WE only had to wait two minutes from the first shrill blast of Stuart Dougal’s whistle to see the most talked and written about left knee in Scottish football given its first test.
As Craig Bellamy sprinted towards the Rangers penalty area in pursuit of a through ball, Marvin Andrews raced across to try and close him down. Ronald Wattereus, his goalkeeper, had decided he was better placed to snuff out the early threat and in a moment which caused a collective intake of breath among the home fans, the pair collided.
The ball broke away from Bellamy, to be booted to safety by Sotirios Kyrgiakos, but all eyes were on the Greek’s central defensive partner, the 29-year-old Trinidad and Tobago international whose intense religious belief has seen him controversially refuse surgery on the damaged ligaments in his left knee.
In an instant, Andrews was up on his feet, apparently showing no ill effects. The Ibrox PA announcer, who had cheesily played I’m A Believer as Andrews warmed up with his team-mates before the match, must have heaved a huge sigh of relief that he was not being forced to call an early substitution.
Time would eventually be called on Andrews’ involvement by manager Alex McLeish, but not until seven minutes from the end of a match in which he went some way to justifying his claims that he can continue his top-flight career without going under the surgeon’s knife.
It remains to be seen just how effective the power of faith healing can be, but not even the biggest sceptic could reasonably argue that Andrews’ was adversely affected by his injury yesterday.
In a generally solid 83 minutes of action, the only handicap the big fellow suffered from was an understandable rustiness.
Since suffering the injury at Dens Park on March 13, when he scored a late goal to keep Rangers’ championship challenge on track, Andrews has played just 45 minutes of reserve team football. It would be that consideration more than any other which occupied McLeish’s mind as he weighed up the bold decision to play Andrews instead of Bob Malcolm yesterday.
McLeish clearly hoped Andrews could be as dominant and effective against the physical threat of John Hartson and Chris Sutton as he had been when Rangers broke his Old Firm managerial duck at Parkhead with a 2-0 win back in February. While never as imperious yesterday as he had been that afternoon, Andrews nonetheless competed effectively with Celtic’s powerful forward players.
He was predictably caught out for pace on occasions, but there are few defenders who are not found wanting in that department when they come up against the electric Craig Bellamy. Andrews might also have done better at Celtic’s 21st-minute opening goal, finding himself on the wrong side of Stilian Petrov as the Bulgarian directed a sweet header beyond Wattereus, but that again could be blamed on factors outwith his injury.
It would be completely against his natural instincts, but even Andrews may have been tempted to curse the big man upstairs on the stroke of half-time when his ferocious header from Fernando Ricksen’s corner kick thundered back off David Marshall’s crossbar, leaving Rangers trailing 2-0 at the interval following Bellamy’s magnificent 35th-minute goal.
A retaliatory strike at that stage may have given Rangers the necessary impetus and belief to stage a second-half comeback but fortune, divine or otherwise, had deserted Andrews. Although he visibly tired in the second half, he was as wholehearted and committed as ever, as typified by one terrific recovery tackle to dispossess Craig Beattie inside the penalty area.
Andrews’ heart has never been in question, of course, but those who raised eyebrows at the time Rangers signed him from Livingston would cast doubt over his basic levels of ability.
When he strode out of defence to send an attempted through ball to his strikers wildly out of play, the thought recurred that he may simply be some way short of what is required to succeed at the top level.
The Rangers supporters, even those who share that view, nonetheless greatly appreciate Andrews’ spirit and determination, qualities they would feel were lacking from too many of his team-mates yesterday on a day when it was at times difficult to discern the must-win nature of the match from their approach to it.
When Andrews was withdrawn for Malcolm with 83 minutes on the clock, he left to a standing ovation from the home fans and a warm hug and pat on the head from McLeish.
It was not only the Rangers manager who was impressed, by his display, revealing afterwards that Celtic’s first-team coach Steve Walford, a fine centre half in his time at Arsenal and West Ham, had lavished praise on Andrews.
"I was speaking to Steve and he couldn’t believe Marvin’s performance," said McLeish. "The injury wasn’t a problem but we were worried about his legs in terms of fitness. That’s why I took him off and maybe could have done so five minutes earlier. He was running on empty."
By full-time, despite substitute Steven Thompson’s late goal, so too was Rangers’ title challenge. Not even the most faithful of their flock will believe in the miracle of overcoming a five-point deficit in the remaining four games of the season.