Rangers face rowdy welcome at Pittodrie

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The Independent Football

The last time Pittodrie was a sellout, Alex McLeish was still wearing a red shirt. Today the Rangers manager begins a new Scottish Premier League campaign on the ground he knows so well - but expects a hostile welcome.

Aberdeen have sold all 22,000 seats for the first time in a decade. Whether that is a reflection on the new sense of optimism generated by the appointment of Jimmy Calderwood as manager during the summer, or simply betrays the rivalry that almost matches the Old Firm encounters for ferocity, is not clear.

All traces of McLeish's 15-year career in Aberdeen's best side have almost been airbrushed away, as far as many Dons fans are concerned. There was little goodwill extended when he took charge of Rangers three years ago - there was a riot on his first visit back.

All police leave has been cancelled in Aberdeen and 400 officers will patrol the stadium to prevent rival fans clashing. Even the new boys have become quickly clued up about the contest. "The players have told me its up there with Celtic," smiled Jean-Alain Boumsong, the French defender, yesterday. Noel Whelan, who will make his debut for Aberdeen is equally knowledgeable. "The taxi drivers in the city have been telling me how big this game is," said the former Leeds United striker. "Rangers will be up for it but so will we."

Indeed, Pittodrie will represent the acid test for McLeish's new Rangers. After last season's capitulation to Celtic, the manager - who signed seven new players and offloaded ten - has demanded more aggression. "We start with fresh optimism," McLeish said yesterday. "Celtic have been stronger than us over the last four years and we need to match that."

Hearts, who are seeking to finish third for the third successive season, begin away to Dundee, while across Edinburgh, Tony Mowbray, the former Middlesbrough and Ipswich defender, launches his managerial career with Hibernian at home to Kilmarnock.

The SPL's newest side, Inverness Caledonian Thistle - who must play their home games at Pittodrie, 105 miles away, because their ground does not fulfil seating requirements - make their debut away to Livingston.