CELTIC celebrated their 35th championship triumph on this date in 1988 when Billy McNeill’s side overcame Dundee 3-0 in another unforgettable afternoon in the east end of Glasgow.
Plus the Hoops sealed their manager’s return to the club the previous summer by coming from a goal adrift to beat Dundee United 2-1 in the Scottish Cup silverware showpiece to achieve a magnificent league and Cup double in the club’s centenary year.
It was meant to be.
Author Alex Gordon captured a wondrous and sublime campaign in his latest Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One,’ his tribute publication to the 51 untainted crowns in the glorious history of a sporting institution heralded and acknowledged wherever football is played.
In another CQN EXCLUSIVE, Alex turns the clock back with an edited extract from his fifteenth Celtic tome:
READ ALL ABOUT IT…Alex Gordon’s latest Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One’.
ARMS aloft and grinning broadly, Frank McAvennie spun away after tucking the ball into the Rangers net to be serenaded with: “Happy birthday Dear Celtic…happy birthday to yooooooooou.”
On January 2 1988, the fans were in fine voice as a historic and eventful year was ushered in. Watched by a crowd of 60,800, McAvennie had just netted the second goal and the delirious Hoops supporters boomed out the age-old anniversary ditty with thunderous acclaim. McAvennie recalled: “When I scored to make it 2-0, the whole stadium erupted. Everyone seemed to be singing and if there was anyone who did not know this was a special year for the club, they certainly knew at that moment.”
Winning the first Old Firm encounter was the ideal way for Celtic to kick off the Centenary Year. The triumph put Billy McNeill’s men seven points ahead in the league although Rangers had a game in hand. However, to many onlookers, the New Year victory was the one that made the Celtic supporters believe that history was in the making. McAvennie had scored the first a minute from the interval following a raking pass from Paul McStay that set Chris Morris free on the wing. The right-back whipped in a perfect cross and the striker rammed it home from close range.
McNeill said: “I told my players before the game this was the ideal opportunity for us to move further ahead in the title race and I warned them that the exact opposite would be said in the Rangers dressing room. They would want to claw back the deficit and they would see this as an ideal opportunity. But I reminded the players of the fact that we had already beaten them at our place and drawn with them at Ibrox when we really should have won. Victory in this one could very well have a demoralising effect on them.”
ICING ON THE BIRTHDAY CAKE…Frank McAvennie fires a header behind stand-in keeper Graham Roberts to get the party started.
After thirty-four games, Celtic were four points ahead of Rangers and Decision Day arrived on Sunday March 20 when Billy McNeill took his players to Ibrox for the ancient foes’ fourth and final league meeting of the campaign. Graeme Souness was still making optimistic noises, but his words were beginning to ring a little hollow. After this set-to, they sounded as though they were bouncing around an echo chamber. Celtic triumphed 2-1 to take their seventh out of a possible eight points from the Ibrox side and the championship was surely heading towards the east end of Glasgow.
A magical moment from Paul McStay shattered Rangers’ resistance in front of the 43,650 audience. In the sixty-seventh minute, the strutting midfielder hit a shot of such awesome power and stunning accuracy from twenty yards that Chris Woods had no entitlement to even attempt to keep the ball out of the net. The Rangers keeper stretched to his fullest extent, but the shot sped past him. Astonishingly, Rangers dragged themselves back into the game seven minutes later. Full-back Jan Bartram fired in a shot from the edge of the box and Pat Bonner was beaten low down as the ball erratically bounced past him.
The winning goal came in the seventy-ninth minute after some aerial ping-pong in the Ibrox penalty box ended with the quick-thinking Andy Walker chesting the ball beyond a startled Woods. Tommy Burns swung in a delightful left-footed corner from the right, Anton Rogan came in powerfully to direct the ball goalwards and nimble Walker improvised to direct it home from six yards at the far post. They all count. A delighted McNeill said: “I am particularly satisfied with this victory as Rangers played so well. We had to work hard throughout and I thought my players were immense.”
A crowd of 45,465 watched Celtic take on St Mirren in their attempt to move to within two points of the Premier League title. What a way to celebrate one hundred years in the entertainment business. Understandably, the players looked anxious and there was to be no relief when Andy Walker smashed a first-half penalty-kick straight at goalkeeper Campbell Money. However, the elusive frontman atoned just before the hour mark when he finished off a speedy move between Joe Miller and Mark McGhee. Paul McStay made certain eleven minutes from time with an eighteen-yarder that flicked off Brian Martin on its way into the net. Celtic had the opportunity to win the flag in the capital when they took on Hearts at Tynecastle, but they made crucial errors and were punished as the home side won 2-1. Celebrations were put into temporary cold storage.
The Celtic fans were in full throttle when Dundee arrived at Parkhead on Saturday April 23. The record books show an attendance of 60,800, but there are those in the know who say you could add at least another 15,000 to that total. The Celtic board, for reasons known only to themselves, decided not to make the game all-ticket and fans were queuing up overnight to make sure they got in to join the party. Nothing and no-one was going to spoil this day. Referee Alister Huett blew to kick off the carnival and three minutes later he was re-centering the ball – Celtic had scored.
JOY BHOY…Frank McAvennie races away to receive the acclaim of the Celtic support after beating Rangers keeper Chris Woods.
Chris Morris and Andy Walker sliced through the Dens Park rearguard and the adventurous right-back, a worthy successor to Danny McGrain, slammed the ball past the helpless Tom Carson. it remained that way until Walker hit two in a scintillating sixty-second spell. Frank McAvennie set up the first with a neat through ball in the seventy-fifth minute and the lithe attacker rounded the keeper before slamming into the unprotected net. And, within a minute, Walker, thoroughly enjoying his first season in the green and white hoops, squeezed one between Carson and his near post. Job done. Break out the champagne.
“The game every Celtic fan in the world wanted to see was that meeting with Dundee,” reflected Billy McNeill. “The victory gave our supporters something to remember for a long, long time. There seemed to be fans everywhere and it was a smashing birthday party afternoon. The crowd chanted ‘Happy Birthday’ throughout and refused to leave until I came out with the players fifteen minutes after the game had ended. I was still wearing a tracksuit and hadn’t been in the bath, but nobody cared about such details. This was the first time the fans were seeing the team on home territory as the 1988 champions.”
A couple of weeks later, as the sun shone radiantly in the pale blue sky, the flags and scarves rippled in a vivid sea of green and white and the 44,482 fans sang heartily and lustily. The noise was deafening as gallant Dunfermline, relegated after a gruelling campaign, lined up alongside manager Jim Leishman to applaud the champions onto the field on Saturday May 7. It was a fine gesture by the Fifers. Chris Morris claimed the game’s solitary strike in the eleventh minute and the championship had been won with ten points to spare.
Billy McNeill smiled: “We won the championship by a record amount of seventy-two points. It was a thirty-fifth championship for Celtic and my fourth as a manager plus nine previously while playing. A proud moment, indeed.”
The recollection of an eventful 1987/88 season is told with insider knowledge by 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”.
John Hughes, the club’s seventh highest goalscorer in history, adds: “It’s an amazing journey of several lifetimes.”
You can purchase your copy here – and receive a copy of ‘SEVILLE: The Celtic Movement’, rrp £18.99, absolutely FREE.