Celtic and Rangers “a little bit nicer these days” when 1997 revisited Rammy

The total lack of fans when the old foes meet in Parkhead on Saturday – try telling that to the players 20 years ago. And then there’s the fact that this historically, shall we say, robust game has been played eight times since the man in the middle last drew red from his top pocket.

The last point in particular is a sign of the times, of a game that has moved so far from the past few years. Gone are the days of left hooks pounding opponents, as Jackie McNamara can attest.

The former Celtic defender chuckles as he thinks back to 1997 and an infamous clash with Mark Hateley, a post-game rammy that was as far from today’s players helping each other back on their feet as it gets . Hateley saw red amid the chaos and McNamara somehow got away with it, though he openly admits he wouldn’t have been so lucky in 2023.

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“To be honest I think it’s different these days,” said McNamara, speaking to promote the eScottish Cup at Hampden. “I’ve now seen games where players are down and rivals are helping them up! I recently saw someone get cramps in a game and one of the opponents helped them!

“Nowadays it’s a bit nicer and maybe a bit friendlier. It might be because there are more outside players, but it’s not quite the same.

“I remember the one with Mark Hateley. He was sent off that game and I got away with it! Nowadays there is also VAR which is a factor.

“Players know if there is anything at all, it will be noticed. I’m sure I would have gotten a few more red cards than I did if we had VAR.

“There are still good duels, but no more left hooks! There were some early reducers back then. Off the pitch it was different, but on the pitch you fought for your team for 90 minutes.

“The game is different now. I remember going there and sending off two players, Thommo and Sutty. I got kicked out of Ibrox too. There’s a lot of pressure in the game, a lot of people are watching and you want to win.

“It’s about how you deal with it. Apparently I wasn’t that good with it when I was younger!”

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The Argy-Bargy may be a thing of the past, but the stakes are still no less when these teams clash. Rangers travel to Celtic Park on Saturday knowing they must win to regain a comfortable nine-point lead over their rivals at the top of the Premier League.

The Ibrox side will admit they failed to show up for their Viaplay Cup final defeat at Hampden in February and Michael Beale cannot afford a repeated non-performance. Celtic are in the altogether more comfortable position of knowing they don’t necessarily have to win, but McNamara seriously doubts that will cross Ange Postecoglou’s mind. His team have built their remarkable streak of 28 wins from 29 league games on a relentless commitment to quality football.

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They were particularly dominant in the middle of the park at Hampden, where Beale made three substitutions from a 2-0 deficit to transform his entire midfield. McNamara is keen to see the Rangers manager attempt a different result this time around.

“It will be interesting to see the starting line-ups to see what Beale does to turn that into a win – because Rangers have to win,” he said. “Celtic doesn’t have to win and that’s the biggest thing that comes into play.

“You could say that a Rangers win would put them back in the title race with seven more games to go. Celtic are having a real momentum right now. Rangers win every week, but so do Celtic.

“When you hunt, wait for every slip, even a tie, to try and catch them. But Celtic were relentless even when they weren’t at their best.

“Look at Ross County. It’s a difficult place but they got the win and at this stage of the season that’s all that matters.

“I don’t think Ange will play for a draw! He will not change his philosophy or what he believes in.

“He will attack and win the match. No matter who he plays against – whether it’s Real Madrid or Rangers – he will always approach it the same way.

“Even if it only took a draw to win the league, I don’t think he would be set up defensively to take a point. He believes in his system and his players – and that will also be the case on Saturday.”

What McNamara doesn’t think will be the atmosphere.

The last two league derbies of the season are only played with home supporters due to safety concerns and significantly different opinions of clubs on away distribution.

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McNamara believes the setup leaves the away side against it and recalls the feeling of seeing Celtic fans unpack and energize an entire stand at Ibrox. But he still predicts a close encounter this weekend.

“I think it’s hard to call,” McNamara said. “Even regardless of the current form, it is always difficult. There’s always someone you think is the favorite, but it’s very different in these games.

“They build up all week as players gain experience again. Of course I think that in terms of fans Celtic have the whole stadium makes a big difference too.

“It’s just the energy, everyone is behind the team. You saw there without fans in the last game, they were strong.

“I’m a traditionalist. I think you should have the away fans. When we went to Ibrox and saw the fans on one side, that was good for the game.

“When the fans were on your side, it felt like a 12th man. I think you can see that. You know you need to raise your standards.

“You know they want you to be up front because the stakes are high. You don’t want to let people down.”

*The eScottish Football Cup will take place on 20/21 Held at Hampden Park in May, up to 75 clubs from across the country compete for a £50,000 prize pool

Russell Falcon

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