IT is said there is no such thing as a meaningless Old Firm game. For the Rangers and Celtic players that pull on their respective shirts this evening, this will be the most significant 90 minutes of their fledgling careers so far.

When the Glasgow giants meet, there is always more than just bragging rights at stake and that will be the case once again at Hampden as, for the second time in three years, Rangers and Celtic go head-to-head for the Scottish FA Youth Cup.

On that occasion, goals from Sam Wardrop, the Celtic captain, Calvin Miller and Aidan McIlduff were enough to win it for the Hoops. Both Jack Aitchison and Mikey Johnston played for Tommy McIntyre’s side that evening.

Rangers fielded the McCrorie brothers, Robby and Ross, plus the likes of Jamie Barjonas, Zak Rudden and Andy Dallas. There was also a start for Billy Gilmour, then just 15, as he showcased his talents before making the move to Chelsea.

It says much about the difficult transition between youth football and the first team game, particularly at the Old Firm, that few of those that played in a 3-0 win for Celtic have really progressed since. Johnston has been a squad player for the champions this term, while Ross McCrorie is the most established and the most accomplished having played 27 times for Steven Gerrard’s side domestically and in the Europa League.


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A change in the eligibility rules for the competition mean that it is now an Under-18 competition rather than an Under-20s cup and only players born on or after January 1, 2001 will have the chance to grace the National Stadium.

That means those that do play are, theoretically at least, further away from their respective first team squads but there are talents within both teams that have burgeoning reputations and of whom great things are expected.

Several members of the Rangers side that won the Al Kass Cup earlier this season will be involved and many of the supporters that tune into the action will get their first glimpses of Nathan Young-Coombes and Kai Kennedy, two of the stars of the competition in Qatar.

Kennedy was named player of the tournament as David McCallum’s side beat Roma in the final and has already tasted an Old Firm final victory after helping Rangers to Glasgow Cup success at Firhill last season.

Fellow forward Dapo Mebude was also involved in that victory and his promise has been highlighted by Gerrard this term, the Ibrox boss saying earlier this year that he ‘has a huge future, he has big potential.’

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Young-Coombes, meanwhile, has made an instant impact with the Light Blues since joining from Chelsea earlier this term. Frustrated by what he viewed as a lack of a pathway into the first team at Stamford Bridge, he moved north of the border to chase his dream and hopes are high at the Hummel Training Centre that the striker has the ability to go all the way in the game.

That same level of confidence has been had across in the city in Karamoko Dembele for some time. Many Celtic fans have never seen the forward live, but the array of internet highlights and word of mouth mean he is certainly one of the most talked about players in the green and white youth ranks.

Dembele may be seen as the main man, but he is not the only youngster that has earned a reputation as a potential star of the future. Irish midfielder Barry Coffey turned down interest from both sides of Manchester to complete a move to Parkhead from Nenagh AFC, while Armstrong Okoflex left Arsenal last September to sign a three-year deal at Celtic and has his own highlights reel of impressive moments.

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For the starlets on both sides, the chance to play at Hampden and to win a trophy is one that they won’t want to pass up. Yet there is a balance to be struck between the taking part and the winning and rising through the ranks is the ultimate ambition.

The decision to play the game behind closed doors seems illogical and self-defeating. These fixtures should all be about the experience, about setting players up for progression through the levels and first team football.

It is a shame, then, that there will only be a smattering of club officials, proud parents and kids from the club’s community projects breaking up the vast rows of empty seats around Hampden.

For whatever team lifts the silverware, it will be a night to remember regardless. For both clubs, the real prize would be players making the grade rather than collecting a medal.