It’s that time of year again: nicer weather, Cadbury’s Cream Eggs, and the Old Firm Decider.
This Sunday, Celtic visit Ibrox for the third time since August – the two teams matching off for a record seventh time in one season. If familiarity breeds contempt, then referee Craig Thomson had better get his arm ready for some serious card waving.
If Celtic win, they’ll be clear favourites for the title; they’ll be favourites, still, with a draw. A Rangers victory will put Walter Smith in the driving seat, and you’d be a brave man to bet against him.
Brave, but not foolhardy. Other than Tuesday night’s demolition of eight Arabs, goals have been hard to come by for the Ibrox side and games against lowly sides have been painful to watch. Having more home games than away in the run-in may be a curse rather than a blessing: the Ibrox atmosphere these days is about as intimidating as Craig Brown pulling on your blazer lapels. Celtic have greater strength in depth, options up front which don’t rely on Kyle Lafferty, and of course the referees are on their side.
Overall it’s too close to call, so I’m not going to. Both teams will drop points between now and May 15th – so it won’t be done after Sunday.
In the meantime, enjoy a couple genuine Old Firm “deciders” from years gone by.
21 May 1979: Celtic 4 Rangers 2
The 78/79 season had been severely disrupted by bad weather, so the final Old Firm game was played late. This was league-leading Celtic’s final league match, while Rangers had a game in hand: anything less than a Celtic win would give John Greig’s team the chance to overtake them.
Things were looking dismal for the hoops when Alex MacDonald opened the scoring for Rangers after nine minutes. Soon after half-time things got worse: John Doyle was sent off.
A man down and a goal down, with the red, white, and blue masses ready to celebrate in Celtic’s Paradise, Celtic rallied. Davie Provan fed Roy Aitken for an equaliser, then George McCluskey put Celtic improbably ahead with just over a quarter of an hour to play.
But the drama was not done: Celtic cleared a Rangers corner but a young Bobby Russell was on hand to score, shooting in off the post. Just over ten minutes left – and Celtic had to score.
And score they did. Seven minutes from time, Girvan Lighthouse Peter McCloy parried a McCluskey effort then watched in despair as it bounced off centre-back Colin Jackson and into the Rangers net. The Gers pressed forward, but conceded a fourth in the last minute – Murdo McLeod firing a blistering 35-yard drive into the Rangers net. Game over, and Celtic were champions, in a game that older Celtic fans still recall as one of their best.
2 May 1999: Celtic 0 Rangers 3
20 years on, Dick Advocaat’s Rangers team managed to do what John Greig’s didn’t: win the league at the home of their rivals. The game still has ramifications to this day – indeed, fear of another Celtic or Rangers title victory in an Old Firm game is the reason why the teams are facing off this weekend and not in May.
Two fouls in the first minute set the tone for the day. Dr Josef Venglos’ home team were a goal down within a quarter-hour when Rod Wallace broke behind the Celtic defence and squared for Neil McCann to score the first of his two goals.
The madness began when referee Hugh Dallas dismissed Celtic full-back Stephane Mahe, giving a second yellow for dissent. Dallas was then hit with a coin, and required several minutes of treatment to patch up his bleeding head. Rangers resumed play with free kick from near the Celtic corner flag, sending it into the box. Full-back Tony Vidmar was brought down and Dallas didn’t hesitate: penalty to Rangers.
Parkhead went mental. Celtic players surrounded the ref, more fans threw coins, and one Celtic fan even fell from the top tier of the stadium.
Jorg Albertz scored the penalty to put Rangers beyond reach. Neil McCann added a third in a generally calmer second half, though the match ended with 19 players on the park as Rod Wallace and Vidar Riseth both saw red late on. Adding insult to injury, the Rangers players celebrated their win with an imitation of Celtic’s famous huddle.
Ever since, the SPL have done everything possible to avoid Rangers or Celtic winning the league in an Old Firm game – a sad reflection on our game, because these are the games we should want the world to see.