Stephen Halliday: So begins an Old Firm battle for the ages
Consequences for Neil Lennon or Steven Gerrard could be severe
And so it begins.
Okay, perhaps it’s not quite portentous enough to merit the use of that phrase, delivered in such memorably ominous tones by award-winning actor Bernard Hill in the role of King Theoden during The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
But the story about to be written in the 2020-21 Scottish Premiership campaign may contain enough fantastical elements to merit a Tolkien-style screenplay.
From the moment Bobby Madden blows his whistle for today’s lunchtime opening act between Aberdeen and Rangers at Pittodrie, through to the scheduled finale on 16 May next year, this promises to be a top flight season unlike anything we have seen before.
As if Celtic’s quest for 10-in-a-row and Rangers’ bid to stop them reaching that Holy Grail doesn’t already provide sufficient intrigue for the title race, the spectre of Covid-19 hangs over a competition still bruised by the pandemic’s impact on the culmination of last season.
With the latest figures showing only two positive results from almost 3,500 coronavirus tests in the first four weeks of screening players and staff at Premiership clubs, it’s reasonable to believe a full 38-match campaign can be completed and we won’t see another league table unsatisfactorily decided on a points-per-game metric.
Let’s also hope the number of behind closed door rounds of fixtures are kept to a minimum and the Scottish government can deliver on their indication that supporters could be allowed back into stadiums from 14 September.
This is a season which deserves as wide an audience as possible, both inside grounds and through the 48 games which will be shown live by Sky Sports as their new and exclusive five-year deal with the SPFL kicks off.
While there are 12 actors involved in this Premiership drama, the spotlight will inevitably shine most glaringly upon those filling the two leading roles. Seldom in the 132-year history of competitive action between the Old Firm rivals has so much significance been attached to the outcome of their battle for domestic superiority.
For Neil Lennon and Steven Gerrard, the consequences of fluffing their lines over the course of the next 10 months will be severe.
With nine major honours to his credit as Celtic manager, Lennon has proved he can handle the intensity and scrutiny which comes with being in charge of either half of Glasgow’s great footballing divide. But he will be more acutely aware than anyone of the unique pressure which accompanies a season when he hopes to deliver a fabled achievement which the vast majority of his club’s supporters crave above all else.
Across the city, Gerrard is confronting a season which will go a long way towards defining his managerial career. The 40-year-old can no longer be regarded as a rookie in the role after two years in charge of Rangers which have seen him make major improvements both on the field and to the training ground culture and mentality of a club which was in chaotic condition when he took the job.
The absence of silverware in his two seasons has been tolerated by a Rangers fanbase who have largely appreciated the organisation and identity Gerrard has brought to the team. But failure to stop Celtic setting a new benchmark in the battle for Old Firm bragging rights would provoke a far less forgiving assessment of Gerrard’s performance in the job.
The stakes have never been higher and the smart money must be on Celtic justifying their odds-on status with the bookmakers to complete another course and distance triumph to extend what has been an unprecedented era of domestic dominance.
As they go under starter’s orders this weekend, the big two are poised for a race for the ages.
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