THE more excitable and embittered Celtic and Rangers supporters have never found it easy to accept the idea that the men managing their clubs are not the sworn enemies who would cross a street to avoid each other.

Tell them that private lines of communication have always been open between the clubs, and that their respective directors, managers or players arrange to meet on formal or social business, and the reactions can range from outright denial to a curled lip of distaste.

But, to the more sensible majority of fans, a working relationship between the Old Firm clubs is entirely natural and healthy.

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It was considered front page news by one paper when Alan Thompson and Allan McGregor shared a couple of pints while they were Celtic coach and Rangers goalkeeper respectively. The actual newsworthiness of that could have been detected only with the use of an electron microscope. Why wouldn’t they?

Old Firm figures have always mingled happily with those from the other side whose company they enjoy. Billy McNeill and John Greig, Walter Smith and Tommy Burns, Alex McLeish and Gordon Strachan. Last week Peter Lawwell recalled the pragmatic relationship and common ground he shared with Martin Bain, his former Rangers counterpart.

The great rivalry always has been underpinned by maturity, respect and occasionally friendship between the men who call the shots, most visibly when Smith and Ally McCoist helped carry Burns’ coffin. That has to be the foundation for a rivalry which stays on the right side of an ugly free-for-all.

People indulging themselves by making cheap shots to amuse their own side, and provoke the other, deepen the rivalry but belittle both clubs.

Seasoned Old Firm observers will have picked up on a couple of things in recent weeks. Firstly, a seemingly throwaway remark from Charles Green just before Christmas. He was telling a few of us about the Rangers share issue and possible cross-border leagues when I asked if the latter had come up in any recent talks with Celtic.

“I don’t even know where their ground is,” he immediately replied. “I’ve never been. I’ve not spoken to Celtic. I spoke to Peter Lawwell the day we were thrown out the league and that’s the last time I met him.”

The Scottish Premier League voted not to accept Green’s application for membership on July 4. In other words, the men in day-to-day charge of Celtic and Rangers have not met for more than six months and neither, judging by the tone of Green’s comments, do they phone each other or have much inclination or intention to do so.

It cannot be entirely coincidental that the reduction in private dialogue has coincided with some petty public jibes between the clubs.

Celtic’s website described last April’s Old Firm game as “the last-ever derby”, a knowing choice of words certain to push the buttons at Ibrox. Having an unbroken history is a cherished interpretation of events for Rangers and here were Celtic ridiculing it.

The Rangers website carried a response which included the line “the chances are it was nothing more than someone causing mischief and pandering to fans by looking for a cheap laugh”. That sounded just about right, but Rangers have been guilty too.

Green said he’d never been to Celtic’s ground as if it was a badge of honour. He said naming rights could be sold to leave Ibrox being called “anything but Parkhead”.

Director of communications Jim Traynor wrote on the club website about how Celtic had (adversely) influenced debate and the outcome of punishments on Rangers last summer.

The unwritten Old Firm code is that they do not openly discuss each other like that.

The following day Lawwell was asked for a response and said that when you have the last 16 of the Champions League coming up “these little things” – ie, Rangers’ moaning – are of no concern.

The media thrives on this sort of stuff because it sells papers, drives internet traffic and increases television and radio audiences.

That doesn’t mean what’s going on at the moment doesn’t cause some unease, though. It’s too simplistic to say the clubs are currently in different divisions and therefore aren’t doing each other any harm. In fact, they relentlessly circle, monitor and react to each other.

If Rangers come through against Dundee United in the William Hill Scottish Cup, they could be drawn against Celtic and let no-one be in any doubt it would be a fixture laden with far more baggage, poison and nastiness than usual.

Green has never experienced an Old Firm game, let alone had the platform to set the tone for one, and that is a worry.

In Smith he has exactly the sort of fellow director who is respectful of the derby’s traditions and sensitivities. Smith is a welcome presence at Ibrox because he has the authority to tell Green when to be careful and rein himself in. The great Celtic and Rangers figures are the ones who rise above petty goading.

The last time it truly spilled over between the two clubs was when Neil Lennon and McCoist squared up on the touchline in March 2011, an incident deemed to be so inflammatory that the clubs were hauled to a summit with First Minister Alex Salmond and Strathclyde Police.

Lawwell and Bain became co-authors of a six-point “code of conduct” about the clubs’ behaviour towards each other, as well as agreeing the sides should “work together more closely to encourage responsible drinking”.

Some responsible talking wouldn’t go amiss, while they’re all at it.