Old Firm game obscured by season's bitter drama

Tomorrow's vital contest has been overshadowed by threats to Neil Lennon. How will Celtic and Rangers react amid the rancour?

Even now, when the supporters are increasingly polarised and the antagonism that shapes the Old Firm rivalry has become capable of reaching darker and more violently threatening extremes, there is a sense of Rangers and Celtic being tightly bound together.

The reality of their existence is to provide the means of expression for some old, resentful hostilities, and when the two sides meet again tomorrow, for the seventh and final time this season, the wonder is how the two sides will endure all the tension, the anger, the bitter indignation, and even the angst, of the occasion.

For the away support at Ibrox, much of it will be released in the 18th minute, when they plan to stand and applaud their manager, Neil Lennon. He once wore the No 18 on his back, as a combative midfielder who played with a fierce, almost self-righteous sense of his own authority; now, he represents to the club's fans so many aspects of their identity: Irish background, Catholicism, an unabashed defiance, and persecution.

This first full season in management has seen Lennon occasionally lost to his own ill-discipline, become embroiled in a confrontation between his club and referees and the Scottish Football Association, and be the target for death threats that escalated from bullets in an envelope to a viable parcel bomb.

To Celtic fans, these parcel bombs are treated as proof of a sectarian attitude they believe to still be prevalent in Scotland, and to be perpetuated by Rangers fans. To the followers of the Ibrox side, this is considered an inaccurate slur (since the criminal act of an individual or group cannot be held to be representative of their support as a whole). But then Rangers supporters are currently under investigation by Uefa for allegedly signing sectarian songs in Europa League games last month, and it is undeniable that two offensive anti-Catholic chants, "The Billy Boys" and "No Pope Of Rome", have been heard again this season, having previously been subdued by self-restraint.

When the two teams come together at Ibrox amid this crush of rancour, it will be to contest a game that will have a significant bearing on the title race, even if the game has become obscured by the dramas of this season. It is as if the two teams are united by the need to reclaim their football from the surrounding agitation.

Rangers are one point ahead, although Celtic have a game in hand, yet the players and coaching staff seem reduced by the scale of the turbulence that has surrounded the Old Firm this season. Lennon, in his stark bullishness, has been a central figure, and on the touchline at Ibrox he will be the focus of much of the edginess; this galvanises him, since he is never more alive than when faced with the demand to be emphatic and commanding, but in quieter, more reflective moments, when he thinks of his partner and child also being affected by the strain, then a truer perspective is revealed.

"Anyone in any walk of life shouldn't have to deal with something like this," he says. "It is uncomfortable, you see your face every hour on the news and after a while you start thinking 'is that me they are talking about?' I've had this for 10 years, but I don't want to say you get used to it, because you never do. But it is not going to deter me from doing what I want to do. This is the greatest privilege in my life, to manage this football club, and the support I've had from the fans and my close family and friends has been my strength."

This is Walter Smith's last Old Firm game – in two spells he has managed 55 matches against Celtic, and won 28 – but the only sentiment he feels is a weary sorrow for the kind of spitefulness that prompted someone to send parcel bombs. He understands the need for his side to win the game, but also for the occasion to return to a football rivalry that was once cherished for its intensity, but has now become a source of distress.

"It has been a bad week for the Old Firm historically," Smith says. "In the 20 years I've been involved and being from the west of Scotland, I've never known a week quite like this. It's sad. Regardless of what any of us say, for football to get to this level is entirely wrong. And the people who are behind it ... you struggle to find the words to say how you feel about them."

Ibrox will be the scene of a vital contest, something alive and seething, but that is also capable of becoming engulfed by a looser hatred; one that lacks any kind of restraining perspective.

News
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
The comedian, 42, made the controversial comment following the athlete’s sentencing to five years for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday
people
Life and Style
Could you tell the difference between this and an organic alternative?
food + drink

Culinary experts in The Netherlands thought it was 'fresh' and 'tasty'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction
music
Sport
Today's Liverpool Echo back page
football
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
books
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
Life and Style
tech

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Arts and Entertainment
film

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?