BILLY McNEILL was raging. The Celtic manager had just witnessed his team slump to defeat against Rangers on January 2 1990 at Parkhead.
It had been an unacceptably meek and insipid performance from his players who had gone into the first match of the year against Graeme Souness’ team armed with the knowledge a win would see them pull back the league leaders’ advantage to four points.
With 15 games still to play – and two points for a win in operation back then – McNeill’s side could hardly be counted out of any race for the title.
As he prepared for the New Year fixture, the manager realised his players were low in confidence after firing blanks in their previous two outings in the lead-up to this game. He spent interminable hours trying to coax and cajole a reaction from his squad, emphasising the importance of victory in front of their own supporters.
HAPPIER TIMES…Billy McNeill with author Alex Gordon at the book launch off ‘Celtic: The Awakening’ at Parkhead in 2013. The club legend wasn’t quite so jovial at the same venue back in January 1990.
A crowd of 54,000 filled the stadium on a bright and chilly winter’s afternoon, but the hosts miserably failed to ignite and the only goal of a fairly tepid derby tussle arrived inside 15 minutes and was knocked past Pat Bonner from eight yards by the unmarked Nigel Spackman, the first goal for the Govan club from a player who admitted he got a nosebleed when he crossed the halfway line.
I was in the Press Box that Tuesday afternoon and afterwards made my way to the conference room (as it was known then) and eventually Billy McNeill arrived to meet the media.
The Celtic great could do angry with the best of them, please believe me. Yes, he was upset at the nondescript display and the defeat to Rangers, a situation with which he was never at all comfortable, even in the rare meetings where the result was largely meaningless.
What really upset McNeill, though, was the fact that his team formation had been leaked to a tabloid newspaper, The Sun. The boss had engineered a strategy which would see Mike Galloway move out of his midfield berth to play as an old fashioned centre-forward.
The manager had wanted to put pressure on the rearguard double-act of Richard Gough and Terry Butcher and push a player right into their faces. The options were Andy Walker, Joe Miller, Jacki Dziekanowski and Tommy Coyne and, as far as the boss was concerned, none of them fitted the bill.
MIKE GALLOWAY BENEFIT…Alex Gordon with future Celtic chairman Peter Lawwell and top lawyer Len Murray as part of the committee for the Celtic star.
McNeill had painstakingly constructed his plans around the age-old ploy of getting the ball into the box for Galloway to attack in the air. The player had performed in a similar role with reasonable success for his former club Hearts. It was worth a try for an attack who were hardly testing the fabric of the rival goalkeepers’ gloves at that time.
The manager awoke that morning to the newspaper’s banner back-page headline that screamed: ‘GALLO LEADS CELTIC‘.
Astonished and disappointed would have been an understatement. McNeill was aware the line-up could only have come from his own dressing room.
For whatever reason, an individual had passed on the information to a Sun reporter. It may have been an off-the-record remark pounced upon by a hack who would publish and be damned. I knew the writer; that wasn’t his style.
McNeill told the assorted reporters there “had been the ultimate betrayal” from one of his players who had worked against his manager, his team-mates and every single Celtic supporter.
I won’t quote the manager verbatim, but I can tell you he was going to look under every rock in his efforts to discover the identity of the guilty party.
Celtic went into freefall after that reverse – Rangers’ first New Year triumph at Parkhead in quarter of a century – and won only two their remaining 15 league matches. They finished fifth in the league with only 34 points from 36 games.
McNeill was sacked by the club he loved at the end of the following wretched campaign and I was delighted when he accepted my offer to join the Sunday Mail sports team for a year.
Did he ever discover the team’s Deep Throat who leaked stories to newspapers? He gave me a name, but admitted he did not have cast-iron, irrefutable evidence.
I will always respect McNeill’s wishes that the name would never be made public.
However, there must have been one individual whose conscience might have been troubling him on the evening of January 2 1990.
Betrayal? Too strong a word?
I don’t think so. Do you?
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