MARTIN O’NEILL stormed through his first Premier League campaign as Celtic manager by guiding the team to the title with a total of 97 points – FIFTEEN ahead of also-rans Rangers.
The Hoops, in fact, took their eye off the ball when they lost their last two league games against Dundee and Kilmarnock when the championship had already been won on April 7 with a Tommy Johnson goal against St Mirren leaving O’Neill and his players to go through the motions in the last five games of the league campaign.
Today, in Part Three of CQN’s EXCLUSIVE extract from Alex Gordon’s publication, ‘CELTIC: The History Bhoys’. we look at Six of the Best as O’Neill all-stars rampaged to the title.
HAPPY DAZE…Henrik Larsson wheels away in delight after a goal against Rangers.
DUNDEE UNITED 1 CELTIC 2 (July 30, 2000)
YOU only get one opportunity to make a first impression – and Martin O’Neill’s expertise in the timing department didn’t desert him during his competitive introduction to life as Celtic’s new manager.
The Irishman took his bow in front of a frenzied 11,761 supporters at a noisy Tannadice on radiant Sunday evening in summer. The sun shone as his players, adorned in their gold shirts, took the field with two of O’Neill’s initial line-up making their debuts for the club, defender Joos Valgaeren and striker Chris Sutton, who had arrived at Parkhead for a combined £9.8million in transfer fees.
Like O’Neill, the Belgian and the Englishman seized upon the chance to insinuate themselves with their new followers. One thing which was abundantly clear from the onset of this confrontation was that the Parkhead performers had found again the commitment and desire that had been absent under the previous regime. O’Neill’s man-management skills were one of the main components in the team boss’ successful reign at Leicester City.
It took Celtic until eight minutes before the interval to get their reward against a tenacious Tayside outfit who were determined to pull the red carpet from under their newly-charged opponents who had a lot to prove following an embarrassing campaign that had seen them finish twenty-one points adrift of Rangers in the league.
Paul Lambert and Sutton were involved in the build-up before the ball broke to the ever-reliable Henrik Larsson and he almost casually swept a first-time left-foot effort from sixteen yards beyond the diving Alan Combe for the first goal in the Martin O’Neill era.
Four minutes after the turnaround, though, Dundee United were invited back into proceedings when they were presented with an equaliser. Neil Heaney curled over a left-wing free-kick and keeper Jonathan Gould collided with Jackie McNamara as he attempted to deal with the cross. David McCracken was left with a vacant goal in front of him and he keenly accepted the invite to thump a header into the net.
Under John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish the preceding season, the players’ spirits may have nosedived. This, however, was a different Celtic. They met the challenge square-on and, in the sixty-sixth minute, fought their way to the winning goal. McNamara saw a vicious drive pushed away by the sprawling Combe. The ball rebounded to French defender Stephane Mahe and he whipped in a low cross to the back post where debutant Sutton raced in to blast the ball into the net. Celtic were on their way to a magical season.
Gould; Boyd, Stubbs, Valgaeren, Mahe; McNamara, Lambert, Berkovic (sub: Johnson), Petrov; Larsson, Sutton.
STAN’S THE MAN…Stiliyan Petrov celebrates after scoring the second goal against rangers.
CELTIC 6 RANGERS 2 (August 27, 2000)
IT was dubbed the Demolition Derby. It was the day Martin O’Neill’s renascent Celtic team exploded out of the shadows of their age-old rivals and proved they would not be the walkover they had been for the previous twelve months.
It took Chris Sutton a mere fifty-one seconds to give the home side the advantage in a gleefully lop-sided encounter that saw the Ibrox team mercilessly and ruthlessly exposed while being demolished by a well-primed unit.
The first goal arrived before the confrontation had ticked beyond a minute. Lubomir Moravcik, the little Slovakian sorceror, sent in a left-wing corner that was knocked down by Alan Stubbs. Henrik Larsson – of all people! – miscued smack in front of goal and the ball ran on to Sutton, lurking with intent at the far post, and the striker rammed the ball home from two yards. The party had started early. Astoundingly, Celtic were three goals to the good by the eleventh minute.
Another deadball effort from Moravcik caught the Rangers defence doing a fair imitation of exhibits at Madame Tussaud’s and Stiliyan Petrov raced in unattended to throw himself at the ball to fire a header past the dumbfounded Stefan Klos. With the Celtic fans going crazy with joy, Paul Lambert came onto a Moravcik pass to blast number three into the net. It was bedlam at Celtic Park as manager O’Neill bounced up and down the touchline.
There was a temporary reprieve for the visitors when Claudio Reyna pulled one back with a header at the back post five minutes from the turnaround. In the fiftieth minute, Larsson scored one of his memorable goals for Celtic. Jonathan Gould punted the ball downfield and it was knocked to the Swede by Sutton. The svelte frontman took the pass in his stride, completely bamboozled Bert Konterman with some nifty footwork and then audaciously chipped the flapping Klos from the edge of the penalty area.
Five minutes later, with the action simply pulsating, Billy Dodds slotted in a penalty-kick, but it was negated again by Larsson as he rose to a Bobby Petta free-kick to glance a header into the keeper’s top right-hand corner. With a minute to go, Stephane Mahe flashed over a cross from the left and Sutton finished what he had started by sliding in to touch the ball over the line for number six.
Amid the chaos and the carnage suffered by the Ibrox side, manager Dick Advocaat said sportingly: “Quite simply, we have to give the credit to Celtic. The scoreline doesn’t lie and and they deserved to win.”
Gould; Stubbs, Valgaeren, Mahe; McNamara, Petrov, Lambert (sub: Mjallby), Moravcik (sub: Boyd), Petta; Larsson (sub: Burchill), Sutton.
NEW BHOY…Martin O’Neill splashed £6million to make Neil Lennon’s dream come true.
DUNDEE 1 CELTIC 2 (December 10, 2000)
NEIL LENNON, a future captain and manager of Celtic, made his debut for the club on a freezing Sunday evening on Tayside shortly after his £6million arrival from Leicester City.
The Northern Ireland international midfielder had rejected the offer of a new deal with the English side to team up again with mentor Martin O’Neill at Parkhead. He swiftly realised what he could expect during his years with his boyhood favourites against an exciting Dundee team, heavily laced with colourful Latins and managed by eccentric Italian Ivano Bonetti. Former Argentina World Cup winner Claudio Caniggia was a main protagonist in Dark Blue during an eventful ninety minutes.
Celtic started and finished well, but, in between, great credit must be given to a line-up that made life distinctly uncomfortable for the the visitors. In took Martin O’Neill’s team only four minutes to snatch the initiative when Didier Agathe, a bargain buy from Hibs, kicked off the move with a probing run down the right touchline. His long crossfield pass was gathered by Lubomir Moravcik who, in turn, switched it inside to Stilyan Petrov. The Bulgarian carried it on before blasting past the exposed Marco Roccati.
Bonetti’s men were stung into instant retaliation and the Celtic defence, stubbornly marshalled by Johan Mjallby and Joos Valgaeren in front of ex-Dens goalie Rab Douglas, held out until the fifty-fifth minute when they were undone by team-mate Tommy Boyd. Caniggia, who had been performing supremely on the left wing, raced free once more to launch a low ball across the face of goal. Juan Sara was about to throw himself at the inviting ball, but Boyd beat him to it and to his horror his clearance flew straight into the back of his own net.
Dundee had the bulk of play as they sought the winner, but, in the fading moments, O’Neill’s team staged a classic smash-and-grab act. Petrov swung in a corner-kick, Mjallby got his head to it, the ball bounced on the six-yard line, Rocatti failed to gather and Agathe appeared at the far post to stab the ball home. Welcome to Scottish football, Mr Lennon!
Douglas; Boyd, Mjallby, Valgaeren; Agathe, Petrov, Lennon, Thompson, Petta (sub: McNamara); Larsson, Moravcik (sub: Johnson).
MIDFIELD ENFORCER…Paul Lambert was one of the stars of the season.
CELTIC 1 RANGERS 0 (February 11, 2001)
THE heavens opened and Paradise beckoned. Celtic went into this rain-lashed encounter in the knowledge a win would give them a twelve-point advantage over their Ibrox rivals at a vitally important stage of the campaign.
Equally, Dick Advocaat realised his team had the opportunity to claw back three big points from the Parkhead outfit’s lead before they disappeared out of sight. The sodden conditions didn’t interrupt another hell-for-leather meeting of the Glasgow giants as they went for each other’s jugular.
It was all too much for visiting defender Fernando Ricksen who didn’t last the entirety of the first-half. The Dutch right-back, who had been taken off after only twenty-one minutes of his team’s 6-2 thrashing at the same ground in August, didn’t give his manager the opportunity to substitute him on this frenzied occasion.
He was booked early on for a foul on Alan Thompson and left referee Hugh Dallas with no option but to book him again in the forty-fourth minute for a nonsensical challenge on Tommy Boyd and invite him to take no further part in the proceedings. Celtic were already a goal ahead by this stage although argued it should have been a two-goal advantage.
In the eighth minute, Swiss defender Ramon Vega, who joined on loan from Spurs the previous month, nodded in a corner-kick from a Thompson corner-kick delivery. It looked a legitimate goal, but the match official ruled it out for reasons only known to himself. TV pictures later proved Vega had done nothing wrong in the execution of his header.
Martin O’Neill’s men, however, had better fortune in the sixteenth minute when they claimed the winner. The hapless Ricksen literally had a hand in the only goal of the game. He dithered so long in taking a throw-in that referee Dallas awarded the shy to Celtic. With his team-mates out of position, Boyd took it quickly to Henrik Larsson who played a neat one-two with strike partner Chris Sutton before setting up Thompson. The midfielder raced forward and prodded the ball left-footed away from Stefan Klos.
Disappointed Ibrox boss Dick Advocaat said reasonably at the end: “We have to be realistic. It’s now going to be very difficult to catch Celtic.”
He got that right.
Douglas; Mjallby (sub: Tebily), Vega, Boyd; Agathe, Lambert, Lennon, Thompson, Petta; Larsson, Sutton.
JUST CHAMPION…Martin O’Neill brought the title back to Parkhead.
CELTIC 1 ST MIRREN 0 (April 7, 2001)
THE historic goal didn’t quite match the occasion. A crowd of 60,440 – the biggest in Scotland throughout the season – turned out to see if Celtic could clinch the title in Martin O’Neill’s debut season in charge.
There were five games still to go when the Paisley outfit, without an away success throughout the campaign, turned up in the east end of Glasgow in the hopes of postponing Flag Day and the crowing of new champions. Some hope!
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.
Frenchman Roy looked surprised, possibly believing the opportunity had been lost, and the effort rolled into the net. It wasn’t a classic and it wouldn’t be rerun in TV sports programmes for years to come, but that didn’t matter to the home support. They almost lifted the roofs of the stands with their delerious yells of unconfined joy.
It was Celtic’s thirty-seventh championship triumph and it was made special because of O’Neill’s presence. He 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, 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 with the arrival of the Irishman.
The handsome league championship trophy was returning to Parkhead, but O’Neill knew there was the little matter of a Scottish Cup to be won to keep it and the League Cup company.
Douglas; Mjallby, Vega, Valgaeren (sub: Boyd); Agathe, Lambert, Lennon, Moravcik (sub: Healy), Thompson; Larsson, Johnson (sub: McNamara).
HAPPY BHOYS…Celtic duo Lubomir Moravcik and Henrik Larsson celebrate at Ibrox.
RANGERS 0 CELTIC 3 (April 29, 2001)
DELIGHT abounded in Govan as 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 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 during this campaign and 4-0 thirteen months beforehand. The turnaround in fortunes between two of world football’s biggest adversaries was nothing short of incredible. Fact, indeed, can be stranger than fiction.
There was the usual sparring between Scotland’s two heayweights before the deadlock was broken in the sixty-first minute. A swift free-kick from Neil Lennon released Larsson and the Swede underlined his wonderful vision with a deft touch inside to set Moravcik running free. The Slovakian dodged past Bert Konterman and made a beeline for goal before the opposing defenders could grasp the situation. Moravcik carried on, Lorenzo Amoruso was too slow and ponderous to close him down and he rifled an effort wide of Stefan Klos.
The cheers were still ringing around the Celtic end when Moravcik repeated the feat in the seventy-fourth minute. This time Rab Douglas cleared a ball downfield to seventeen-year-old Sean Maloney, making his first appearance as a substitute for Tommy Johnson, and he nudged it in front of his veteran team-mate.
Moravcik showed a surprising burst of speed as he raced away from Fernando Ricksen and once again carried the ball into the box before cleverly clipping it wide of Klos who had anticipated a shot going across him to his left. Little Lubo rarely did the expected.
With four minutes remaining, the goal everyone had been waiting for arrived – Henrik’s half-century. Jackie McNamara robbed the dithering Turkish midfielder Tugay on the Celtic left. He knocked a pass into space behind the Ibrox defence and Larsson, with his usual keen anticipation, latched onto the ball, waltzed away from the outrushing Klos and stroked the ball into the vacant net with his left foot.
Could life as a Celtic supporter get any sweeter? On May 26 the Parkhead followers would get their answer when they took on Alex McLeish’s talented Hibs side in the Scottish Cup Final at a sun-drenched Hampden.
Douglas; Mjallby, Vega, Valgaren; Agathe, Lambert (sub: Boyd), Lennon, Moravcik (sub: McNamara), Thompson; Larsson, Johnson (sub: Maloney)
*TOMORROW: Paradise comes to Hampden for Martin O’Neill and his Celtic players.