Glasgow (AFP) – Alex Rae grew up dreaming of playing for Rangers in an Old Firm derby while living in the shadow of Celtic Park.
The midfielder, who was on Rangers’ books as a youth player before being released, had to wait until he was 34 to realise his dream after spending the majority of his career in England.
Rae sampled high-octane clashes between Millwall and West Ham United and Sunderland and Newcastle United, but says nothing compares to the atmosphere and passion generated when the Glasgow giants clash.
“I’ve been involved in some unbelievable derbies, but it has that intensity which other derbies don’t really have,” Rae told AFP ahead of Rangers’ match against Celtic at Ibrox on New Year’s Eve.
“Millwall and West Ham was a right spicy tie. It wasn’t for the fainthearted. I thought going to Newcastle was intimidating, but the Rangers-Celtic thing has got much more spice.
“If you go back to 1999, when Rangers won the league at Parkhead, there was people falling from the top tier and referees being assaulted.
“Most derbies are very much the same in importance to the fans, but with the Old Firm it has a religious element which goes back a lot of years that gives it an extra edge.
“The fixture creates a hostility which sometimes goes overboard and I had my house windows smashed after one of our games.
“When you’ve got a young family, you don’t need that sort of thing, but it goes with the territory. I would never have changed anything because it meant so much to me to get an opportunity to play these games.”
Rae was born in September 1969 as Celtic were in the midst of winning nine league titles in a row under Jock Stein.
He joined boyhood heroes Rangers from Wolverhampton Wanderers in May 2004, spending two years at Ibrox and winning the Scottish Premier League and League Cup in his debut season.
But his Old Firm career got off to the worst possible start as he suffered injury and a 1-0 defeat at Celtic Park in August 2004.
– ‘Guard of honour’ –
After 10 weeks on the sidelines, he returned to be part of the Rangers side who ended a sequence of seven successive defeats against their fiercest rivals.
“We managed to win League Cup and SPL games against Celtic at Ibrox in the space of 10 days,” Rae says.
“We also later won at Celtic Park for the first time in about five years that season. That was an unbelievable experience because of the dynamic we were facing.
“When you go to Parkhead there’s a few thousand waiting for you as you go into the stadium and the noise is constant throughout the game.
“There’s something like 53,000 Celtic fans and 7,000 Rangers fans, so that was really special.
“When we were driving back from Parkhead to Ibrox there were people lining the streets. It was almost like a guard of honour all the way back into Ibrox.
“Those results gave us belief and provided us with the impetus to go on and win the championship and the League Cup.”
Rae thinks the current crop of Rangers stars should look to those results for encouragement as they prepare to host Celtic on Saturday.
The Hoops thrashed the Gers 5-1 at Parkhead in September and have built up a massive lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership as they chase their sixth title in a row.
“It was so important to win the next game that season and that’ll be going through the Rangers players’ minds going into this game as well,” the 47-year-old said.
“They don’t want to lose at home and then the gap gets bigger because it becomes more and more difficult psychologically and your confidence gets shot as well.
“It will mean the world to half this city to rebalance the heavy defeat that Celtic inflicted on Rangers recently.”
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