In these days when it is possible to watch football matches, live, from all corners of the world, it seems to be generally recognised that EL Classico – the encounter between Barcelona and Real Madrid – receives the accolade of ‘The World’s Best Derby Match’. In terms of quality, that might certainly be the case but no matter which of these clashes you pick, in the various footballing nations, there will be few to better an Old Firm battle for interest, passion, tension, excitement and hostile atmosphere.
It was much more intense for the players of my generation. Firstly, nearly everyone was a local Scot and had grown up in the west of Scotland. We knew how much this result mattered to our fans. And secondly, the crowd was always split 50/50, as opposed to today, when the home team has most of the support. I can well recall the days leading up to such a match, walking through the city and having complete strangers coming up to me and telling me how important it was to beat ‘this lot’. And then, once I got home, hoping for bit of peace, family members were on the phone or came round to make the same point!
For a match like this, we would have been taken down to Seamill, on the Ayrshire coast, for an overnight stay at the Hydro. The routine never varied. Up early, tracksuit on, gather in foyer of the hotel, out for a walk, with trainer Neilly Mochan in the lead. Along the road north towards Largs for about three-quarters of a mile, then down to the sea past the golf course at West Kilbride, then back along the beach to the hotel and in for breakfast.
Three hours later, we would be out again, this time gathering on the lawn at the back of the Hydro for a light session, some ball-work and sprints the order of the day. A shower, then down for lunch, after which the Boss might run through the team and tactics before we headed to our rooms for a rest. That was the idea but as I invariably roomed with Tam Gemmell, there was little peace. Even in his quiet moments, he could have talked the hind legs off a donkey!
The pre-match meal was around 5pm and by 5.45pm, we were all seated in the bus, ready for the trip to either Parkhead or Ibrox. Footballers, although they might never admit it, are great ones for routine, so on a bus trip like that, they prefer to sit with guys they were sitting beside the last time they won? So, although I always roomed with Tam G, I sat beside Stevie Chalmers on those journeys. Gemmell was with Wallace; Auld with Murdoch; Johnstone with Lennox; McNeill with Clark; with the goalkeepers _ Simpson and Fallon – also together.
Highlight of the journey was reaching the outskirts of the city, where there was a police motor-cycle waiting for us. Once in place behind the two bikes, we shot towards the stadium, the police clearing a path for the bus all the way.
How will this one go? Well, Celtic are on a roll, are the team in form, have – on paper- the better squad of players, are getting the goals coming from a variety of sources, have a keeper now showing a lot of composure, seem to have enough money to add to the squad and give the impression that the whole club is a happy place. By contrast, Rangers are literally scraping round in the bargain basement department for replacements, have several key players – Jelavic and Davis – far below their best and generally seem to be struggling to find any semblance of form. If we take all these factors into account, then it looks as though the contest could be a shoo-in for Celtic!
However, the pressure surrounding these games can affect some players more than others. A few, no matter how many they play in, never quite rise to the occasion. The team that wins – and it sounds a very obvious thing to say but is no less critical for that – will have had more of its players ready to give their all for the club and refuse to accept second-best. Let’s hope that the guys in the Hoops show that resolve!