Andy Walker on Celtic: Cup final, Ibrox test & SPFL’s ‘best player’

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A prolific striker during two stints with Celtic, Andy Walker’s habit of netting against Rangers ensured his status as a fan favourite at Parkhead.

And the former Hoops hitman is now predicting more joy in Govan for his former club, as they head to Ibrox in the league.

Ladbrokes News sat down with Celtic’s former title-winner to discuss their Scottish Cup Semi-Final victory over Rangers, the upcoming trip to Ibrox, the man Andy rates as the best player in the Ladbrokes SPFL (find out below) and more…

Ladbrokes News: Another weekend, another triumph against Rangers for Celtic, beating them 2-0 in the Scottish Cup Semi-Final. Four wins and a draw in five meetings with the Gers this season. What do you think the key difference between the sides was on Sunday?

Andy Walker: First and foremost, I think you just have to look at the quality of player Brendan Rodgers has at his disposal. I know Rangers got a point in the previous meeting, but I just think Celtic are stronger in every area of the pitch.

In terms of players, it’s a twofold thing. He’s obviously brought in a few players –Moussa Dembele, who was an absolute bargain, and Scott Sinclair, who in my view has been the best player in Scotland this season. Kouassi Eboue has joined as well, though he’s not featured in this fixture yet.

But Brendan and his staff have also got the very best out of certain players who maybe didn’t quite fulfil their potential under Ronnie Deila. And I think that is the real key to Celtic’s success – not just in this fixture, but over the season as a whole.

Rodgers Revolution: Celtic gaffer celebrates another win at Hampden

Rodgers’ Revolution: Celtic gaffer celebrates another win at Hampden

 

LN: You’ve touched on Scott Sinclair, who netted again in that match. Eight goals in nine games for him now. There have been plenty of great forwards who’ve played at Parkhead – yourself included. Which former Hoops player does he remind you of most?

AW: I think it’s hard to find a comparison, and that’s probably a testament to the fact Scott Sinclair is such a complete player.

He’s not an out-and-out goalscorer, in terms of his role on the pitch. Scott is very unselfish and works so hard for the team, which is obviously something the manager has drilled into this Celtic squad.

I’ve been very impressed by his creativity on the ball, in terms of passing and taking players on – but he’s also clinical in taking a chance when one comes along, and his record in front of goal this season has been tremendous.

He knows when to be ruthless and when to be unselfish, which is a huge asset – especially in a striker. And he’s a strong character, as well. Taking that penalty to make it 2-0 against Rangers, in a high-pressure situation, having missed his last spot-kick [against Partick Thistle].

'The best in Scotland': Sinclair fends off Rangers' James Tavernier at Hampden Park

‘The best in Scotland’: Sinclair fends off Rangers’ James Tavernier at Hampden Park

 

LN: There’s another meeting between the pair on Saturday. How do you expect Celtic to set up at Ibrox? Do you think they’ll attack from the off – as with the weekend – or set up a bit more cautiously?

AW: They certainly won’t be cautious. I don’t think they have anything to worry about, in all honesty.

I think the only big question in terms of tactics is whether Scott Brown is available. Obviously, the club are waiting to find out if their appeal against his red card [v. Ross County] will be rescinded.

I think we’ll see a few changes from the side who played on Sunday, in what was an all-or-nothing game. The league title has long since been secured, and with the quality throughout that squad, I think Brendan will look to freshen things up a bit.

Leigh Griffiths is more-or-less sure to start, especially with Moussa Dembele having picked up that hamstring injury in the Semi-Final – and I’d also like to see Kouassi Eboue feature.

I think this would be the ideal time to introduce him to this fixture, and show him what playing in an Old Firm game is all about. I think there’s nothing better than being thrown in at the deep end as a talented young player, and playing for Celtic at Ibrox is the very definition of that!

LN: You know what it’s like to find the net in this fixture. What’s it like to play at Ibrox as a Celtic player? And what’s your best memory of those away trips there?

AW: Going there as a Celtic player was something I’d always dreamed of, having been born and bred in Glasgow. Knowing that three sides of the ground were totally against you, and then you had that incredibly fervent away support behind one goal – at the Broomloan End.

For me to go there on my first visit as a Hoops player and score the opening goal of the game [a 2-2 draw in October 1987] was a great thrill for me. And later on that season, we went back there, and I managed to score the winner in a 2-1 victory.

That was a huge result in the race for the title that year, as well. It gave us a bit of a cushion, and we duly went on to win the league.

It’s a great place to go as a Celtic player, as it gives you a chance to experience that atmosphere and the pressure on you. This is such a huge fixture, regardless of the context of the season.

And it’s one where you really need to be brave. I felt Rangers looked too timid in the cup meeting, and that’s something I’m sure they’ll be looking to rectify on Sunday.

We've met before: Andy chases Paul Gascoigne in a 1995 meeting with Rangers

We’ve met before: Andy chases down Paul Gascoigne in a 1995 meeting with Rangers

 

LN: Five games until the end of the Premiership campaign – so the question arises again. Will Celtic end the league season without a domestic defeat? And can they take maximum points from those upcoming trips to grounds like Ibrox and Pittodrie?

AW: I’d certainly fancy the Hoops to win the next few games – including that Old Firm clash. But I think once we get to the last couple of matches, and you’re within about 10 days of the cup final, I think that becomes the priority, which means resting players.

I also think Brendan won’t want to risk tiring too many key players out by playing them for every minute of the remaining games, when you bear in mind that their Champions League qualifiers will begin in early July – and you need them rested and refreshed for that.

In my view, there’s every reason to believe Celtic will finish the league campaign undefeated. But I just think – with all that in mind – that winning every game before the Scottish Cup final is a really tough ask.

33 down, five to go: Hoops closing in on incredible unbeaten campaign

33 down, five to go: Hoops closing in on incredible unbeaten Premiership campaign

 

LN: Finally – a word on the Scottish Cup Final itself: Celtic v Aberdeen. It’s the first time these sides have met in this showpiece since 1990. So…will it be comfortable for the Hoops, or could Aberdeen possibly cause an upset?

AW: While I’d fancy Celtic to edge this, Aberdeen will be extremely fired up – and I do think they have a chance of lifting the trophy.

They’ve got a lot of pace and creativity, and definitely won’t look as lightweight as Rangers did in the Semi-Final. I think they’ve developed a real strength of character, which they proved against Hibernian in the other semi, coming back to win after initially losing their lead.

It’s hard to look past a Celtic win in any game this season, but I definitely think this will be much closer than the 3-0 victory they recorded against the Dons in the League Cup Final earlier this season.

All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing

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Dave Burin

Dave graduated with an MA in English Literature at Durham University, and worked in marketing before joining the Ladbrokes News team. A Man United fan and avid groundhopper, he’s also an ardent follower of Rugby League. You can usually find him at a ground near you, clutching a big cup of tea.