LAST time Rangers fans travelled from Glasgow to Manchester in significant numbers was for the 2008 UEFA Cup final. They tore the city apart.
Then, there were 120,000 of them to see their side lose to Russia’s Zenit St Petersburg. They caused, according to one judge “the worst damage to this city since the blitz”.
Tonight there will be 3,500 “Blue Noses” at Old Trafford to witness an altogether less frightening “Battle of Britain”.
Every coach filled with Scottish supporters will be held at nearby Wigan before being escorted into the gritty suburb of Trafford by police. Assistant Chief Constable Ian Hopkins, of Greater Manchester Police tells us: "It's a measured plan worked out with both clubs. It is about reassuring people that we mean business and we've got confidence that this plan will work."
In 2008, two policemen were attacked after a big screen showing the game broke down. Nine Rangers fans ended up in jail as Manchester awoke to scenes of devastation. Remember, the Scottish divide between giants Rangers and Celtic is not just about football. It's religious. It's tribal. Much like Real Madrid v Barcelona. Losing face is unacceptable.
Though Rangers will lose face at Old Trafford, expect no such problems tonight, where 250 extra police have been drafted in and pubs have been told to close early. That savage May night will not be repeated – but one particular Englishman will be savaged (verbally) by the travelling Scots.
His name, lest we forget, is Wayne Rooney.
He’s 24, brought up in nearby Liverpool (where, incidentally, Mancunians are tribally reviled) and is considered England’s greatest current footballer. He is also currently our greatest villain.
Revealed just nine days ago as having paid a prostitute for sex five times (once with her pal in a grubby threesome) while his highly attractive wife Colleen was pregnant with their first child Kai, Rooney is struggling to lead a normal life. Colleen, now a successful business woman, is struggling to cope with marital infidelity, a 12-year-old sister in hospital and a young tot.
This morning we are told the pair will try to make their marriage work (Rooney has "one last chance" according to the Mirror), but Rangers fans will do all they can to ensure all are reminded of his misdeeds tonight.
Though he played (and scored) for England against Switzerland last Tuesday (yes, that really was only a week ago, but a week is a long, long time in football), Rooney found himself dropped when Manchester United were held 3-3 by his old club Everton on Saturday.
His Scottish manager Sir Alex Ferguson – who, ironically, used to play for Rangers and hails from the Strathclyde area of Glasgow – chose to leave him out of the side to protect him from the barracking of his former fans.
But we all know Rangers followers will be doing their level best to be even more abusive than bitter Evertonians tonight. The entire footballing world stopped what they were doing over the weekend to debate whether Fergie was being compassionate or judgemental in dropping Rooney.
Now we know. He was being nice. Rooney was back training happily with the squad yesterday. Fergie was asked if he had any regrets. He replied gruffly: “No – none at all. I said I would not subject him to that nonsense at Everton and it was a benefit to our team.
“No regrets. I did the right thing. I am expecting a good performance from him against Rangers. He is a terrific player and his performance as we saw against Switzerland [for England].
“He will be looking forward to this game, like all of our players. European games are fantastic occasions and we have had some wonderful nights at this club.”
A decade ago, Rangers v Leeds in the Champions League was considered a fairly even clash. Football has moved on since then, with the Premier League continuing to import international stars in an orgy of over-spending while the Scottish game has been hamstrung by grinding poverty north of Hadrians Wall. Celtic and Rangers are often linked with an English Premier League merger, but nothing ever comes of it. They continue to be large fish in a tiny pond.
Walter Smith, the near-legendary Ibrox boss, worked as Fergie’s assistant at United back in 2004. He even managed Rooney’s old club Everton for a while. Like all uncivil wars between British clubs, there are connections all over the place, connections made to be broken.
Smith says: “It’s nice to be back, no team in the world will come here filled with attacking intent” and will offer captain Davie Weir, Rooney’s former Everton team-mate, the chance to shackle United’s talisman, aged 40. Weir accepts: “You couldn’t ask for a harder match than this in Europe... or the world.”
With Turks Bursapor and Spain’s Valencia also in Group C, Rangers aren’t expected to qualify. But tonight, goaded by Rooney and all things English, Scotland’s champions will be doing everything in their power to prove they can do some damage on the field, just as their fans did off it a couple of years ago.
Forget the Blitz. This is the Battle of Britain. No prisoners. What’s that song they’re singing? “No woman, no Kai.”
Who the hell is Neal Collins? See www.nealcollins.co.uk.