Young director for the Old Firm

Phil Gordon talks to Alan Stubbs about the first big test of his Celtic captaincy
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The Independent Online
Alan Stubbs is preoccupied with the plans for his daughter Heather's christening but next Thursday he will have an entirely different baptism of his own.

Celtic's recently appointed captain has worn the armband before, but he knows there is a world of difference between doing it against Hibernian and leading the team into a passion-filled derby with Rangers, especially with the Old Firm separated only by one goal's difference at the top of the Premier Division.

The former Bolton defender was surprised at such rapid promotion from manager Tommy Burns only five months after his pounds 3.5m transfer but already he has imprinted his own unflustered style on the job. He has earned high praise since taking over from Peter Grant two weeks ago and, through two victories, leading Celtic to pole position in the championship for the first time in 14 months.

On Thursday, Stubbs' readiness for the task will be judged by 50,000 spectators at Parkhead, and millions more live television viewers throughout Britain.

Burns felt the rigours of the role were suffocating Grant's effectiveness as a ball-winner. The midfielder is also not the coolest head around, whereas the injured club captain Paul McStay was often labelled too introverted. Stubbs sits between the two.

The fact that the Celtic manager made his mind up about Stubbs' capabilities just minutes after the last Old Firm encounter, speaks volumes about the mellow man from Merseyside. "Tommy had a word with me after the game at Ibrox in September when we lost 2-0,"Stubbs said. "When he said he was going to make me captain, I was stunned but I realised it was an honour. A few weeks went by and nothing happened and I thought he had forgotten about it, then just before we played Hibs two weeks ago he said that I was being made skipper until Paul gets back from injury.

"I was captain for three years at Bolton and did it in big games like the Coca-Cola Cup final against Liverpool, so the responsibility doesn't frighten me. I'm not a shouter, I'm more of an organiser. I learned a lot under Phil Brown, my first skipper at Burnden Park. He always gave me advice and I feel the right way to captain is to encourage guys and give them confidence rather than get on their back if they are having a bad game."

Since arriving at Parkhead, he has found Paul McStay to be the perfect captain. "He's got such a presence about him and all the players totally respect him."

Stubbs, though, will have no McStay to lean on against Rangers in a match which never needs spice added, but on this occasion has. Celtic replacing their great rivals at the top of the League has given an important psychological edge to a side who have not won an Old Firm meeting since April 1995.

The 25-year-old Liverpudlian admits that the ferocity of the occasion surprised him and he expects it to do the same to his friends down south when they tune in on Thursday. "The atmosphere was brilliant at Ibrox, even though we only had 7,000 fans there. I can't wait to step out at Parkhead because this time we'll have the bulk of the crowd and the I think the noise will be frightening.

"It's obviouly very different to Merseyside derbies. There's a rivalry between Everton and Liverpool and while everyone might not love each other inside the ground, they do go to the pub together after the game. I know now that this kind of thing just doesn't happen in Glasgow. Maybe that's what makes it a special game."