"As any athlete knows, momentum is the most unstoppable force in sports," said the American golfer Rocco Mediate.

"The only way to stop it is if you get in your own way, start making stupid mistakes or stop believing in yourself." Not everyone agrees. Bob Boone, the Major League Baseball All-star, once confidently claimed that there was no such thing.

'Momentum changes with one hanging curveball.' Technically speaking, both statements are nonsense. Boone asserts that he doesn’t believe in the existence of a force before going on to explain how it changes and Mediate declares it unstoppable immediately before telling us three things that can stop it. And yet, all sports fans instinctively know exactly what they mean. They both ring true.

We often buy into the promise that an increasingly strong wind behind our heroes provides and fear the worst when we see the situation suddenly change. The classic end-to-end cup final provides the most manic representation of the phenomena. And then there are those comebacks from two sets down at Wimbledon or when Stephen Hendry or Ronnie O’Sullivan would rack up five or six frames in a row at the Crucible as they hunted down lesser opponents. If Test Match cricket could be described as an epic poem, with its shifts and turns and periods of both serene calm and sharp drama, then league championship football is sport’s Homeric Odyssey. The ultimate long form narrative that tightens and tightens as the conclusion appears in sight.

And here we are. Just as the working day is starting to end in broad daylight, Scotland’s most important annual story is reaching its final act. Maybe, just maybe, we will have a title race actually worthy of the name - where the chase is still too close to call after the third Old Firm clash - for the first time since 2011. No one saw this coming as those nights began to lengthen at the very end of September when Micheal Beale said his farewells and the Rangers board were left counting the cost of yet another managerial payout and, seemingly, the worst transfer window in memory. Not just this season written off, but how many more as a result of such waste?

Plenty of league championship contests have been effectively stopped by the time the gap reaches seven points and with good reason. Perhaps with that degree of certainty in mind, Celtic seemingly shifted their focus to some good old-fashioned in-fighting, the kind that they appeared hellbent on indulging from the outset. Whether the choice of manager, the relationship with the board or affairs on the other side of the world, any platform was used to demonstrate purity and cosplay rather than uniting behind the charge for more success. No real need when that was something of a certainty. At the same time, however, Rangers seemingly appointed a proper football manager for the first time since Walter Smith. He may not have been their first choice but he was their final one and the impact was sudden.

Philippe Clement is a coach with big ideas on style that we’ve heard many times before but he isn’t beholden to them. Rather seeing the process more as a long, incremental improvement where the focus remains on the accumulation of points. More often than not his public temperament is pitch perfect and, although he doesn’t have Steven Gerrard’s aura - no bad thing as it was a stature that so often intimidated his players - he appears to strike the right balance between grounded work ethic, clarity of message and genuine respect. In an age of auteurs and self-help gurus in football’s hottest seats, there is a quaint old-fashioned quality to Clement. Whether it be mounting injuries or fan expectation, he manages. The clue is always in the job title.

Ah, but Beale got off to a great start too. He did but it was all safely academic. It is one thing to notch up points against poorer opposition when there are no consequences but another entirely when points start to drop ahead of you. What your team does suddenly matters again. More often than not, he has managed them well enough to take advantage. And then there is the small matter of the first trophy of the season as a signal of intent. Silverware is a good habit to become hooked on.

READ MORE: How Rangers' most dramatic title decider came to match any Hollywood drama - Martyn Ramsay

Some, of course, are bigger than others. Football’s oldest maxim that the best team wins the league but not necessarily the cup, still holds weight. A Victorian construction of which Brunel would surely have been proud, league football remains the ultimate barometer of sporting greatness. Endurance, patience, strength and consistency are rewarded above the break of the ball on any given Saturday. Despite the movies and popular mythology, battles don’t win wars, resources - and good use of them - do. The strongest clubs will more often than not reign supreme at the end of the season, even from positions where it looks unlikely. From deficits of seven, eight or even nine points, they can reel in early leaders by using stronger squads, title-winning experience and more intelligent direction. League champions last the pace, plan their course and grab their title.

But not always. Not all titles are ‘won’. Sometimes the strongest club is in transition. Sometimes it self-immolates. Sometimes it is simply too lazy to stay sharp enough to hold challenges off. Some titles are more a gift than anything else. Twice in modern Scottish football history, the strongest squad has looked on exhausted and empty-handed.

At around 5:20pm on Easter Sunday 1998, a resurrection was confirmed. As the snow fell from a murky grey sky, he did it again. Powering through a helpless Celtic rearguard before shaping himself on to that trusted left foot and ending the match there and then. It was the week that made Jörg Albertz a fully-fledged Rangers hero and it was one that validated an unlikely story of recovery. Incredibly - from a position of despair a month before - Rangers were top of the league table with only four games remaining and a double was on the cards with which to send off this legendary manager and team. In the end, it would be a legend that caught up with itself right before time was called.

Rangers Review: Jorg Albertz scores Rangers' second goal against Celtic at Ibrox in April 1998. Jorg Albertz scores Rangers' second goal against Celtic at Ibrox in April 1998. (Image: SNS)

It is almost unarguable that Rangers had a stronger squad that season. Of the five matches in league and cup, Rangers lost only one and won three, two of which coming at the business end of the season where they had suddenly overtaken their great rivals at the top of the league and had beaten them, at Parkhead, to take their place in the Scottish Cup final. With nine titles on the spin behind them, it fitted the standard pattern of resource and experience coming to the fore when it really mattered at the expense of those wobbling on new ground. Eight heroes were due to depart at the end of the season with over 100 medals for Rangers already in their collection. This was a squad who knew how to get the job done.

The litany of excuses for the eventual failure - from Marco Negri’s eye to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales - can be found here but ultimately it was a tale of waste, unprofessionalism and complacency against those at the lower end of the league, with only five points out of 12 won against Aberdeen and Motherwell - sides that only escaped relegation late on in the season - evidence of a lack of that necessary incessant drive to win and keep winning. Every champion is deserving but some more so than others. Celtic dropped 14 points at home that season and won only four of their last nine league games in a title race that went to the last day. They were the grateful, joyful and incredibly relieved recipients of a league championship that was handed to them right at the tape. This was not a classic title-winning side.

Seven years later, some degree of revenge was served. Rangers sat at the top of the table on only four of the first 37 weeks of season 2004/05 and only one of those was separated by points rather than goals. It looked impossible for them to reclaim that position by the end of the 38th week but some believe in miracles after all. When Celtic won 2-1 at Ibrox and opened up a five-point gap with only four games remaining, bedsheets that had seen better days were used as banners which proclaimed the title to be over. Even Alex McLeish admitted that it was ‘difficult to see Celtic losing it now’. The difficulty was more than the simple arithmetic involved. Martin O’Neill’s side had won the title three times in the previous four seasons and three other cups to boot. It looked very ominous indeed.

For any Rangers fan looking for positives, the number of times this Celtic side had been successful wouldn’t have helped but the nature of their triumphs might have. Martin O’Neill’s four cup wins (he’d win the Scottish Cup at the end of this season) were all against more provincial opposition, whereas his two Old Firm cup finals in 2002 and 2003 had ended in defeat. The three league titles were won convincingly but all involved an early Rangers implosion. The one time there was a challenge, in 2002/03, they faltered, albeit by the most minuscule of margins. In other words, there were question marks over this side’s ability to handle the pressure at the very end of a competition. By the broadest definition imaginable, the heat was still on, but even this Celtic dressing room, packed full of neuroses, surely wouldn’t choke from here.

Of course, choke they did, when the three points won at Ibrox were immediately handed back with a 3-1 defeat at home to Hibs, Scott Brown scoring the decisive third. Then there were two weeks of trading identical results before that famous denouement at Fir Park and Easter Road. Only twice in the post-war history of the Scottish top division had the team in second place on that final day ended up champions by virtue of a result elsewhere. Rangers overhauled Dundee in 1948/49, winning 4-1 at Albion Rovers, whilst the league leaders lost by the same scoreline at Falkirk, and Celtic themselves were the beneficiaries of an untimely Hearts wobble and some generous St Mirren defending at the close of the 1985/86 season. As the story tends to go, those in front see out the final hurdle.

READ MORE: 'Roundheads and Cavaliers' - What history tells us of Rangers, perception and success

The week before the game I was surprised to detect a degree of tension and concern whenever the topic came up with Celtic supporters whom I knew. I personally, couldn’t see any way in which they’d drop points. ‘Fitness’ was the response I received from more than one. ‘We’re not fit enough.’ They weren’t, as it turned out. The slow and sodden pitch at Motherwell cut up and drained whatever was left in the Celtic legs, with so much nervous energy having been burned already in that first hour. ‘Barry Ferguson had asked how long to go,’ said Kenny Clark, the referee in Leith that day. ‘I said, “four minutes” and he said, “just blow, this is boring”.’ Every Rangers fan old enough to pronounce the word ‘helicopter’ knows what happened next.

Rangers Review: Alex McLeish celebrates with the Premiership trophy after Rangers' dramatic title win at Easter Road in 2005. Alex McLeish celebrates with the Premiership trophy after Rangers' dramatic title win at Easter Road in 2005. (Image: SNS)

The reaction between players and fans alike was so acute because it was so unexpected. It was a title that didn’t fit the theory. A beautiful anomaly. As the two seasons that book-ended this triumph suggest, this Rangers side had no business winning the championship and yet, there they were holding the trophy aloft. McLeish’s words at halftime were characteristically grounded. A turnaround at Fir Park might be unlikely but it is possible and he told his that team that if they didn’t fulfil their side of the bargain and win their game then they would regret it for the rest of their lives. Stay the course, keep within touching distance and you just never know.

If Helicopter Sunday was an unlikely outcome on the morning of Sunday 22 May 2005, then the notion of a title race on the evening of Saturday 30 September makes it sound like an inevitability. Now the two sides enter the final third of the league season on parity and, starting today, enter into a series of weekends trying to outdo one another until they meet again at Ibrox on 7 April.

I have deliberately used words like ‘seemingly’ and ‘appears to’ in this piece because I, like anyone else, has little idea about what is about to unfold next. I’m a historian after all and prefer some perspective in order to make sense of events, preferably about 25 years. In truth, I don’t think fans are much different. We are all desperate to know what happens at the end of the story and so often look to the past to provide a guide to the future. Much of it is irrelevant trivia and coincidence masquerading as omens for those determined to see a repetition of patterns that aren’t there but there is nothing much new under the sun and some old trope will fit the narrative to this season when its story is eventually told. It is the underdogs who look for quirks and the incumbents who pray for consistency to prevail.

Players aren’t exempt from this either, as was clear when Callum McGregor said that he hoped that Celtic’s very late VAR penalty winner at Easter Road last week would be ‘the turning point’ in their season. Fans desperately point to them all the time as moments that we might look back on as being decisive. That famous plot twist that sets favourites back on track and generates power in our old and necessary friend: momentum.

As is so often the case, it will likely be the pressure that dictates the flow of this particular story. Neither side has recent experience to draw upon should they both continue to be inseparable going into the split and such a scenario would bring incredible scrutiny on both managers. Brendan Rodgers - whose experience in getting Liverpool and Leicester to a championship and top four respectively in the final stages of a league season failed painfully - has never appeared anywhere near as happy in his second spell as Celtic manager as he was during his first, when he knew that success here could launch him back to the promised land of the Premier League. This move always seemed like the path of least resistance to extending the CV. Which, with Michael Beale as his direct opponent and Rangers recruitment history looking less than stellar, all made some kind of sense at the time.

Things are a little different now. Clement presents to the world the kind of personality who would get up early in the morning just to enjoy the pressure of a title race and his focused mantra of one game at a time and raising the collective blinkers around Ibrox, are essential to keeping one’s nerve. He hasn’t been without wobbles, of course. At the end of those two 1-1 draws at Pittodrie and at home to Aris Limassol at the end of November, his cool facade slipped a little as he seemed tetchy and bizarrely denied that he had used language in the past that was literally there on record. After his one single defeat, at Parkhead after Christmas, he used a well-worn managerial play by weighing in on the moment of refereeing controversy which created enough noise to ensure that no one was talking about how bad his side were on the day.

He wasn’t deflecting when he admitted to his lack of wizardry. In October there wasn’t an outfield player that most Rangers fans would have been unhappy seeing the back of and the transfer window closed with the common consensus being that, although there is unquestionable improvement in build-up play and team cohesion, the squad feels a little light when making it count. Since Rangers returned to the top flight in 2016, the equation for title success has remained the same: use your resources intelligently and hope that Celtic mismanage theirs. What Clement has managed to squeeze out of this side to get into contention at this stage has been remarkable. To go on and win the league from here, would reduce previous heroics from romantic poetry to banal prose.

Celtic are fulfilling their side of that calculation. The fact that the margins are razor thin has as much to do with their collapse as the Rangers resolve. If they were to somehow knock heads together and find unity, form, fitness and that ‘hanging curve ball’ then it would be incredibly difficult for Rangers to answer that challenge. Thankfully, that is easier said than done.

There is one final historical trope to throw into the writer’s room. If Rangers were to nudge ahead at some point and Celtic were to come back and win it at the end then it would be the first time in 33 years - with the acrimonious transition from Graeme Souness to Walter Smith setting up that incredible conclusion at Ibrox - where either side has let a seven-point lead disappear and still managed to turn the tide. Celtic went a point better in 1985/86 and Arsenal were famously 14 points clear of Liverpool before losing their way in 1989, before both clawed it all back.

All three of those momentum swings went to the final day of the season. Now, who of us - after years of early coronations - has the nerve to endure that?