MARTIN O’NEILL joined the legendary Jock Stein as the only Celtic manager to win the spectacular domestic treble when he swept the boards in his debut season after arriving from Leicester City in the summer of 2000.
Trailblazer Stein had achieved the feat twice – in seasons 1966/67 and 1968/69 – and was out on his own until the charismatic former Northern Ireland international captain caught up.
The new Bhoy completely revamped the squad and brought in players such as Neil Lennon, Chris Sutton, Alan Thompson. Joos Valgaeren, Rab Douglas and Didier Agathe as he plotted a takeover of the Scottish scene.
HIGH HOPES…Martin O’Neill looks skywards as he celebrates another Celtic triumph.
The team swept majestically into the history books with a fabulous hat-trick of domestic silverware, but in the midst of joyous and rapturous applause at the end of his debut campaign, the canny O’Neill insisted: “The trick is to keep on winning.”
So all eyes were on the manager and his players, including latest signing John Hartson, as they prepared for their assault on season 2001/02 with the club’s thirty-eighth crown on the radar.
The recollection of that eventful campaign is told with insider knowledge by author Alex Gordon, a former Sports Editor of the Sunday Mail, whose latest book, ’50 Flags Plus One’, is hailed by Lisbon Lion Bertie Auld as “a truly unique tribute to Celtic”.
READ ALL ABOUT IT…Alex Gordon’s latest Celtic book ’50 Flags Plus One’.
Alex, who has now had fifteen Celtic books published, looks back in an edited chapter in his tribute tome to the club’s 51 title successes and writes:
ON one day, August 2 2001, Martin O’Neill completed yet another treble – three players arriving on the same day. Intriguingly, one of the arrivals was John Hartson, who, just under a year earlier had failed a medical which had seen a proposed move to Rangers fall through. There were no such snags when the burly Welsh international striker joined the champions in a £6million deal from Coventry City. At the end of the season, Hartson enthused: “I couldn’t possibly in my wildest dreams have wished for it to work out better.”
In the queue that day in the east end of Glasgow to become part of O’Neill’s continuing revolution were utility defender Momo Sylla, at the cost of £750,000 from St Johnstone, and Steve Guppy, the left-winger from his former club Leicester City who was priced at £600,000.
Earlier, man-mountain central defender Bobo Balde had also signed after his French club, Toulouse, had been declared bankrupt. He replaced Ramon Vega, who had been impressive during his loan spell from Spurs. However, the Swiss international couldn’t agree personal terms and eventually signed for Watford.
Joining him in England would be unsettled midfielder Eyal Berkovic, who had cost John Barnes £5.75million from West Ham two years previously. O’Neill offloaded him to Manchester City for a cut-price £1.5million. It must be said the little Israeli, with the obvious disdain for hard work, never looked a good fit right from the first day the Irishman arrived in Glasgow. Moravcik v Berkovic? It was no contest.
O’Neill had always maintained his priority – even above Europe – was to retain the Premier League title and he achieved that feat with a certain amount of flourish and swagger. O’Neill and his charges bludgeoned all before them as they roared to the championship with an awesome total of one hundred and three points, dwarfing last season’s previous best of ninety-seven.
The Parkhead men went eighteen games undefeated until they slipped to their solitary loss against Aberdeen at Pittodrie, 2-0 three days before Christmas where, unfortunately, Rab Douglas played the unwitting role of Santa Claus. To be fair, though, the underfoot conditions that day were nothing short of treacherous.
With four games still to play, Martin O’Neill’s second successive league title was wrapped up on a pleasant April 6 afternoon in front of 59,752 cavorting fans when Henrik Larsson fired in a supreme hat-trick and John Hartson added two in a rampant 5-1 success over Livingston.
The championship had been delivered with style and panache against Jim Leishman’s enterprising line-up that was sitting fourth in the league and determined to gatecrash the party. Larsson wrecked their plans inside three minutes when Paul Lambert and Hartson combined to set up the Swede and he did the rest with his customary aplomb from six yards.
Hartson added a second in nineteen minutes when he viciously volleyed a cross from Didier Agathe behind Javier Sanchez Broto, the Spanish keeper who would join up with the champions in the summer. His Livingston team-mate Davide Fernandez, a sprightly, clever frontman, would also take the same route in a £1million deal.
GLORY BHOYS…Henrik Larsson and John Hartson celebrate the 2002 title success.
Broto was helpless again when Hartson headed in No.3 six minutes later when he got on the end of a clever delivery from Steve Guppy and the ex-Leicester City winger was the provider again for Larsson to knock in the fourth just beyond the half-hour mark. Larsson claimed the matchball with his third goal in sixty minutes and it was left to Barry Wilson to give the small travelling support something to cheer by steering an effort past Rab Douglas late on.
Larsson attempted to play down his contribution to the runaway championship campaign. “I have never made a secret of the great service I and the other strikers get from our team-mates,” he said modestly. “Alan Thompson has been playing well and Paul Lambert provided me with two goals on this occasion.
“We have players who can score goals from back to front and that is what you need in football. It is very hard to rely on one or two players. John and I got the goals today, but the service was absolutely tremendous.”
He added: “You never get used to winning trophies. It feels absolutely fantastic. The title is the trophy we have been playing for all season and the way we did it was tremendous.”
Celtic’s league form had been nothing short of breathtaking. They scored ninety-four goals in their thirty-eight games, clocked up thirty-three wins, four draws and that solitary, irritating blemish at Pittodrie prevented them from going through undefeated. Rangers, their nearest rivals, were eighteen points adrift.
As the club prepared to repel all boarders for a third consecutive season, the wary words of Martin O’Neill came to the fore: “The trick is to keep on winning.”
John Hughes, the club’s seventh highest goalscorer in history, acknowledged ’50 Flags Plus One’ and said: “It’s an amazing journey of several lifetimes.”
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