MARTIN O’NEILL promised the Celtic fans he “would do everything possible” to put the team back on track when he took over the hot-seat for season 2000/01.
The Irishman had been lured to Parkhead after making his name at Leicester City where two League Cup triumphs had alerted more fashionable clubs.
On May 26 2001, the charismatic O’Neill was on the cusp of becoming only the third manager in the Hoops history to achieve the domestic treble, equalling the feat of the legendary Jock Stein in 1966/67 and 1968/69.
A meeting with Hibs at Hampden between the new boss and club folklore and Scotland’s national stadium was packed in the midst of glowing sunshine to witness the occasion.
Author Alex Gordon highlights O’Neill’s remarkable debut campaign at Parkhead in his latest Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One’, where he examines the 51 untainted titles won in the club’s glorious history.
In another CQN EXCLUSIVE, Alex details the impact of the single-minded gaffer in an edited extract from his fifteenth tribute publication to Celtic.
THE championship – the thirty-seventh in the club’s history – was delivered on Sunday, April 7 in front of a crowd of 60,440, the biggest in Scotland throughout the season.
There were five games still to go when St Mirren turned up in the east end of Glasgow in the forlorn hope of postponing Flag Day and the crowning of new champions. Johan Mjallby and Alan Thompson hit the woodwork, Henrik Larsson proved he was human by fluffing his final effort with just keeper Ludovic Roy to beat and a variety of other efforts flew high and wide. It was left to Tommy Johnson to snatch the glory goal seven minutes from the interval.
With an anxiety-riddled rearguard backing off, Larsson danced his way into the danger zone before pushing a pass in front of the unmarked Johnson. The fans groaned in unison, though, as the former Aston Villa and Derby County forward took an awful first touch. However, he managed to regain his composure before sliding the ball goalwards beyond a startled goalkeeper and into the net.
HAPPY 50th, HENRIK…Swedish superstar Larsson celebrates his 50th goal of the season in the 3-0 victory at Ibrox.
O’Neill had invested wisely in bringing players such as Chris Sutton, Alan Thompson, Neil Lennon, Joos Valgaeren, Didier Agathe and Rab Douglas to the club. Ramon Vega arrived at the right time on loan from Spurs in December, but returned to the London outfit in the summer. The new manager had to be complimented, too, with the work he had done with left-winger Bobby Petta who had been rejuvenated since the arrival of the Irishman.
As April came to a close, the celebrations continued. On the twenty-ninth of the month, Celtic would be asked to parade their skills at Ibrox. It was party-time in Govan when Henrik Larsson scored his fiftieth goal of a spectacular season, Lubomir Moravcik claimed two excellent solo efforts, Martin O’Neill’s team beat Rangers for the fourth time in five meetings – including a 3-1 success in the League Cup semi-final – and Celtic, newly-crowned champions, tasted success at Ibrox for the first time in seven years.
There was a carnival atmosphere among the visiting support who had seen their favourites emphatically beaten by four clear goals in their past two visits – 5-1 in November and 4-0 thirteen months beforehand. The turnaround in fortunes between two of world football’s fiercest adversaries had been nothing short of incredible.
READ ALL ABOUT IT…Alex Gordon’s fifteenth Celtic book covers all 51 of the club’s untainted titles.
The Premier League championship arrived in style with the total points tally of ninety-seven setting a new record, seven better than the previous best. It was also won by fifteen points from Rangers, a remarkable thirty-six-point swing in a year.
Martin O’Neill’s side already had the League Cup in the trophy cabinet following Larsson’s hat-trick in the 3-0 romp against Kilmarnock at Hampden on March 18. After the victory over St Mirren, Celtic were one step removed from their first domestic treble since the heady days of the legendary Jock Stein in 1969. Hibs barred their way to the milestone, the Edinburgh side lying in wait after reaching the Scottish Cup Final which would bring down the season’s curtain at the national stadium on May 26.
HAPPY DAYS…Henrik Larsson celebrates his second and Celtic’s third goal in the Scottish Cup Final. Didier Agathe joins in.
CELTIC TO THE FOUR…Johan Mjallby, Paul Lambert, Henrik Larsson and Didier Agathe celebrate the 3-0 win over Hibs.
SWEDE DREAMS…Henrik Larsson and his fellow-countryman Johan Mjallby share the joy on May 26 2001.
Henrik Larsson fired in a double after Jackie McNamara, an early replacement for the limping Lubo Moravcik, had got the ball rolling to record a successive three-goal Hampden showpiece celebration.
A delighted Larsson beamed: “We won the league early, then the CIS Insurance Cup and everyone had been going on about the treble and how much it would mean to the club. Now we can talk about it, Now there are no problems. This was the one I hadn’t won yet in Scotland. However, I’ve won it today and I’m very, very pleased. The second goal gave us a bit more breathing space and then we could sit back a little bit and try to pick them off. When we got the penalty-kick that was it finished.”
A smiling Martin O’Neill concluded: “It’s been an enormous season for everyone and to finish it off today in front of our supporters at a packed Hampden is just sensational. Today is about the players and the supporters. I’m so, so pleased for both sets. The players have had to rouse themselves again for another big occasion, but I never thought there would be a problem because there is no sign of tiredness. Jackie took his goal magnificently and the second from Henrik so soon after half-time settled everything.”
He took a sharp intake of breath and smiled: “Now I just want time to enjoy this before I even think about next season.”