Old Firm challenge opens new world to McLeish

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The Independent Football

Hampden Park was, literally, a home from home for Alex McLeish as a player. It was where he won the majority of his 77 Scotland caps, not to mention 10 finals with Aberdeen. On Tuesday night it will be neutral territory, except there will be no neutrals around.

Just eight weeks into the job, the new Rangers manager has been handed his first encounter with Celtic. The Scottish League Cup has changed sponsors four times since McLeish made the first of his six final appearances in 1979-80 – these days it is the CIS Insurance Cup – but you could put an egg cup up for an Old Firm duel and it would suddenly become the most valued thing on earth.

Unlike the Worthington Cup, the Scottish version of the League Cup no longer carries entry into Europe. However, for McLeish, victory in Tuesday's semi-final would offer hope of the biggest prize of all – halting Celtic's hegemony.

It has now become a cliché that every new recruit to Glasgow's unique football derby is unprepared for the world he is about to enter: yet outsiders such as Liam Brady and John Barnes admitted that even experience of Serie A or World Cup semi-finals failed to equip them for the Old Firm intensity.

Even Dick Advocaat, whom McLeish replaced in December and who has now taken up the reins of Holland's national team once more, confessed that he too underestimated its power. The Dutchman never recovered from the crushing 6-2 defeat inflicted by Celtic on Martin O'Neill's own baptism, in August 2000, and the grip established by the Northern Irishman since – Celtic have won six out of seven derbies in his time – has left McLeish with a heavy legacy to overcome.

McLeish may have grown up in Glasgow, but an entire career spent cocooned in the north-east with Aberdeen means he only has passing acquaintance with the game which means the world to his native city.

"I did not go to any when I was a boy because my parents would not let me," he said on Friday, recalling the terracing troubles in the 1960s which blighted the fixture. "However, I know it will be an experience and a half." That was true last season, when six players were sent off in the series, including three (Celtic's Lubomir Moravcik, and Michael Mols and Claudio Reyna of Rangers) in a bust-up in the dying seconds of the CIS semi-final which Celtic won 3-1. If a Slovak, a Dutchman and an American were all consumed by the highly charged passion of the Old Firm, what chance has a Glaswegian? "I know that nothing prepares you for this game," McLeish conceded, though Fernando Ricksen – Rangers' Dutch defender who was among those red-carded last term – revealed on Friday that his new manager had been trying to counsel him to adopt the un-Glasgow philosophy of turning the other cheek. "He told me to take it easy, to relax more," said Ricksen.

But then, talk has always been one of McLeish's assets. Few have failed to be won over by his charm, even his counterpart O'Neill. "I played against Martin in Scotland-Northern Ireland games, and I've got to know him since he came here.

"I find him a great fella and his track record at Celtic has been fantastic. He has transformed them into a formidable side." That strength has its roots in the dominance Celtic have untapped in the Old Firm contest. McLeish has inherited a club, never mind a team, who are riddled with a psychological complex about rivals they toyed with not long ago.

"Celtic have set the standard and we have to try and get back above them," McLeish said. "I am highly aware of that. There is a massive expectation at Rangers. If you're not first here then you are seen as a failure. To think otherwise would be naïve.

"I am determined to be a success. We still have the Uefa Cup to look forward to, and are still in the two domestic trophies. But we can talk all you like, it's doing the business on the pitch that counts."