Football: Celtic inspired by firm old favourite

Phil Gordon talks to Paul McStay, the player Rangers respect the most today

There are times when being right is no fun at all. Richard Gough discovered that 10 days ago as he sat in the Parkhead stand and watched his Rangers side ripped apart by Celtic in the Scottish Cup.

The man doing most of the damage was his counterpart, Paul McStay. While many have written the Celtic captain off as being past his prime, Gough insists that it is McStay who is crucial to his rivals' fate rather than the more glamorous names of Jorge Cadete or Paolo Di Canio. While the foreign pair receive the headlines, adoration and pounds 12,000 a week in wages, the one-club man McStay pursues something that comes from the heart: success for his beloved Celtic.

That, in Gough's book, makes him more dangerous and the Rangers defender is hoping his own injury has healed sufficiently to allow him out on the Parkhead pitch this afternoon to counter that authority, as the Glasgow rivals play out what is in effect a Premier League title showdown.

Gough and McStay have been friends since their days together in the Scotland Under-21 side. Yet while the cosmopolitan Gough, born in Stockholm, raised in South Africa and a success with Dundee United, Tottenham and Rangers, is about to depart for a new career in the United States with the Major League Soccer side Kansas City Wizards, his adversary cannot break the ties that keep him bound to the East End of Glasgow.

McStay has tunnel vision when it comes to Celtic. The 32-year-old midfielder has kept to his own little corner of the football world since making his debut there 15 years ago, despite being sought in Italy. Internazionale wanted him in 1984, not long after he earned the first of his 74 Scotland caps at the tender age of 17 and then Udinese offered pounds 2m when his contract ran out in 1992. At first it seemed as if he would finally succumb, announcing he would not be renewing his Celtic deal, then he changed his mind.

The Rangers support goaded him for a lack of ambition, but Gough does not follow the party line. "At the time of the European Championship final in 1992, when his contract was up, I thought Paul was one of the best midfielders in Europe."

The irony is that Celtic have been enduring one of the most barren periods in their 109-year history under McStay's leadership. Only the Scottish Cup success of 1995 has broken the cycle of despair since the club did the double in 1988.

What made McStay's master class in the last Old Firm match 10 days ago so impressive was that his season didn't start until 11 weeks ago. An ankle injury showed no signs of recovery despite two operations that McStay - who was forced to miss Euro 96 - was ordered to go to Florida and put his feet up.

Celtic's manager, Tommy Burns, feared McStay's career was finished, and even tried to persuade Liverpool to part with Jamie Redknapp. "We looked seriously at replacing Paul and it would have cost a lot of money. Thankfully, I didn't have to and he's come back refreshed. In recent weeks, I have been watching a player at the peak of his profession," Burns said.

McStay's return has seen Celtic whittle a 14-point deficit down to five and that could be just two if they win today. He and Celtic have a lot of lost time to make up for. "I have to admit I was worried that I wasn't going to play again," McStay said. "It was frustrating to sit on the sidelines and not play alongside someone like Di Canio.

"His signing from Milan gave this club some of its old respect back. This is the most enjoyable and exciting time I've known here. But without success, it's all meaningless. This is a desperately important match for the club. Our season and our future depend upon it."

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