GORDON STRACHAN ignored the critics when he teamed up Neil Lennon with Roy Keane in the Celtic midfield on the afternoon the team took a massive step towards their fortieth title.
It was the Hoops manager’s first season following his appointment as Martin O’Neill’s successor and he took the opportunity to bring the Manchester United legend to Parkhead to fulfil a boyhood dream.
The 34-year-old Republic of Ireland powerhouse partnered Northern Ireland captain Lennon against Alex McLeish’s Rangers at Ibrox on May 1 2006. It was another must-win encounter as the Parkhead men sought revenge for their dramatic championship collapse the previous season when they gifted the crown to their age-old foes on the last day of the season at Motherwell.
Author Alex Gordon recalls Strachan’s momentous debut season in his latest Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One,’ when the new gaffer embarked upon the first of three successive domestic championship triumphs.
He had suffered a 3-1 loss in Govan in his first Glasgow derby in August, but had turned things around by the time a return to the venue was due nine months later.
READ ALL ABOUT IT…Alex Gordon’s latest Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One’.
Alex, the writer of fifteen Celtic books, reflected:
NOW, after two triumphs over Rangers – one in the Premier League and one in the League Cup – five goals scored and none conceded, Strachan was a veteran of the fixture. There were no hidden terrors, no snakes under every rock.
The manager had been bold in his team selection and formation. He paired Neil Lennon alongside Roy Keane, with a combined age of sixty-eight, in the heart of the side’s engine room with cynics insisting they could not play beside each other; “too slow, too similar”, they said.
To offset their accepted lack of pace, the Celtic boss relied on the industry of Stiliyan Petrov and Shaun Maloney in the middle of the park. John Hartson, who appeared to relish the face-to-face duels with antagonistic defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos, led the attack with Maciej Zurawski supporting. It worked a treat.
Celtic went into the affray in the realisation they could go thirteen points ahead of nearest challengers Hearts who had lost 2-1 against Aberdeen at Tynecastle twenty-four hours earlier. The only goal arrived in the eleventh minute with Maciej Zurawski waltzing onto a stabbed pass from Stiliyan Petrov to tuck a neat effort wide of the stranded Ronald Waterreus into his bottom right-hand corner. The gap between the clubs had grown to twenty-one points.
TWO’S COMPANY…Roy Keane and Neil Lennon celebrate after the 1-0 win at Ibrox on May 1 2006.
Alex McLeish’s managerial stint at Ibrox was also nearing an inglorious conclusion. The euphoric delight of last season’s unexpected final day gift of the league championship had been emphatically extinguished.
In the aftermath of his third consecutive victory over Rangers, Strachan observed: “I picked the team for the heavy going. I thought it would be a physical game and so I picked physical players. It doesn’t surprise me that Neil Lennon and Roy Keane can play together. We looked relaxed, but that comes from having good players and their touch makes them look that way.”
Neil Lennon, who had been red-carded at the final whistle in his previous visit to Ibrox, added: “In the context of the weekend, with Hearts losing yesterday, it was a big incentive for us. The whole team and the club are delighted with the way it has gone. There has been a big swing for us.
“There are still twelve games to go and every one will be different in their own way. This win, though, will give us a massive lift, but we are going to take it one game at a time. Hopefully, we will have learned from last year. You can’t take anything for granted. You can’t foresee what’s ahead and all we can do is go out and be fully committed, play our football and be brave, just like we were today.”
’50 Flags Plus One’ highlights the dramatic and thrilling 2005/06 campaign and is told with insider knowledge by Alex Gordon, a former sports editor of the best-selling Sunday Mail, and his latest publication is acclaimed by club legend and Lisbon Lion Bertie Auld as “a truly unique tribute to Celtic”.
Legendary goalscorer John ‘Yogi’ Hughes acknowledged: “It is the amazing journey of several lifetimes.”
CQN Bookstore is the only place to buy the book – and we are giving away a copy of ‘SEVILLE: The Celtic Movement‘ ABSOLUTELY FREE with every order.