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Danny Stewart: Covid doesn’t dampen Old Firm enthusiasm

© SNS GroupCeltic's Odsonne Edouard and Ryan Christie
Celtic's Odsonne Edouard and Ryan Christie

Back in March, the Rangers v Celtic game at Ibrox was postponed when the coronavirus outbreak KO’d all football in the UK.

The Premier League and the EFL had suspended all action as the first wave swept across Western Europe and the SPFL quickly followed suit.

It was a watershed moment, with Celtic manager Neil Lennon admitting it was then he realised just how serious the threat from the virus was.

Apologising to fans for the decision, chief executive Neil Doncaster warned of what was to come.

“The health and safety of fans, players and officials is absolutely paramount,” he said.

“We have not yet had any confirmed cases of Coronavirus among players in Scotland, but, given the nature of this outbreak, it seems only a matter of time.”

Half-a-year on, with the first Old Firm derby since coming up on Saturday, Doncaster’s words seem prescient.

Last Tuesday night, Falkirk and Dundee recorded 3-0 wins in their Betfred League Cup ties against Kilmarnock and Forfar without a ball being kicked.

In each case, the “losers” had to forfeit due to players returning positive Covid tests.

And while eight other ties were successfully played on the night, all talk was on the news breaking out of France that Celtic’s Odsonne Edouard, on duty with his country’s Under-21s, had been found to have contracted the virus.

If evidence was needed of the casualness with which some view the threat posed by Covid to young professional sportsmen and women, it was to be found in the scrambling to work out if he would be clear of isolation and quarantine regulations in time to face Rangers.

The 22-year-old’s rapidly delivered social media message to say that he was “fine” and “would come back stronger” was not unexpected, yet it was welcome just the same. Not enough is known about Covid yet, for cases to be dismissed as routine.

To be fair, the derby is such a force of nature that its build-up can have the effect of steamrollering through consideration of even the most-startling of external circumstances.

It was a similar story 18 hours later when it emerged Stuart Armstrong had returned a positive test and so would be unavailable for Scotland’s games.

Likewise out, because they had been identified as close contacts and would have to self-isolate for 14 days, were Kieran Tierney and Ryan Christie.

The SFA’s release did not mention that would mean Christie, the member of the trio still with Celtic, would miss the derby – it didn’t need to.

First, because they were talking about players who are on international, not club, duty.

Second, they knew anyone interested would have figured it out by the time they had finished the sentence, let alone the statement.

The absence of fans for the Celtic Park clash has done nothing to dilute the interest in what will be the first meeting of the rivals since season 2020-21 was brought to its premature end.

Games are followed remotely, yet avidly, with the excellent form of both teams teeing up this derby as a potential clash for the ages.

One that, though unique because of the absence of a crowd, will lack none of the intensity the fixture usually delivers.

Even the thought some of the star turns will be out does not seem to be diluting the mounting excitement.

If anything, it adds to it as a sub plot with the side bidding to complete the historic 10-in-a-row the one disadvantaged.

Even the European action, normally a diversion from domestic rivalry, has contrived to underline how well matched the teams look.

Both have moved through to the Europa League’s group stage and can look forward to some mouth-watering fixtures in the run-up to Christmas.

Not even the difference in their rankings made a difference, with Rangers enjoying better fortune to the extent they have arguably the better opportunity to go on to the knockout stages.

What we do not know, but suspect, is that the result of Saturday’s game could have consequences beyond just the points on offer.

Should it throw up a winner, the temptation to predict they will swagger on to take the title will be strong.

If this most-extraordinary of years is teaching us anything, though, it is that nothing should be taken for granted.

A look back to football’s dark days of March is a reminder that just having a Celtic v Rangers game to look forward to is a cause for celebration.