There is always a certain amount of media hype in advance of a Glasgow derby. Many past games have been tagged as “the most important ever”. But this time around that claim can be justified.
The seventh Glasgow derby of the season will take place at Ibrox on Sunday. On the field, it is a game of great significance in the title race. It is not technically a league decider, although a Celtic victory would make Neil Lennon’s men very strong favourites for the championship.
A draw and Celtic would retain a slight edge in the finishing straight, while a Rangers victory would give the advantage to Walter Smith’s side.
But it is the incredible off field happenings that make this such an important fixture.
This has been a season unlike any other. The events of the past nine months have seen turmoil in Scottish football to an extent never seen before. The story has at times involved intrigue; at others farce. We’ve seen refereeing controversy in abundance, resignations and allegations, an officials’ strike and threats of legal action aplenty.
If it had been scripted in advance no one would have believed it. Mind you it would have taken John Le Carré to write it – with a little help from John Cleese.
The events of the last week, with parcel bombs sent to the Celtic manager and two other public figures with a connection to the club, have shocked the world. And this is not hyperbole: the story has featured in newspapers from every part of the globe.
There have been those who have called for the derby to be postponed given the potential public safety considerations. But it will go ahead. And that means there is great responsibility on every one of the fifty thousand plus people who will be involved.
The players must concentrate on football. There cannot be repeats of Diouf’s disgraceful behaviour from the last league match. Both sides must make this a football match, not the type of confrontational and angry clash that it could definitely become.
The fans must behave themselves. Now I know that’s a big ask. And I have no fears regarding the away fans, who have shown many times that they will support their team and act sensibly and reasonably.
I can’t say the same for the home support. There are those who will use the occasion to sing their songs of hate, despite the knowledge that their club will suffer. They will believe that the world’s media will see this as defiance, when in fact it will be seen as further proof of their despicable nature.
On eighteen minutes, Celtic fans will pay tribute to Neil Lennon. The significance of the timing is that Lennon wore the number eighteen while a Celtic player.
It is impossible for any of us to understand what life has been like for Neil Lennon of late. He is in his first season as a manager, and in a high profile job which brings professional pressure and stress.
But on top of that he has had to deal with death threats, sectarian abuse everywhere he goes and of late having his, and his family’s, life turned upside down. He has an escort everywhere he goes. He and his family have been moved to a safe house several times in the middle of the night because of threats.
And now some vile idiot has sent a bomb to him.
No one would blame Neil Lennon if he decided that he had to walk away. But he has shown courage and mental strength in abundance as he carries on with his job in spite of everything he has been put through.
And that’s why the Celtic support will show their appreciation to one of their favourite sons on the eighteenth minute.
It would be a great gesture if the Rangers supporters were to join in. And I’m sure some will, as they sympathise with his situation. After all, who could support harassment and violence against a man simply because of his religious beliefs?
But the message boards are full of plans to disrupt this mark of respect. And if the bulk of the Rangers support goes through with this, they will again show themselves up as the bigots that many of them in truth are.
There is always considerable interest from press and television around the world for this match. But this time around it will be magnified as journalists look to see how events off the field will impact on this particular football match. And we should all be aware that any trouble will be reported around the world.
I hope that come Sunday evening the main talking points involve good football and players’ performances. And not refereeing decisions, unsavoury incidents or the actions of the crowd.
But I have a bad feeling that Scotland will again be let down by those who think they have some bizarre right to express their racism and bigotry everywhere they go.