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'They were spitting at me, trying to hit me. I could tell how much they hated us. I loved it'

Twenty years after his cancer diagnosis following an Old Firm derby, former Celtic defender Alan Stubbs looks at how times may have changed but some things will always stay the same in Glasgow.

Alan Stubbs (left) battles for possession with Brian Laudrup.
Alan Stubbs (left) battles for possession with Brian Laudrup.
Image: EMPICS Sport

AN OLD FIRM derby leaves supporters on either side of the divide feeling one of two things.

“Euphoric or depressed,” former Celtic defender Alan Stubbs tells The42.

He should know, having scored a vital goal against Rangers which was crucial to stopping them complete a historic 10-in-a-row of Scottish league titles in 1998, while also suffering the most devastating personal news after a cup final defeat to their biggest rivals the following season.

The Liverpudlian was a club-record signing when he arrived from Bolton Wanderers for £4 million in the summer of 1996. With a move to Arsenal seemingly close to completion, the Celtic hierarchy were able to tempt Stubbs, then 26, north to Scotland with an 11th-hour contract offer worth an estimated £2 million.

The landscape of British football has changed so dramatically over the past two decades that such a scenario would be unfathomable today. Indeed, only this summer the Gunners were able to lure Celtic’s prized asset, Kieran Tierney, away for £25 million.

But some things don’t change when it comes to the Old Firm and today, as the two clubs face other in the League Cup final at Hampden Park, vitriol remains a constant.

I remember walking down the tunnel at Ibrox for the first time, as we got towards the pitch there were fans physically trying to grab hold of me,” Stubbs continues.

“They were spitting at me, they were trying to hit me. I could feel the bile coming out their mouths and how much they hated us. I loved it. I must admit that I loved the pressure of what it meant to play in those games.

“I’ve got to be honest, I was caught by surprise, I thought it was surreal,” Stubbs adds. “I was used to the Merseyside derby and that’s nothing like it. In the warm up, when balls would go to the side of the pitch, there would be effing and blinding, all sorts of words that you can’t say here. 

“It was ferocious and full on, but you felt better for it and dealing with it the first time you knew to be ready for the next one, you knew what you were going into.

“As players, you have to buy in to how unique the clubs are and what the city is. You just appreciate how much it means to the fans. You don’t want to let them down because you realise how difficult it will be for them after the game.”

A case in point. Newton Mearns is an affluent suburb of Glasgow and it’s where Stubbs lived in the same private estate as many of the Rangers stars of the day — Michael Mols, Jorg Albertz, Ronald De Boer, Lorenzo Amoruso and Arthur Numan were all neighbours.

“I would see them at home and chat away to them, there would be no animosity there, just mutual respect, but there would be times when you would be out with the family and they would come in the same restaurant.

scot-cup-finalceltic-lose Dejected Celtic players (left to right) Tommy Johnson, Phil O'Donnell and Alan Stubbs after losing the 1999 Scottish Cup final. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“You would say hello but that’s it because you have to be aware of your surroundings and where you were. You had too much respect for the fans to be seen laughing and joking with people they viewed as the enemy.”

A similar feeling pervades even now. For instance, Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster and Rangers midfielder Steven Davis would be friends from their days at Southampton, yet would realise the need to keep a distance now they are on opposite sides of the divide.

For Stubbs, his outlook was altered completely 20 years ago. He owes football — and the Old Firm — his life. Quite literally, so when it came to giving his autobiography a title back in 2013 the title seemed obvious: “How Football Saved My Life.”

It’s 20 years since Stubbs, then 28 and in the prime of his career, was one of the players chosen for a random drugs test at the end of the 1999 Scottish Cup final.

The Hoops had just lost to Rangers — who they face in the League Cup final at Hampden Park today — when Stubbs was summoned to a small room to provide his sample.

“Never in my wildest dreams could I ever think that the test would come back with cancer,” he says.

“I might have lost the battle on the pitch that day but in terms of the battle I was about to face off it, that was my biggest ever victory.

“When I think back, I was angry that I was pulled in for the test because I wanted to be in the dressing room with my team-mates. We had just lost a cup final and that is where I should have been, in with them.”

The results of his test were known within a couple of weeks and Stubbs, who was playing golf when he was informed he had a positive test, met with doctors to discover why he was producing excess amount of a certain hormone.

It turned out he had testicular cancer and within a week of being diagnosed, he was operated on and in recovery.

rangers-v-feyenoord-uefa-europa-league-group-g-ibrox-stadium Rangers manager Steven Gerrard. Source: Andrew Milligan

It is the biggest victory of his life, yet preventing Rangers from doing the 10-in-a-row in ’98 can still elicit a wry chuckle. “Failure was not an option for us that season. The thought of not winning the league that season was not even spoken about among the players.

“We were so determined because we knew what was at stake, none of us wanted to be part of a Celtic team that wasn’t able to stop Rangers from achieving the 10-in-a-row.”

The tables have been turned in the current era with Celtic two points clear of Steven Gerrard’s side at the top of the table and aiming for their eighth successive championship.

The League Cup offers Gerrard his first chance of silverware, something which could prove to be the catalyst for a renewed title charge over Christmas and into the New Year, once they’re back from the mid-season break.

Celtic have always risen to the challenge in these games over the last number of years,” Stubbs feels. 

“Until Rangers show they can do something to knock Celtic off that mantle they will always have question marks hanging over them. Winning the league is the most important thing for both but this is a Cup final so it will feel like the biggest game of all.

“Some players thrive on that pressure, others don’t and can’t cope. You can’t let an Old Firm game come to you, you have to go and grab it with both hands and try to take control.”

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