celtic travelled to Ibrox and took their ancient adversaries apart with goals from John Collins and Paul McStay ,inflicting a third defeat inside a week for Rangers.
Yet, in a first season under Burns’ management, and with the club forced to decamp at Hampden for the season as Celtic Park was redeveloped for the first fruits of Fergus McCann takeover, Rangers were never under serious threat as they eventually cantered to a seventh consecutive crown.
Ten in a row hits rocks
It was when the Ibrox men’s drive for 10-in-a-row seemed as if it had taken wings that the second out-of-keeping introductory derby occurred. The first dust-up between the Glasgow giants wasn’t supposed to be on November 8, 1997 that season. However, the death of Princess Diana forced the postponement of the scheduled September 1 clash which meant the game was the 11th of an unforgettable campaign. Celtic had stabilised following a dreadful start with Wim Jansen at the helm but were undone by a Richard Gough goal … only to subsequently, and unexpectedly, turn the tables on a faltering Smith side for a fabled success.
Starter before helicopter Sunday
The roles were reversed on August 29, 1994. An Alan Thompson goal brought Martin O’Neill’s Celtic a seventh straight derby success and appeared to set them up for a fourth championship in the five years of the Irishman’s tenure. Alex McLeish’s men had the last laugh in 2004-05, though, courtesy of Celtic’s loss of two late goals at Motherwell on an impossibly dramatic afternoon.
The very next year, the derby again didn’t follow a familiar pattern. The early struggles of Gordon Strachan at the Celtic helm were encapsulated with his travails in his first taste of the fixture at Ibrox on August 20. His team were down to 10 men early on when Thompson was dismissed for a wild challenge, before goals from Dado Prso and Thomas Buffel made it 2-0. A Shaun Maloney penalty conversion in the closing minutes didn’t alter the momentum, Nacho Novo netting one at the other end shortly afterwards. A bitter afternoon ended with referee Stuart Dougal also red-carding Lennon for comments made to him after the final whistle. Celtic recovered from the setback to blow away McLeish’s side and all others across the next six months.
The fifth outlier of a first derby has a backdrop all of its own. In 2011, Rangers were on a one-way ticket to Palookaville whatever happened on the pitch. On September 18, relief from the inevitable came with the only derby success of Ally McCoist’s managerial career was an impressive 4-2 victory. Two goals from Steven Naismith bookended a topsy-turvy encounter with Celtic goals from Gary Hooper and Badr El Kaddouri then giving way to Nikica Jelavic and Kyle Lafferty restoring home advantage. All before Charlie Mulgrew was then red carded and Naismith struck again.
Celtic were well on course for Lennon’s first title as manager before Rangers were docked 10 points for plunging into administration in February 2012. In the four years Ibrox has again been playing host to top flight football in tandem with Celtic monopolising the major honours, early and all bragging rights have belonged to the Parkhead club.
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