Old Firm match called off as mark of respect

December 31, 2007

The Scottish Premier League have postponed Wednesday's Old Firm derby as a mark of respect following the death of Motherwell skipper Phil O'Donnell.

Celtic today made a formal request to the SPL for the game to be called off as their squad struggle to cope with the death of their former player.

Rangers boss Walter Smith also backed a postponement and the SPL moved quickly to meet the request.

SPL secretary Iain Blair said: 'These are never easy decisions. But we recognise that as a former player, Phil was part of Celtic's extended football family.

'After consultation with Rangers we agreed to postpone the Old Firm fixture on the second of January.'

The game is the third SPL fixture scheduled for January 2 to be called off.

Motherwell's game against Hibernian was called off on Saturday night in the hours after O'Donnell lost his life following his on-field collapse.

And Gretna's game against St Mirren was postponed yesterday as it was due to take place at Fir Park, which has become a shrine to the memory of the popular 35-year-old.

Celtic's visit to Motherwell on Sunday was also called off yesterday.

But an SPL spokesman confirmed that the other three fixtures scheduled for Wednesday will go ahead as planned.

Celtic skipper Stephen McManus spoke out in favour of the postponement after he and his team-mates met this morning.

McManus visited Fir Park on Sunday to pay his respects to his friend and fellow Lanarkshire-born professional.

And former Motherwell striker Scott McDonald was another player visibly upset when he turned up at Motherwell's ground.

McManus said: 'Having met this morning as a group for the first time since Phil's death, the Celtic team, management and backroom staff feel very strongly that our match on Wednesday should be postponed as a mark of our sincere respect for Phil O'Donnell, a great player and a great man.

'A number of our squad have very close connections to Phil's family and feel it would be inappropriate to proceed with this match at such a time, following such a tragic event.

'We understand sincerely the inconvenience and frustration a postponement would cause supporters of both teams, particularly those who travel long distances to games - and we fully respect the views of all fans on this matter.

'However, we feel that this would be the only correct decision. I hope that supporters would understand our position in such circumstances.'

His defensive colleague Gary Caldwell added: 'I think it does put football into the background, who wins points and leagues does seem irrelevant.'

Rangers manager Walter Smith agreed that the game should not be played.

'You cannot think of playing at a time like this,' he said.

'Obviously it is a very difficult time for everybody, especially Phil O'Donnell's family.'

Aberdeen manager Jimmy Calderwood - whose side face Inverness on Wednesday - believes no games should be going ahead midweek.

'I think it would have been better for everybody if they had called off all of the games,' he said.

'We all want to win football matches, but when you see the footage of Celtic Park and Fir Park yesterday then at that moment you are not really thinking about football to be honest.

'I didn't know Phil personally, but you listen to other people and any managers or players I know who were involved with him always spoke very highly of him, which can be unique in football.

'Jackie [McNamara] knew Phil very well and went down to his wife's yesterday, which must have been very difficult.

'I spoke to Jackie this morning and obviously it is very sad with young kids involved as well.

'I think it just puts football into perspective. Football can be very hard and vicious sometimes. I don't mean vicious like kicking people on the pitch, but at times it's not fair.'

Kilmarnock boss Jim Jefferies added: 'It's a travesty and Phil's passing puts things into perspective.

'I didn't know him closely but he was a gentleman. Playing at the level he did at 35 years old spoke volumes for him.

'Condolences from everyone at Kilmarnock to his family and everyone connected with Motherwell.

'Out thoughts are with his family at this tragic time.

'It's a real tragedy for the whole of football.'

Hearts assistant head coach Stephen Frail admits it will be difficult to focus on football after O'Donnell's death.

Frail's team will face Dundee United four days after the Tayside men witnessed O'Donnell collapse on the Fir Park turf during their SPL clash.

But he believes playing the game will also act as some form of tribute to O'Donnell.

Frail told Hearts World: 'It's heartbreaking for everyone. I think it will affect everyone involved in the game on Saturday, stewards, ball boys as well.

'Although I only knew Phil briefly, he is just like one of your own.

'It's difficult to think about playing football when you have just lost one of your own and someone so fit and such a well-liked guy.'

But he added: 'People want to get back to playing football. Sometimes in a way that's the best way to pay respect to someone - something he did so well throughout his life.'