These really are strange days in the already weird and wonderful world of Celtic and Rangers.

The complete absence of visiting supporters when the old foes meet at Parkhead on Saturday for one – try telling that to punters 20 years ago. And then there’s the fact this historically, shall we say, robust fixture has been played eight times since the man in the middle last produced red from his top pocket.

The latter point, especially, is a sign of the times, of a game which has moved on so considerably from years gone by. The days of left hooks swinging at opponents certainly appear to be consigned to history, as Jackie McNamara can attest.

The former Celtic defender chuckles as he casts his mind back to 1997 and an infamous clash with Mark Hateley, a post-match rammy that was about as far from today’s players helping each other back to their feet as it is possible to get. Hateley saw red amid the bedlam and McNamara somehow got away with it, although he freely admits he would have not been so fortunate in 2023.

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“I think it’s different these days, to be honest,” McNamara said, speaking to promote the eScottish Cup at Hampden. “I’ve seen games now when players are down and rivals are helping them up! I saw someone getting cramp in a recent game and one of the opposition gave them a hand!

“It’s a bit nicer these days and maybe a bit friendlier. It might be the fact there are more players from outside but it’s not quite the same.

“I remember that one with Mark Hateley. He got sent off in that game and I got away with it! There is VAR these days as well, which is a factor. 

“Players know if there’s anything at all it will get noticed. I’m sure I would have had a few more red cards than I did if we had VAR back then.

“There are still some good tackles but there’s no left hooks any more! You'd see a few early reducers back then. Off the pitch it was different but on the pitch you went to war for 90 minutes for your team.

“The game is different now. I remember going there and getting two players sent off, with Thommo and Sutty. I got sent off at Ibrox as well. There’s a lot of pressure on the game, a lot of people watching and you want to win.

“It’s about how you handle it. When I was younger I obviously didn’t handle it too well!”

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The argy-bargy may have faded into the past, but there is still no less at stake when these teams meet. Rangers head to Celtic Park on Saturday knowing they must win to stand any chance of clawing back their rivals’ commanding nine-point advantage at the top of the Premiership.

The Ibrox side will concede they didn’t turn up for February’s Viaplay Cup Final defeat at Hampden, and Michael Beale cannot afford a repeat non-performance. Celtic are in the altogether more comfortable position of knowing they do not necessarily need to win, but McNamara seriously doubts that will enter Ange Postecoglou’s thinking. His team have built their remarkable run of 28 wins from 29 league outings on being relentlessly committed to a high-octane brand of football.

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They were were particularly dominant in the middle of the park at Hampden, with Beale making three subs to change his entire midfield after going 2-0 down. McNamara is intrigued to see how the Rangers manager attempts to engineer a different outcome this time around.

“It will be interesting to see the starting line-ups to see what Beale does to change it into a win – because Rangers need to win,” he said. “Celtic don’t need to win, and that’s the biggest thing going into the game.

“You could say a Rangers win would bring them back into the title race with seven more games to go. Celtic have a real momentum right now. Rangers are winning every week but then so are Celtic.

“When you are chasing, you are waiting for any kind of slip up, even a draw, to try to catch them. But Celtic have been relentless, even when they are not at their best.

“Look at Ross County. It’s a tough place to go but they got the win and at this stage of the season, that’s all that matters.

“I don’t think Ange will play for a draw! He won’t change his philosophy or what he believes in.

“He’ll go out to attack and win the match. It doesn’t matter who he is playing – whether it’s Real Madrid or Rangers – he’ll go about it the same way.

“Even if it was only a draw needed to win the league, I don’t think he’d set up defensively to get a point. He believes in his system and his players – and it’ll be the same on Saturday.”

What won’t be the same, McNamara believes, is the atmosphere.

The final two league derbies of the campaign will be played with only home fans in attendance amid security concerns and the clubs’ markedly differing opinions on what the away allocation should be.

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McNamara thinks the setup leaves the away team up against it, recalling the feeling of seeing Celtic fans packing out a whole stand at Ibrox and drawing energy for it. But he still predicts a close encounter this weekend.

“I think it’s a hard one to call,” McNamara said. “Even regardless of current form it’s always difficult.  There’s always someone who you think is favourite but in those games it’s totally different. 

“You get the build up the whole week while the players will experience again. I think obviously Celtic having the whole stadium in terms of the fans makes a big difference as well. 

“It’s just the energy, everyone getting behind the team. You saw in the last game there without fans, they were strong. 

“I’m a traditionalist. I think you should have the away fans.  Us going to Ibrox and seeing the fans on one side, it was good for the game. 

“When the fans were on your side, it felt like a 12th man.  I think you can see that. You know you have got to raise your standards. 

“You know they want you to be on the front foot as there’s a lot at stake in it. You don’t want to let people down.”

*The eScottish Football Cup is taking place at Hampden Park over 20th/21st May, with up to 75 clubs from across the country competing for a prize pool of £50,000