Rangers will pay tribute to the 66 supporters who died in the Ibrox disaster 50 years ago as Steven Gerrard’s men look to bring an end to Celtic’s dominance of Scottish football in the traditional New Year’s Old Firm clash on Saturday.
It was after a meeting between the Glasgow giants on January 2, 1971 that tragedy struck when supporters were crushed descending a stairwell with 32 teenagers among the dead.
Rangers’ plans to hold a full memorial service have been put on hold by restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic and Gerrard has encouraged fans to follow the rules by staying away from the stadium.
“It’s a very special day tomorrow (Saturday), myself and the players are all aware of that — but I would ask all our fans to stay away,” said the former Liverpool captain, who lost a cousin in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.
“I know that’s tough but we also have to pay respect to the situation we’re all in at the moment and stay safe at home.”
Celtic manager Neil Lennon was also in charge of the Hoops for the 40th anniversary meeting between the sides during his first spell in charge, an experience he described as among the most poignant in his nearly 20 years as a player and coach with the club.
“I was at Ibrox a few years ago to lay a wreath, it was one of the most poignant moments I’ve had in my time here,” said Lennon.
“It’ll never be forgotten. Going to a match and not coming back, I can’t think of anything worse.”
Rangers on a roll
Once the action gets underway, it is Lennon’s men who have work to do if they are to remain in the hunt for a record 10th consecutive league title.
Rangers hold a 16-point lead at the top of the table, but Celtic have three games in hand to cut that gap and could haul themselves back into the title race if they end their rivals unbeaten start to the league season.
Starved of success over the past decade, Rangers are on the brink of the club’s first major trophy since going into liquidation and tumbling down the leagues in 2012.
The blue side of the Glasgow divide are off to their best league start since 1928, taking 59 from a possible 63 points in their opening 21 games and are on a 13-game winning run.
Indeed, a shock League Cup exit to St Mirren last month is the only game Rangers have lost in 32 in all competitions so far this season.
Since Gerrard’s arrival two-and-a-half years ago, Rangers have proved themselves more than a match to Celtic on one-off occasions, but the Hoops have prevailed over the long haul.
By winning the delayed 2019/20 Scottish Cup in December, Celtic completed a fourth consecutive treble of domestic trophies.
That run of dominance will definitely come to an end in 2021 as Lennon’s men have already been knocked out of the League Cup by Ross County.
That defeat amid a run of two wins in 12 games — that started with Rangers 2-0 win at Celtic Park in October — saw fan protests calling for Lennon’s head.
However, the Scottish champions have restored some order by winning their last six games to head to Ibrox with belief that can derail Rangers’ serene season so far.
“Rangers are in great form, they have been all season, so it’s a great challenge for us,” said Lennon. “We’ve really found our rhythm. We’re looking forward to it.”
Gerrard, though, was quick to point out that Celtic face a much tougher challenge when they face his side compared to anyone else in Scotland.
“Celtic have obviously won their last couple of games, against Hamilton, Ross County and Dundee United – but they’re playing Rangers and it’s a different challenge for them,” said Gerrard.