Old Firm duo united by battle for survival
Sunday 18 September 2011
In rooms at separate Glasgow hotels last night, Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon confronted the same feelings of hope, doubt, alarm and conviction.
So much rests on the selections they make for today's Old Firm game at Ibrox, and the mood they generate among their players, that the two rival managers may never have been so united by the same anxieties. To McCoist and Lennon, every certainty will seem framed by doubt.
Old Firm games tend to act as a judgement, offering either an endorsement or a condemnation. The results of both teams have been erratic — and disconcerting in European competition in particular — but the winner of today's game will feel renewed, leaving the losers exposed, to criticism and pressure. It is the way of the rivalry, something timeless, but in Lennon and McCoist there seems a unique strain. For all their differences, they are essentially two headstrong, articulate, tough and passionate men; they are also both trying to make their way in management in circumstances that have broken more experienced men.
For McCoist, this game seems a test of will. Since succeeding Walter Smith during the summer, he has seen transfer targets fail to arrive because of haggling over prices and an awkward management structure above him. The club face a tax bill of tens of millions of pounds – a tribunal is considering a dispute with HMRC over the use of Employee Benefit Trusts to pay players during the past decade – but also another disputed tax bill that has seen sheriff officers visit Ibrox and money ring-fenced until the case is settled.
Lennon's side have won convincingly in the SPL, but also lost to St Johnstone and only reached the Europa League group stages by default when Sion were expelled from the tournament. Into these competitive dramas, the Old Firm game generates a hostility that last season grew increasingly enraged. If Lennon being sent bullets and parcel bombs in the post, and then attacked by a Hearts fan at Tynecastle, prompted a debate about Scotland's attitude to sectarianism, McCoist and Lennon squaring up to each other on the touchline at Celtic Park was a defining image of the state of the Old Firm rivalry.
"Celtic and Rangers managers have to put up with a lot: pressure from the press, the fans, the expectations, not being able to lose," says Pat Nevin, the former Scotland international. "Then add in what McCoist and Lennon have to face, and then you realise, 'this is extraordinary'. McCoist is just new in the job, there's all sorts of financial mayhem going on above his head, and he's under more pressure than just about any other Rangers manager. Then look over the road, and Lennon has to add bombs, bullets, and people attacking him on pitches, and it's his first job as well."
The final Old Firm game of last season passed without any sectarian singing, and today's encounter will reveal how much attitudes have been changed by the traumas suffered by Lennon. He cupped his ears towards the Rangers support at the end of that 0-0 draw in April, a defiant gesture in the face of heated abuse, but even that divided opinion: Lennon is still unfairly viewed as an agitator.
"I don't see Neil having done anything wrong," Nevin says. "He's the lightning rod, and that's not his fault. It will be a pressure cooker and there's plenty of people in the past who have said the game is a release of that pressure. Both sets of supports will be acutely aware the world is watching, and the worry is that the pressure then comes out someplace else [away from the game]. We'll only know afterwards, because there won't be a lack of tension."
The imperative on McCoist and Lennon is different from when they were players. It is to survive Old Firm encounters, not be overcome by them.
Rangers v Celtic is on Sky Sports 2 today, kick-off 12.30pm
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