Battle Fever has been eradicated from Rangers support for Celtic after Philippe Clement had found fresh variant

COVID wasn’t the only thing catching the last time Rangers registered a victory at Celtic Park.

That now rarest of wins on opposition territory back in October 2020 came at a time when Glasgow and the rest of the world had only just been set free from months of Zoom quizzes and Joe Wicks workouts in the living room. Scottish football, however, was still operating under lockdown conditions as Steven Gerrard’s side headed to an eerily empty Parkhead.

Crowds were barred to prevent the spread of the disease. But there was no way to halt a dose of Battle Fever running rife through the city as Gers put a major dent in Celtic’s bid for the 10. With two swings of Connor Goldson’s boot, the blue half of Glasgow – enervated by a succession of brutal beatings following their return to the top flight – all of a sudden felt a rush of triumphalism cursing through their veins.

They milked the moment for all it was worth. Stadium shutters across Scotland may have been pulled down but they didn’t miss the chance to remind their rivals just who were the Old Firm’s new top dogs. You couldn’t turn on your phone or log on to a message board without being met with a blast of Live It Up as the gleeful Rangers faithful took delight in the sad faces across the city.

As the sharks were being tossed around outside Parkhead, the Ibrox punters had the fishing rods out, looking to bait their old sparring partners with mocking memes and taunting tweets. Yet these days, not even the most sensitive of lateral flow tests could find signs of the hubristic strains that were floating about back then.

Battle Fever, it seems, has been eradicated. Seldom have the Rangers support gone into a derby with so little optimism – and who can blame them? Bar that one campaign of dominance under Steven Gerrard, their team have been firmly second best to Celtic.

They’ve allowed their foes from the East End to wrack up five trebles in seven years and stack up millions in the bank. There did seem to be a fresh variant of the fever sweeping the Ibrox support in the weeks after Philippe Clement’s arrival.

Winning the League Cup was just the injection of confidence this team needed after the disastrous start to the season they made in the final days of Michael Beale’s misadventure as boss. But its effects didn’t last long as vital points were dropped against Motherwell, Dundee and Ross County.

And it means Rangers now head to Celtic Park with a familiar sickly feeling of dread in their stomachs, knowing that anything other than a win will effectively see Brendan Rodgers’ team wrap up another league crown. Beating Celtic on home soil is always a tall order but the task ahead of Clement’s side comes with added significance.

-Credit:SNS Group
-Credit:SNS Group

Since the top-flight was extended to 12 teams in 2000-01, Rangers have never managed a derby win at Celtic Park after the split. Four meandering years spent in the lower divisions plus the Covid-curtailed campaign in 2019/20 means Gers have only journeyed to Parkhead for an end-of-season shoot-out eight times under the current format.

But with three wins and five defeats, history isn’t on their side as they battle to prevent this year’s title chance from having its life support switched off.

Records are there to be broken but if Rangers are to mount a remarkable turnaround and pip Rodgers’ side to the flag, it will take a show of resolve not spotted in an Ibrox side since Gio van Bronckhorst’s Seville-bound outfit stormed back from a goal down to stun Celtic in the 2022 Scottish Cup semi-finals.

Clement will be warning his team they won’t be running out into Paradise but a scene of pandemonium. With away fans set to be locked out for the final time before sense is restored to derby allocations next term, Rodgers has already forecast a Parkhead “on fire”.

His Ibrox counterpart will know there can be no repeat of the sloppy, slapdash starts that have seen Rangers surrender the opening goal in 10 of the last 11 clashes of the sides if they are to douse those flames. He’ll demand that the individual mistakes that have seen the likes of James Tavernier, John Souttar, Ben Davies, Nico Raskin and Borna Barisic all punished over the last two years must be halted.

And most importantly, the big Belgian will demand that when the chance to strike is on, Rangers don’t dither as Cyriel Dessers did at Celtic Park back in December. The Light Blues may not have pulled off a result against their bitter rivals this season but others have.

And they all did it by being brave enough to press Rodgers’ side high and clinical enough to take their chances. Are Rangers bold enough to live it up and keep their fever dream alive? We’ll soon find out...