Preparing for a Glasgow derby is something which consumes fans, media and anyone involved in the matchday experience for – at the very least – a few days ahead of this famous fixture. We can easily read, discuss and debate the nuances of kick-off times and ticketing arrangements before any thought is given to on-field issues such as team selection.
For those who step out onto the field however, we are given little beyond the platitudes afforded in the midweek media duties as to how they actually prepare for a match which can define not only a single campaign but even a career. Although the reality is often more nuanced, Celtic fans will easily forgive and forget dropped points to a side other than Rangers fairly quickly.
Losses in this game however are never quite forgotten though. At best, they are a mere jab in the early exchanges of a fight. At worst, they can be the knockout punch on the biggest stage.
To help better understand the reality of that preparation and experience, former Celtic midfielder Joe Ledley spoke to The Cynic about his experiences of the fixture.
He was made acutely aware of the importance of the fixture from the outset in Glasgow. When out in the city, fans would give advice and encouragement in the days leading up to the fixture to impress the importance of a win.
For players, the importance of the occasion was obvious. He noted that ‘those were the ones you look at the beginning of the season to see when you are playing Rangers. It’s the biggest derby in Europe and for players it does not get better than that.’
The Welsh midfielder joined from Cardiff City in 2010 as part of the significant revamp in Neil Lennon’s first permanent spell as Manager following a short interim period after the departure of Tony Mowbray.
Ledley joined a Celtic side which had failed to win the league in the previous two campaigns and his first experience of the rivalry with Rangers was a 3-1 defeat at Celtic Park. Reflecting on that particular match, he admitted ‘We were annihilated. In that game, I played the occasion and not the game. As footballers, you need to learn as much as you can and take these experiences on board but that was tough.’
Fortunately, his contribution in the subsequent fixture at Ibrox atoned for the difficult initial experience. The 2011 New Year fixture, known to many as ‘Samaras Sunday’, remains an iconic win for Celtic fans. Whilst Ledley remembered his derby debut all too well, the Welshman’s recollection of this 2-0 win is initially limited; ‘a blur’ as he put it given his focus on achieving a positive result.
It was Ledley’s key long-range pass, reading the game to intercept the ball, and springing Samaras in that memorable moment as he rounded Alan McGregor which set Celtic off that day. He half-jokes that his pass to the Greek striker was never properly commended, a fact that every commentary of the goal seems to confirm. It is a matter of record that this site is more than happy to correct and highlight as below.
Ledley’s experiences of this fixture in the time at the Club were, to put it lightly, storied. In just two campaigns, there were wins, draws, losses, battles at Ibrox with nine-men, finals, goals and even a surprise appearance at left-back.
Asking specifically about the week ahead of the fixture; the picture of a raucous, thunderous approach is somewhat wide of the mark. Under Neil Lennon, who Ledley spent his whole time at the Club under, there was an emphasis on a consistent environment for players. ‘Lenny’s (sic) just the same, focusing on this just like it is another game. He didn’t want to put any extra pressure on the players or on himself. We would come into training, enjoy ourselves and have fun as normal.’
In terms of the match preparation, Ledley noted that ‘everything stayed the same, you’ll have a little bit of video and some bits on set-plays maybe but training was the same. There are more cameras around the training ground at first but then you get on with it once they are gone.’
There is one clear moment which the Welsh midfielder remembers with ease. Arguably the defining moment of the successful 2011/12 campaign was the victory over Rangers at Celtic Park on 28 December. It was a derby victory, an evening kick-off back when those were an option and Celtic ended the evening atop the table having been 15 points adrift at the start of November.
Ledley’s memory initially though is not of that incredible feat; ‘I remember when the team came in, I was fuming because I was playing left-back against Sone Aluko. I though for one, I’m not a left-back and two, he (Aluko) is rapid. In an Old-Firm, this is the last thing I need, I want to be playing in my position’.
He recalled that the the team was generally named around ninety minutes ahead of the match at the time and there was no time for real dialogue ahead of the match. Ledley was unequivocal in his understanding though; ‘The respect I had for Lenny (sic) and the mutual respect we had for him as a team meant I wanted to go out and work my socks off for him. He was a fantastic manager and I wanted to play my best for him and for my friends alongside me as well.’
It proved to be a memorable occasion for the then 24-year-old Welsh international. Despite being played out of his natural position, Ledley handled the task comfortably and popped up with the only goal of the match early in the second-half, heading home from a sublime Charlie Mulgrew corner to secure a crucial win in the road to Celtic’s first of what is currently eight consecutive titles.
The most telling aspect of Ledley’s memory of that league-winning 2011/12 side was the mentality. It’s what he defined as the reason for joining the Club and exactly what he enjoyed. ‘With respect, you go to places like St Mirren or Motherwell and get a draw, the players know right away it isn’t good enough. You have to win every single game and I loved it; go out there to win games and not take a draw or anything else.’
It’s easy in this aspect to see the parallels as Celtic under Neil Lennon currently enjoy a strong domestic record, using this as a foundation with which to develop a significant lead at the top of the table with eight matches remaining.
The passion with which Ledley spoke of his time at Celtic is infectious; the type of enthusiasm you get speaking with fellow fans more commonly than ex-players. The crossover between the personnel in his own time and the current side is also significant given the time which has passed. Same manager, same captain and a host of players Ledley played alongside remain despite his exit in January 2014 for Crystal Palace.
For his own part, Ledley is preparing for his potential Hyundai A-League debut against Adelaide United this weekend and will watch his old team-mates after that alongside fellow Celtic fans within the Newcastle Jets side. A win in Sunday’s match would go a long way to securing a record-equalling ninth consecutive title for Celtic and a fifth medal as manager for his former coach.