Neil Lennon’s first experience of an Old Firm game came on a dark February night at Hampden in 2001.
It encompassed four goals, three red cards and delivered a timely lesson on how easy it is to be consumed by such a volcanic atmosphere.
If the scorers in that 3-1 Celtic win — Henrik Larsson, twice, and Chris Sutton — raised few eyebrows, the identity of those who took the long walk certainly did.
Neil Lennon has urged Celtic’s debutants to keep their cool in the Old Firm derby
Lennon’s Celtic face Steven Gerrard’s Rangers at Celtic Park in Saturday’s early kick off
Not exactly known for their short fuses, the sight of Lubo Moravcik, Claudio Reyna and Michael Mols disappearing early up the tunnel emphasised exactly what this game can do to even the most mild-mannered.
‘It was just a blur,’ recalled Lennon. ‘I was lucky enough to have my second one, a league game, the following weekend.
‘It’s always good for debutants to play well and make their mark on the game and we’ll have a few having their first taste of it this weekend. I just hope that they remember it for the right reasons.’
Lennon’s first ever Old Firm derby saw three red cards in a game at Hampden in 2001
Come what may, regrettably, none of them are likely to ever forget it. Some 132 years after Celtic took the honours 5-2 in a friendly, for the first time, there will be no fans of either side present.
Speak to anyone lucky enough to have played in the game and they’ll subscribe to Lennon’s first taste of it. Shouting at a team-mate even at close range is an act of total futility. When those present in the stands are figuratively kicking every ball, nothing can be heard.
Although Steven Gerrard will doubtless be uneasy about Saturday’s game being played out to a muted soundtrack, this unique situation should favour the visitors.
When the Rangers manager celebrated a victory there last December, it was his side’s first in the East End since October 2010 and just their sixth there this century.
Although Rangers’ demise in 2012 is a contributing factor, the home advantage created by 52,000 Celtic supporters has much more to do with it.
Gerrard celebrated Rangers’ first victory at Celtic Park last December since October 2010
‘It’s certainly not ideal and it does take away the home advantage, there’s no question about that,’ added Lennon. ‘One of the great things about these games is the atmosphere it generates, the colour, the noise and the intensity. Just that crackle in the air.
‘All of that is going to be different, so it’s going to be like no other. The players are 15 or 16 games into playing with no supporters, even on international duty. Whether you get used to it or not, I think you become more accustomed to it.’
The Celtic boss also recognises a familiar narrative building. Before and after returning to the post, the opening derby of the term has invariably come with a warning that the crown on Celtic’s head is no longer so steady and that Rangers are poised to send it toppling to the ground.
Undefeated in their first ten fixtures, Gerrard’s men do look a more solid proposition than last year. Yet, as with a year ago, Lennon looks at his own squad and ponders why the critics believe their time as the top dogs in Glasgow is up.
‘We just carry on as normal,’ he added. ‘Our preparations have been good, as best as we possibly could get them under the circumstances.
Celtic will also have no crowd to roar them on with the game taking place behind closed doors
‘I take no notice of what people will predict or what they think the outcome will be, because it doesn’t really matter. They don’t know what is going on or how we’ve prepared for the game. I’m delighted if they want to write us off. They’ve done that many times before.’
Ahead of what will be his 40th derby, Scott Brown has used the words of those willing him into retirement as a personal affront.
‘He’s obviously very important,’ said Lennon. ‘He’s the captain, so his experience will be pivotal to us. Even as a player, his all-round game is good at the minute. You could see when I left him out at St Johnstone that his influence was missing.
‘We’ll have all that back. He knows these games more than most. He’s still a great leader and he likes the big games.’
If it’s impossible to underplay the importance of Lennon’s absentees, the manager feels he still has talent and character in abundance.
Scott Brown has used the words of those willing him into retirement as a personal affront
‘Shane Duffy will be champing at the bit and he’s been a star for us ever since he came in,’ added Lennon. ‘He has leadership qualities, he’s good in the dressing room and, in general, his play has been of a very high standard.
‘Even in the three games he’s just played for the Republic of Ireland, he’s been an absolute rock. He’ll be very, very important for us and he’ll give us that physical presence which is always crucial in these games.’
Win, lose or draw, the Celtic manager will attempt to view the result in isolation. The outcome may be indicative of what way the wind is blowing but it would be foolhardy to assume it cannot quickly change direction.
‘It’s just about winning the game,’ insisted Lennon. ‘I think it gives you a psychological lift if you can win the first one but I don’t think it will have a major bearing on the outcome of the season.
‘It’s too early for that. We heard all that chat at the end of December that we were finished blah, blah, blah.
Lennon also believes Shane Duffy will be ‘champing at the bit’ to be involved for the hosts
‘We came out all guns blazing in the second half of the season. It’s really difficult to predict how a season is going to go.
‘What I am pleased with is our consistency, the win ratio, the clean sheets. I think there’s more to come from the team and more to come from individuals as well as we go along.
‘It’s been quite stop-start this season in terms of games being cancelled and international breaks. So it’s been difficult to get any sort of momentum going. But we’ve negotiated those circumstances very well of late.’
Back in July, placing this game last on the fixture list seemed like a shrewd move by the authorities. Surely, by mid-October, at least some fans would be clicking through the turnstiles? So much for the theory then.
Lennon also believes the game will not have a huge bearing on the outcome of the season
With the jewel in the crown of Scottish football reduced to a television event, it feels like the shadow cast by the pandemic has never really shortened. Fears surrounding the viability of the current campaign still abound.
‘I worry that we aren’t going to get supporters in. That’s a major concern,’ said Lennon.
‘In terms of what the clubs are doing and trying to get the games played, I think they’ve been tremendous. They’ve made great strides.
‘Sometimes players contracting it can be unavoidable. I don’t think we are any worse or better than the rest of the leagues.’