The build-up to Sunday's Old Firm Scottish Cup semi-final was quite unique for me. Usually I'm a bundle of nerves: after all, it's not often you could separate the teams over the last 30 years or so. Sure, Rangers dominated for many years in in the latter part of the last century but, even then, I was never completely confident of winning any one-off game. Similarly, ahead of last year's League Cup semi-final between the sides, Rangers genuinely didn't have a chance: our team was poor, our manager bereft of any belief and, understandably, our support more interested in keeping the score respectable than actually competing. This year was different.
Nevertheless, despite our excellent league win and cup performances along with some indifferent form from Celtic, there was no suggestion we'd win easily on Sunday - if at all. However, what we did have now was the conviction that we could do it. Furthermore, while we realised our defence wasn't the strongest, we knew we'd create chances ourselves and it was probable we'd score. Thus, as much as some commentators (almost all in the media in fact - as well as the bookies) were writing us off, Rangers fans were quietly confident. Indeed, it was this underdog status that helped me relax ahead of the game: we had various players missing and weren't expected to win. In essence, this was a free shot at our rivals - all the pressure was on them and Mark Warburton will never have as forgiving a fan-base ahead of another Old Firm game. Of course that would all change as soon as Craig Thomson blew his whistle. And, as it turned out, we were right to be laid back.
Both teams lined up as expected: Rangers in their usual 4-3-3 and Celtic with pretty much a 4-1-4-1. It also wasn't a surprise to see Celtic sit deep and look to counter. For the first ten minutes or so they certainly harried us in possession but quickly realised this was unsuccessful and consuming too much energy. Indeed, three or four Celtic players paid for this later in the game as they suffered from cramp. I doubt that will have happened much in the last few years.
Not long after this opening period, we took the lead. Ironically it came from a poor free kick, and a poor attempted cross from the breakdown. No matter, despite missing a decent chance early in the game, Miller pounced this time and Rangers had a deserved - though slender - advantage. Unsurprisingly though Celtic rallied and had two good chances of their own with Patrick Roberts missing an open goal. Despite these chances though, Rangers, as usual this season, refused to alter their style, dominated the ball and controlled the game. Only on the break did Celtic threaten and, by and large, our defence coped well.
Unfortunately, after half-time, Celtic did force their way back into the match. A succession of corners finally resulting in a fine headed goal from their best player on the day, Erik Sviatchenko. At this point, I think most expected the Parkhead side to build upon this goal but bizarrely, they seemed to take their foot off the gas and, once again, we started to dictate the game without ever really creating anything clear-cut in attack. In truth, the game started to peter out as both teams seemed to tire and it wasn't a surprise when extra-time arrived.
It wasn't long into this 30min period, we again took the lead. This time from a magnificent strike from our best player on the day Barrie McKay. Only 21 last December, the diminutive winger has stood tall this season and really stole the show on Sunday. His first touch, balance and finesse was a joy to behold and one wonders how much he is worth if Roberts is valued at £12million? Again, we were in control and the possession stats spoke for themselves throughout the game. Unfortunately Celtic again equalised - largely against the run of play and just as the second period of extra-time started so all bets were again off. However, to their immense credit our players knuckled down, the subs played their part and our superior fitness showed as we took the game to penalties.
Now, penalty shoot-outs can be a lottery but I love them and I'm firmly of the opinion they're the ideal way to end tight games. It could be argued weaker teams can win from such a position but, for me, taking a penalty is a true test of a player's footballing skill - both physically and mentally. Interestingly, the shoot-out was the opposite of the game itself. This time, Celtic had the advantage twice but we showed great resilience to fight our way back and had the self-belief to apply pressure as the game entered sudden death. Eventually Tom Rogic succumbed to the stress and Rangers were through to play Hibs in the final.
All in all, yes Celtic had their chances; more than us in fact, but it's also fair to say we outplayed them for long periods and as the opposition players complained of cramp late in the game, it was obvious how hard we'd worked them. The contest may have went the distance but we bettered Celtic and deserved to win.
From the moment we won our first 50/50 in the middle of the park, I knew the desire of our players wouldn't be in question. All over the pitch our players worked incredibly hard. Holt, McKay and Shiels will never be suited to physical battles but neither did they give any ground. Ball and Halliday added steel to the midfield where required while Wilson and Kiernan were rocks at the back - throwing their bodies time and time again to block shots.
Let's remember the way we play creates gaps for our opponents. With Tavernier and Wallace often utilised as auxiliary wingers, teams will hit us on the break and find space in wider areas. That happened again on Sunday but the fitness and agility of our players, ensured such gaps were closed quickly and effectively. Meanwhile no quarter was given physically as tackle after tackle made their mark. Only in an aerial sense did Celtic have an advantage and they made this count with their first equaliser. Even then though, it took several corners before our resistance finally broke.
Moving onto the penalty shoot-out and this is where our commitment really showed. With Tavernier and Clark both missing, it looked as if Celtic would go onto win the game but a fine save from Foderingham ensured we still had a chance. At this point, our captain stepped up before our two subs - with hardly any game time to speak of recently - both scored confidently. From the ropes, we fought back and Celtic buckled. The fight was ours.
This season the Rangers support has been unmatched in Scotland. Not only have we been selling out our home games, we filled Hampden for last week's Challenge Cup Final and opposition sides have had to re-open erstwhile unused and dusty stands and move their own fans to ensure space for our huge away contingent.
Sunday was no different. As our supporters waved hundreds of red, white and blue banners and celebrated of belonging to Glasgow, the Celtic fans, as usual, concentrated on a club they considered dead. Barely coherent nonsense about zombies, sevco and h*ns was what their officially recognised fan group wanted to proclaim and with that laughable message, the battle off the pitch was won before the game even kicked off.
Similarly, as the Celtic players shook hands with their Rangers counterparts, those in my company could only laugh as their club captain attempted to psychologically 'stare out' our team. Unfortunately for Scott Brown, this Rangers side is made from real men and as he missed his crucial penalty 120mins later, this particular 30 year old wee bhoy failed his own mental examination. Compare and contrast with Lee Wallace who, after winning the game, went round every Celtic player to shake their hand and offer commiserations. Class, dignity, character - call it what you will but Brown doesn't have it. And neither does the Green Brigade or those that rebel with them in similar bigoted ways.
As the match unfolded on Sunday there was an unmistakable recognition that something important was happening in front of us. OK, it was only one game and it didn't even secure a trophy as yet but the manner of the win was vital. Sure Celtic had their chances and, on another day, may have taken them. But Rangers can rightly be considered the better team and this was a statement of intent for next season. Moreover, with key players missing and up to eight other fringe players due to leave in the summer, the Ibrox side should improve further and there can now be no doubt a challenge for the Premiership title can be considered a reality. More so, if a Scottish Cup win can yield European football earlier than expected.
As for Celtic, despite the defeat, they will rally and the surely inevitable departure of Ronny Deila should see them improve next season also. Financially they're better off and I suspect not only their fans but board will have been finally awoken from their sleepwalk of title wins with no genuine challenge. They may still be favourites for next season's title but yesterday, they were outplayed, outfought and outclassed.
Let's hope for more of the same upon our return to the top division. We're back, we're Ready and we're only going to get better. And we'll be seeing you again very, very soon.
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