THE absence of supporters at football matches has no doubt taken some lustre off the season so far, but it will perhaps be this afternoon at Celtic Park where the silence from the stands will be most deafening.

Given the raucous atmosphere which normally accompanies such occasions, the fact that there won’t be 60,000 supporters in place to provide the boisterous backdrop that makes the Old Firm derby so unique saddens Celtic manager Neil Lennon, particularly as it wipes out any home advantage that his team may have been able to enjoy.

And to think, it wasn’t so long ago that debate raged over whether the slashing of the away allocation in the fixture had taken away some of its bite. As it is, it will be up to the barking from the likes of Scott Brown to get the home players going.

“It will be sad but, once the kick-off comes, your focus is on the game itself, just as it always is,” Lennon said.

“But yeah, there will be part of me which thinks: ‘God, this just doesn’t feel right’ but you have to get past that very quickly.

“That’s just the way things have panned out. I still believe that spectators could and should be coming to the matches but that’s the government’s decision to make, not mine.

“I look around Europe and, when Finland played the Republic of Ireland, they had 7,000 in their stadium. Just to have that kind of foothold would be good.

“[Home advantage] will be [diminished]. One of the great things about these games is the atmosphere it generates, the colour, the noise and the intensity. Just that crackle in the air.

“All of that is going to be different, so it’s going to be like no other [Old Firm derby].

“The players are 15 or 16 games in to playing with no supporters, even on international duty.

“Whether you get used to it or not, I think you become more accustomed to it.

“It’s certainly not ideal and it does take away the home advantage, there’s no question about that.

“I worry that we aren’t going to get supporters in. That’s a major concern.”

What has been less of a concern to Lennon this week, possibly due to the four players in his own squad who have either tested positive for Coronavirus or have had to self-isolate, is the media and online chatter this week which has seemed to cast the champions as underdogs for the visit of Rangers.

Lennon says he has heard it all before, and he has also witnessed before how his players have risen to prove their doubters wrong.

“We just carry on as normal,” he said. “Our preparations have been good, as best as we possibly could get them under the circumstances. We only got everyone back as a group [on Friday].

“I take no notice of what people will predict or what they think the outcome will be, because it doesn’t really matter. They don’t know what is going on or how we’ve prepared for the game.

“I’m delighted if they want to write us off, they’ve done that many times before.”

Win or lose today though, Lennon doesn’t buy into the theory that it will have any material impact on the ultimate destination of the Premiership title.

“It’s just about winning the game,” he said. “I think it gives you a psychological lift if you can win the first one, but I don’t think it will have a major bearing on the outcome of the season.

“It’s too early for that. We heard all that chat at the end of December that we were finished blah blah blah. We came out all guns blazing in the second half of the season.

“It’s really difficult to predict how a season is going to go. What I am pleased with is our consistency, the win ratio, the clean sheets. I think there’s more to come from the team and more to come from individuals as well as we go along.

“It’s been quite stop-start the season in terms of games being cancelled and international breaks. So, it’s been difficult to get any sort of momentum going.

‘But we’ve negotiated those circumstances very well of late.”

So, from Lennon refusing to bite on the question of the magnitude of this match, we go back to the bark of his captain.

Today will be Scott Brown’s 40th Old Firm fixture, and rarely can his team’s need for his drive and influence have been greater than this afternoon.

“He’s obviously very important,” Lennon said. “He’s the captain and his experience will be pivotal to us.

“Even as a player, his all-round game is good at the minute. You could see when I left him out at St Johnstone that his influence was missing

“Of course, we’ll have all that back. He knows these games more than most. He’s still a great leader and he likes the big games.”