Glasgow giants ready to get back into the Old routine
The much-awaited Scottish Cup last-four showdown between Rangers and Celtic will take place at Hampden Park tomorrow. Julian Taylor believes the fierce battles have been badly missed.
Graeme Souness gazed into the future ahead of his dramatic arrival at Rangers in 1986 before setting about restoring fortunes and consequently shaking up Scottish football.
"The man who turns Rangers around will be made for life," he proclaimed. Prophetic words, then and now.
And the Ibrox legend admitted earlier this week that current boss Mark Warburton has a tougher task than his predecessors in the overall, modern Rangers rebuild.
Tomorrow's much-awaited Scottish Cup semi-final showdown against ancient rivals Celtic will be a telling indication of just how far this club, newly-promoted to the Premiership following demotion due to financial implosion four years ago, has come.
Are Rangers, to echo their club motto, 'Ready'?
Souness was joined by Kenny Dalglish in Glasgow earlier this week to test the temperature. Two respective legends and two of the finest craftsmen to grace Scottish football. Such is the commercial anxiety of the SFA to market the derby in the best possible light, they turned to the former Scotland stars.
It was fine public relations, laced with wry humour as Dalglish tied a Rangers scarf around his old friend's neck just a little too tightly.
The appetite in the city ahead of this fixture has been insatiable. 'Deila out', 'Warburton is magic', nightly phone-ins, plus supplementary coverage in the national press. It's what has been missed - even to the Hoops-favouring pub which advertised 'Celtic v New Team' outside, in reference to Rangers' financial problems.
Moreover, you know what is looming when Police Scotland order 450 extra cops to monitor supporters both to and from Glasgow's south side. The city has a deserved reputation for earthy friendliness, yet the paradox is that a frost always descends on Old Firm match days. Already you sense increasing tension.
The police have been busy, visiting both clubs to remind players of their responsibilities. Memories, indeed, of ex-managers Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist clashing several years ago which prompted a bit of overkill in the shape of a Scottish Government summit.
Warburton and Celtic boss Ronny Deila tend to channel their passion in the correct manner and both were in a relaxed mood in their respective pre-match press conferences, while no doubt keenly focused on the battle ahead.
Deila is a mellower character compared to predecessor Lennon but he went on the offensive.
"We are the best team in the country and at our best we can beat anyone. That's something we can be proud of," the Norwegian declared.
Life in an Old Firm hotseat can be surreal. Deila could land a League and Cup double and still be out of a job in the summer, with Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill linked with the Parkhead post. Why risk another season of early European exits under Deila, claim some in Celtic's ranks.
Still, Celtic are favourites and only two games away from a likely domestic double, given that Aberdeen have blown their opportunities.
Warburton, on the other hand, is already conjuring up next season's master plan, according to the Light Blue legions. Beware the team with nothing to lose.
There's a tangible sense that tomorrow is very different to last season's meeting; Rangers are on a high, albeit at a lower level in the Championship, and had success at Hampden last Sunday in the Petrofac Training Cup. It all helps the mood within.
Thus, Celtic must manage heightened expectations, particularly as they will encounter a stronger Rangers since last term's League Cup semi-final mismatch.
Everything about the Ibrox side, then under Ally McCoist's haphazard guidance, screamed of damage limitation in a 2-0 defeat. Only two Warburton regulars, captain Lee Wallace and striker Kenny Miller, survive from that chastened line-up, whereas Celtic should have at least six players featuring with hard-edged Old Firm experience.
The Rangers chief has assembled a host of players since taking over last summer, playing in expansive, entertaining style.
How current Gers favourites such as Andy Halliday, James Tavernier, Jason Holt and Barrie Mackay cope with the pressure of the occasion will determine how the underdogs fare. This is where David Weir, heralded ex-club captain, now Warburton's lieutenant, undoubtedly brings his influence to bear.
In another pre-game salvo, Souness warned Warburton to prepare for "something special".
The Englishman has already embraced intense Ibrox responsibility, winning admirers south of the border via his transition from Brentford, whom he guided to a near-shot of the Premier League.
His success in moulding youthful potential and a cool, analytical approach, leading by example with 6am training ground starts, is doubtless hewn from his experience as a trader in the City.
You imagine this has indirectly shaped Warburton's character for the occasion which captivates football and those fortunate enough to have played in it, who still recall the thrilling madness.
A world audience has missed the Rangers-Celtic collision, with additional intrigue given the unprecedented trouble at Ibrox in recent years.
"We won't close it (the gap with Celtic) completely, but what we have to do over the summer is recruit well, keep moving forward and hopefully close the gap," Warburton said rather carefully, avoiding inflammatory sound bites.
Celtic are contrasting opposition for Warburton's fledglings compared to the Championship victories en route to promotion. Tavernier supplies so much energy and scoring drive from right-back, for instance, and this kind of freedom is unlikely tomorrow.
Rangers have bolstered the midfield, with Halliday and Holt providing extra steel. They will need street smarts to deal with Scott Brown, the vigorous Celtic captain seemingly raised for days like this, the presence of Nir Bitton and the fresh trickery of expensive prodigy Patrick Roberts, on-loan from Manchester City.
Another big-game operator is Leigh Griffiths. Plundering a 37-goal haul from a squad total of 110 has all but sealed the SPFL title. Is Griffiths the finest striker Glasgow's east end has witnessed since the halcyon days of Henrik Larsson?
The Celtic support has extra cause to hail the forward in a wider catalogue of misfits. Carlton Cole, Nadir Ciftci, Stefan Scepovic and Dirk Boerrigter have flopped.
Griffiths has surely identified a soft centre in Rangers' rearguard, where Rob Kiernan may discover his occasional lapses are prone to be punished.
And what of Kieran Tierney? A former Parkhead ball boy, the 18-year-old is the latest Celtic gem. Having ousted Emilio Izaguirre to claim the left-back slot, Tierney has already won a Scotland call-up.
The renewed showdown has ensured Sky Sports' full artillery has rolled into town through the week, the broadcaster appreciating persistent box office appeal, even if the contemporary Glasgow derby 'product' - due to financial constraints - isn't what we've been used to.
Nevertheless, this hoary battle has been 'the talk of the steamie' since the draw was made, and with either Hibernian or Dundee United awaiting in the final, whoever prevails at Hampden will be confident of ultimate Cup joy.
In terms of Scottish Cups, Celtic, with 36, have three more to their name than Rangers. If the Scottish champions avoid complacency they should have the opportunity to add to their tally next month.
Conversely, the thought of surprise victory as a statement of Rangers' rejuvenation under Warburton has an epic, redemptive feel to it for the Ibrox club.
Police Scotland may disagree - but Scottish football needs this injection of theatre once again.
Scottish Cup SF: Hampden Park, Sunday 12noon (Sky)