CELTIC players MUST stand up to be counted at Ibrox on Sunday.

Govan will be no place for the fainthearted and it’s the perfect occasion for the champions to put down a marker with only seven games to play in the quest for the twelfth title in 13 years.

There is absolutely no way anyone in a green-and-white jersey can allowed himself to be bullied in a toxic atmosphere.

That’s the verdict of Parkhead legend Davie Hay as his old club prepare for a crucial encounter against Philippe Clement’s side for  the third time this season. It’s been a case of so far so good with two victories already claimed in a topsy-turvy campaign.

In another CQN EXCLUSIVE, Hay speaks to long-time friend and author Alex Gordon about an eagerly-anticipated derby and spells out what is expected of Brendan Rodgers’ players against their nearest challengers.

IN CONTROL…Davie Hay, watched by Jim Craig, powers past a lunging tackle from Rangers defender Willie Mathieson.

The former player and manager said: “It’s all in Celtic’s hands. The equation is simple – win the remaining seven league matches and two Cup-ties and the double will return to the Parkhead trophy cabinet.

“The pressure is on the players to remain focused and deliver, but that has been the challenge put in front of every Celtic player since this club came to life.

“This is not a club built for second best. No-one remembers the runners-up and that’s not where you expect Celtic to be. We should never be among the also-rans. That’s not what Celtic are all about.

“That was drummed into me early by Jock Stein. He was utterly relentless in his desire to push Celtic to the very limits.

“He succeeded, too, when his incomparable Lisbon Lions conquered Europe in Lisbon in 1967. No-one should ever forget what Celtic achieved that day. They broke through a formidable barrier to become the first British club to win the European Cup.

“It was a phenomenal achievement and it proved to the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest that it could be done.

“Those expectation levels may have wavered over the years with some teams and players failing to live up to the standards demanded of anyone wearing that shirt.

AULD ONES ARE THE BEST…Bertie Auld slams Celtic into the lead in a 2-0 win over Rangers at Parkhead in September 1966. John Greig and keeper Billy Ritchie are helpless.

“If there is a single player in that Celtic dressing room who displays even the merest traces of fear or trepidation about going to Ibrox on Sunday then they will know within themselves they are at the wrong club.

“Brendan Rodgers, too, will know by now who are the players who will walk out onto the pitch against Rangers with the courage and quality required to perform without a solitary fan to offer any backing.”

Hay, 76, and now a club ambassador, continued: “I can only reflect on my time with team-mates such as Billy McNeill, Tommy Gemmell, Bobby Murdoch, Jimmy Johnstone, Big John Hughes, Jim Brogan, Danny McGrain, George Connelly, Kenny Dalglish, Lou Macari and others who would have relished that setting.

“Bertie Auld would probably have made a point of conducting the home choir before kick-off. Nothing frightened that wee man from Maryhill.

“Very early on in any game concerning those individuals – and myself, for that matter – our opponents would have realised there was zilch chance of them bullying us into submission.

ROARING SUCCESS…Callum McGregor, Celtic’s onfield leader and inspiration.

“It would have been quite the reverse, in fact. Anyone in the rival camp believing they already had the advantage because of the one-sided backing from the stands would have been disavowed of the notion by the time we came out of the tunnel.”

Hay added: “We don’t know if Callum McGregor will be fit to play, but I would imagine Brendan Rodgers will already have in his mind how to address the worst-case scenario.

“I was at Ibrox with Celtic in September and the skipper was immense. He controlled the flow of the game throughout and was easily the most accomplished player on the field.

“The opposition didn’t get near him this afternoon. I would go as far as to say it was one of the finest individual performances of a Celtic player in a Glasgow confrontation I have ever witnessed.

“And, please remember, I had players such as Danny McGrain, Roy Aitken, Paul McStay and Tommy Burns in my side when I was team boss.

“Callum will be a miss if he doesn’t play, but the manager is astute enough to compensate for that situation. Joe Hart and Cameron Carter-Vickers continually display leadership qualities and I don’t think there is much that will knock either Kyogo Furuhashi or Daizen Maeda out of their stride.

“Alistair Johnston also looks like another player who will get the sleeves rolled up.

ON THE BALL…Reo Hatate shakes off rival Jason Holt in his first start of 2024 in the 3-0 weekend success over Livingston in West Lothian.

“Reo Hatate? How much can we expect from a player who has played only 86 minutes this year? If Brendan puts him in at the start it will surely be with an eye to the clever playmaker coming off around the hour mark.

“However, Hatate has enough skills at his disposal to leave an impression and have a massive say on the outcome of the contest even if his contribution is curtailed.

“I doubt if anyone in the opposition camp will stand back and admire the qualities of the Japanese midfielder and he may require protection from the referee if there are over-zealous and wayward challenges coming his way.

“Whether he is afforded any safeguards from the match official, we will probably get our answer within five minutes or so.

“But one thing is certain. Real men are required to get the job done and I have no doubt Brendan Rodgers will be only too aware of the identities of the individuals who will be well up for the fight at Ibrox.”

*TOMORROW: Don’t miss another derby coundown EXCLUSIVE – only in your champion CQN.

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