Football: Initiation test for Celtic's new firm

Phil Gordon suggests Barnes and Wright are in for an unforgettable day
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A FEW years ago, a mid-season escape to the sun seemed like the perfect antidote to the madness that had engulfed Glasgow as the Old Firm met twice in a week. While this correspondent was stretched out in Tobago, Celtic shook off a wretched season to lay out Rangers twice, in the League and Scottish Cup.

But any thoughts of walking a million miles, never mind flying thousands, to avoid the topic evaporated on a beach in Tobago, where a young man snoozed outside his shack selling T-shirts. He was the epitome of Caribbean cool - dreadlocks, bright shorts - except for one thing: the Celtic away strip on his back.

When I asked where he'd got it, he merely replied with a question of his own. "Where you from?" On hearing Glasgow, his face lit up, like someone discovering water in the desert, and he thirsted for information. "Hey man, how come Celtic can't beat the Rangers all season," he laughed, "and now they do it twice in a week?"

The Old Firm, like the Mafia, can always find you. Even John Barnes was not out of reach of it before he came to make his living as a footballer in Britain. "There are Scots in Jamaica, so I had heard all about the game," explained the Celtic coach. "The atmosphere is legendary and I've found that people all over the world know about this game."

Barnes tasted the Old Firm experience for himself last January when he came to Glasgow to watch the traditional New Year derby; Celtic and Rangers fought out a pulsating 2-2 draw at Ibrox. Today, he goes back to that stadium not as onlooker but as a participant, and while the former England player thinks he understands the Old Firm intellectually, his initiation into its emotional grip can only truly begin when the rest of the country is sitting down to Sunday lunch.

No matter how cosmopolitan the contestants have become - in recent years almost everywhere, from Arg-entina to Australia, has contributed players - the passion and importance of this fixture has not diluted one bit.

Barnes' old boss at Liverpool, Graeme Souness, came to Glasgow as an Old Firm virgin and tried to invoke worldly thoughts. "I'd rather lose to Celtic four times a season and win the title," he declared. But, by the end of his tenure, Souness was sucked into the Old Firm frenzy even more than the locals, getting himself sent off when he played and displaying paranoia as a manager.

As Barnes contemplated his baptism on Friday afternoon, trying to put Celtic's disappointing Uefa Cup exit to Lyon the night before out his mind, he was reminded that he had espoused similar sentiments to Souness about the value of an Old Firm match in his recent autobiography. "I don't see any need to revise that," he replied. "I would rather beat Rangers four times, because I realise the importance of the match to this club and its fans, but I would much rather win the League and I think the fans would too."

Dick Advocaat can put Barnes right about that. Just an hour earlier, across the city at Ibrox, the Rangers coach underlined that rubbing Celtic's noses in it by winning the treble last season could not erase the ignominy he suffered in the wake of the 5-1 rout inflicted by Celtic last November. "I thought I knew football," admitted Advocaat, "but I did not realise the effect of one game would be so important. I did after that 5-1 defeat."

The pain of that moment probably shaped the resolve which Advocaat then transferred to his team for the rest of their triumphant season, and while he refuses to acknowledge his adversary in the dugout today is at a disadvantage - "John Barnes is an experienced player with over 50 England caps, he knows the game" - the Dutchman clearly possesses an edge.

Barnes, though, said: "I cannot look at this game and see it as any more important than it is. Derbies are one-offs. I played for Liverpool when we were first and Everton were 15th and we lost. Players raise their performance for these games and it's about which side does it better. If Celtic beat Rangers, I don't think that means I am a better tactician than Dick Advocaat, and if they beat us, I won't feel he's better than me."

Also making his Old Firm debut will be Ian Wright, though some feel Celtic's new signing's explosive nature may not withstand the heat. "I don't expect Wrighty to get booked or sent off," said Barnes. "He will be enthusiastic, passionate and committed but I've spoken to him and he won't step over the mark."

When told of Advocaat's conversion from continental to partisan, Barnes smiled and said: "OK, I want to beat Rangers four times and win the League." As many managers before will testify, second best in this turf war is simply last.