Passion day for O'Neill

Phil Gordon says today's Old Firm baptism will be unforgettable
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The Independent Online

Martin O'Neill fondly recalls those early managerial days at Wycombe Wanderers, when it was easier to get a word in. Rebukes from referees could easily be picked up by the inhabitants of the main stand at any English Third Division ground. Today, though, the softly-spoken Irishman is about to find the volume turned up inside his world.

Martin O'Neill fondly recalls those early managerial days at Wycombe Wanderers, when it was easier to get a word in. Rebukes from referees could easily be picked up by the inhabitants of the main stand at any English Third Division ground. Today, though, the softly-spoken Irishman is about to find the volume turned up inside his world.

Referees, never mind managers, do not bother competing with the fever of the Old Firm. Des Lynam once admitted, after savouring Glasgow's tribal encounter, that every other sporting occasion would be "a silent movie" in comparison. Ninety powerless minutes surrounded by Parkhead's cacophony will make the Celtic manager's next bout with his BBC sparring pundit, Alan Hansen, seem like a Monsieur Hulot film.

If the shattering din of 60,000 fanatical fans is not enough, O'Neill will also have to contend at his Old Firm baptism with the bawling from across the technical area of his rival, Dick Advocaat.

Yet even Rangers' bellicose manager found himself powerless against the clamour. Advocaat's first trip to Parkhead two years ago saw the Rangers players unable to hear his frantic instructions as Celtic's followers celebrated a 5-1 victory so loudly that the television cameras shook as the stadium, literally, bounced.

Last Saturday, O'Neill got a small taste of what it will be like. Even the noise generated by Celtic's travelling support in a compact arena like Tyne-castle during the 4-2 defeat of Hearts meant that a lecture from referee Willie Young had to be a word in his ear because it was the only way the manager could hear it.

"He used the word 'intelligence' or, rather, lack of it," smiled O'Neill on Friday, "and said he was not going to spend all day worrying about what I thought of his decisions."

O'Neill managed it to week two of the campaign before earning his first official ticking- off, though it was understandable given a sending-off of Chris Sutton which received unanimous incomprehension. "If you had asked me after the Motherwell game what I thought of Scottish refs, it might not have been too pleasant, but having seen subsequent decisions in the English Premiership, I don't know where we all stand," hereflected.

However, the articulate and mild-mannered former law student admits he squirms when he watches his manic, leprechaun-like touchline antics on television. "Afterwards, I realise how embarrassing I have been, but you don't realise that during a game.

"At Wycombe, I never had to worry about a fourth official in those days, and ocasionally a referee would come over and chastise me. Funnily enough, all the referees from that level then are now officiating in the Premiership.

"I am not saying it's the right way, but that's the way I am. Other managers are less animated and more thoughtful than me, and that approach works for them, but I've been like that from day one."

Certainly, O'Neill's pumped-up style of management has rubbed off on Celtic's players. A record of four wins out of four accompanies him into this first test with Rangers, but the new spirit which has been embraced will come under the greatest scrutiny today: Celtic have become cowed by Rangers after years of coming off second best.

"Rangers have had a game-plan which has worked in recent seasons when coming to Parkhead, perhaps because of their growing European experience," said O'Neill, "but they took 10 points out of 12 from Celtic last season and we have to do better than that."

Being from Northern Ireland, O'Neill knows better than most that history must not be mocked. On Friday, he praised the achievements of his rival Advocaat, refused to denigrate his predecessor, John Barnes, and spoke with reverence of the late Jock Stein, whose trophy-laden era gave Celtic a global name.

"I'm not being patronising or sycophantic when I say that Rangers are a very good team," insisted O'Neill. "I would expect them to 'do' a lot of English Premiership sides at Ibrox, and they remain the benchmark for us."

O'Neill refuses to accept that defeat today would be acceptable given the alarming gap that grew between the clubs in the ill-fated John Barnes-Kenny Dalglish season. "I am a dreamer in many aspects of life, but I am enough of a realist to know you don't get given too much time as a football manager.

"I take responsibility for what happens now and it's been like that from day one. Whatever legacy I have been given, people expect me to sort it out."

"This is the biggest derby in the world. In Jock Stein's day, there were just two Old Firm games a season and four points on offer. If you lost, you could make it up elsewhere. Now it's four games and 12 points, and that means the matches are very significant.

"I will be delighted if we win, and I will be suicidal if we lose. The winning of one game on Sunday would be special, but it's not the end of the road. That comes when you win a championship, that's when you can celebrate."

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