PLAYERS routinely spend entire careers without tasting success at Celtic Park but Andrew Driver must be inclined to wonder what the fuss is all about.
By the age of 24, the Hearts winger has already toasted victory in the east end of Glasgow on three occasions. He was just a teenager back in April 2007 when he scored during a 3-1 victory which disrupted Celtic's title celebrations, prior to twin league cup victories in the space of three years, the most enduring image of which came in October 2009 when poor Stephen McManus was so tormented while tracking Driver as he took the ball for a wander late on that he just about swatted him into the proverbial row Z.
"You can still find it on YouTube if you type in 'the latest tackle ever'," Driver said. The very geometry of the ground seems to compliment the player's abilities. "I have won a few at Parkhead, but there have also been a few drubbings," the Oldham-born player added. "I remember some good nights – we beat them in the CiS Cup and we won on the last day of the season when they were celebrating the league trophy. The fact it is a big pitch and there is more space has helped me. I have fond memories and I am looking forward to going back to hopefully make some more."
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"My favourite was the one when we beat them 3-1 in 2007," he added. "I scored that day and it was my first real time at Celtic Park. It was a massive experience and one I won't forget. A lot of the boys in the squad were a part of those wins so we know what is needed to go there and get a result. We know we can do it, but it doesn't make it any easier. They will be flying coming off a great result in Europe. I watched the game and they did very well."
Throw in a controversial William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final victory in the teams' last meeting, and the absence of an Old Firm derby on the 2012-13 fixture list, and today's match contains all of the ingredients to be one of the year's more dramatic domestic games. Hearts will feel they are doing the rest of the league a turn if they can keep Celtic among the pack for another week or two, but they also need to do themselves a favour. After a promising start, Hearts have dropped to the wrong end of the congested SPL table, but at least Driver knows exactly what it will take.
"The key is keeping it tight at the back and not being afraid to have a go," he said. "We have guys like Arvydas Novikovas and Callum Paterson, and they have a lot of pace on the counter. We have to be confident and the longer you go without allowing them to score the better. You have to ride your luck and we did that a bit when we beat them in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup last year. Everybody expected Celtic to run away with it, but that hasn't been the case and we can take confidence from that."
Driver has rarely had more incentive to put in a performance than he has this afternoon. His contract expires at the end of the season and to date there has been nothing from the club to indicate whether or not he will be offered a new one. That has as much to do with the uncertain state of the finances at the club as anything else but, after a string of serious injuries, Driver knows that, quite simply, how he performs in the remainder of this season will define the earning potential and future parameters of his career. A return to the Scotland squad is another goal which the player would prize highly.
"I wouldn't expect anything until later in the year anyway," he said. "The club is sorting out its financial difficulties and I'm not sure if even they know who they can and cannot keep. On a personal level I have to perform to my abilities and get back my form if I want a contract. On the wages I am on I need to get back to the player I was two years ago. Personally, I don't think I am that far away. The confidence is coming back and I am getting better. If I start playing well then I might get a new deal, a good offer, and I might get an international call-up. But none of that will come if I don't do well."
At least those injuries seem to be a thing of the past. "Physically I have been good and not missed a session all year," he said. "It's now about getting confidence. Even top players don't look the same when things don't go right. When confidence is high you do things naturally and go past players as if they were not there. When it is low you hesitate. This is a massive year for me and my family – there is no option not to get it all back."
No-one is more sensitive to what the player has to offer than his current manager. John McGlynn, who worked with him as a teenager, knows the club will rely on Driver more than ever following the departure of David Templeton, but sees signs that he is recovering that confidence which allowed him to commit players with abandon.
"The last few weeks he has managed to get by defenders and get crosses in," said McGlynn. "Maybe before, he looked as if he had lost a bit of pace. To be fair, he didn't get a real run at it for two years so he has gone through a full pre-season and is getting back to the way he was. Hopefully, he can continue to improve in the games coming up. I do believe he is getting there. I know what he is capable of, but you have to understand he has been out for a while. It is still very early in the season and he could still have an amazing season."
McGlynn is envious of the resources Celtic have at their disposal and knows that alone is sufficient to make his side big underdogs going into this match. But they all so nearly overturned the odds in similar circumstances in the Europa League against Liverpool. He accepts this match probably has more edge than ever before.
"The players get a lift going to places like Parkhead and you occasionally get an 'every dog has its day' moment," McGlynn said. "Celtic's teams have always been strong but this season St Johnstone have beaten them, Hibs have drawn at Celtic Park and Ross County have taken a point. Maybe there are flaws there, but then they get their best result away in Europe, so who is to say this Celtic side don't end up the best Celtic side of all?"