HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LUBO, ‘A GIFT FROM GOD’

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THE mention of Lubomir Moravcik’s name to anyone of a Celtic persuasion is guaranteed to inspire a smile.

The player arrived as a 33-year-old virtual unknown for a fee around £200,000 from German outfit Duisburg October 1998. There was no fanfare of trumpets to welcome him to the club. However, after two low-key outings in a win over Dundee and a loss against St Johnstone, the veteran hit the headlines big-style in his third game with a sensational two-goal performance as Dr Jo Venglos’ team walloped Rangers 5-1 in the east end of Glasgow on November 21.

And it was against the Govan club that the Slovakian, who celebrates his 56th birthday today, enjoyed another double salvo in the sunshine as the city neighbours were put to the sword in Martin O’Neill’s debut season in 2000/01 when they walked over their opponents on their way to a 3-0 success. It was the Lubo Show that afternoon at the home of the club’s bitterest foes.

The story is told in author Alex Gordon’s latest Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One’, his fifteenth publication on the club, as he highlights all 51 of the Hoops’ untainted title successes.

Here is an CQN EXCLUSIVE and edited extract from Alex’s book of another big season for the Celts – and a big day for Birthday Bhoy Lubo.

THE championship – the thirty-seventh in the club’s history – was delivered on Sunday, April 7 2001 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.

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.

GLASGOW BELONGS TO ME…Lubomir Moravcik celebrates one of his goals in the 5-1 hammering of Rangers.

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.

The Premier League championship was duly delivered 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. 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.

BY THE RIGHT…Lubomir Moravcik slides the ball beyond the stranded Stefan Klos for one his double in the 3-0 romp at Ibrox.

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.”

Neil Lennon chipped in: “It’s been unbelievable since I came up here in December. Honestly, I did not expect this to happen. Not at all. I thought I was coming up to join a team to give Rangers a run for their money in the league. We’ve surpassed everything that has been asked of us. I’m now going to take it easy for a few weeks and reflect on this season. Mind you, we have now set ourselves exceptional standards and we’ll just have to do it all again next season.”

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.”

On this occasion, CQN will allow Lubo to have the final say. Six years ago, he conjured up this marvellous offering:

“My favourite time, my most special time, was at Celtic. They said I was a ‘gift from God’, but it was the opposite – Celtic was a gift from God to me.”

 

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