FIXTURES at Celtic Park tend to stand out for most managers.
Antonio Conte spoke excitedly about how supporters were an uplifting presence for the Celtic players in the Champions League this week, even if his Juventus side had a habit of holding the latter down at set-pieces, while in the league, coaches see the place as a ground that promises the most glory even if it often delivers the least amount of joy. For Jackie McNamara, it will also offer personal satisfaction when he takes his Dundee United side to Glasgow this afternoon.
As a former Celtic player, the United manager was always likely to have a peek at when he would be able to return to his former club, and that it has come in just his third match in charge seems fitting given how quickly he has been able to settle into the Clydesdale Bank Premier League as a coach. Until last month, McNamara had been intent on leading Partick Thistle into the top flight but the expedited departure of Peter Houston allowed him to skip ahead by taking charge at Tannadice.
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He has hit the ground running, too – his first two matches brought wins over Rangers and Hearts – and the 38-year-old can afford to face Celtic without trepidation. It is that sense of purpose which he will seek to transmit to his players this afternoon, as well as a sense of ease at stepping out at Celtic Park.
"It's as much about mental toughness on the day as anything," said McNamara. "We're playing against the best team in the league and obviously the fans they have at Parkhead will be their 12th man as usual. But if the players want to progress and play at the next level like competing in Europe they have to experience and handle these atmospheres."
He was also able to acknowledge that he has joined former Celtic alumni Neil Lennon and Paul Lambert in managing a top-flight team, even if the significance of that statistic will become lost amid his final preparations. McNamara will have to contend with the absence of Gavin Gunning today after the United defender was ruled out for the season due to cartilage damage in a knee and United are expected to recall Brian McLean to the side as his replacement, while Willo Flood has been suffering from flu.
McLean is confident about the meeting with the Premier League leaders but he is also wary of how Celtic will react following defeat by Juventus. "More than likely there will be a bit of a backlash against us so we have to be ready for that," said the defender.
"It's as tough as it gets. We're going in against the champions of Scotland but there's no better opportunity for us to go and play in front of 60,000 fans and show what we can do. More SPL teams this season seem to have the feeling they can sneak something at Parkhead."