TODAY marks the nineteen anniversary of Celtic’s unforgettable evening in the Spanish city of Seville.
It was an occasion where Martin O’Neill’s team were fated to lose to their opponents in a breathtaking UEFA Cup finale during a dramatic extra-time confrontation.
The adventure turned into a celebration for the wonderful Hoops support, lauded throughout the world for their behaviour, even in defeat.
Author Alex Gordon vividly captures the setting of a colourful episode in the club’s glorious history.
In another CQN EXCLUSIVE, Alex presents the entire chapter devoted to the momentous European run in his tribute publication, ‘The Winds of Change’, published by CQN in 2015.
Please enjoy a walk down memory lane.
THERE is such a thing as glorious failure. There could only be one winner in Seville on the epic evening of May 21 2003 in the most dramatic of UEFA Cup Finals and the fates decreed, alas, the ultimate destination of the glistening trophy would not be the east end of Glasgow.
The most amazing and colourful support in the world of football staged a friendly invasion on the Spanish city as they looked forward with unprecedented enthusiasm to the meeting of Martin O’Neill’s Celtic and Jose Mourinho’s Porto at the vast arena of the Olimpico Stadium where the official attendance would be given as 52,972.
Days before the kick-off, there were estimates of between eighty thousand and one hundred thousand Celtic supporters in the capital of southern Spain’s Andalusia region. Over thirty thousand are thought to have been in the ground.
Vivid, brilliant sunbeams smiled on the sparkling setting of gaiety and merriment. The blazing greens and the whites and the golds that fluttered in the welcome breeze and adorned the stadium hours before the commencement of the contest added to the breathtaking kaleidoscopic scenery. The Portuguese supporters indulged, too, with their blue and white flags prominent in their designated areas.
But the Olimpico Stadium belonged to Celtic supporters the moment Paul Lambert led out the team with the knowledge they were one game away from the club winning their second European trophy, adding to the spectacular success of the Lisbon Lions thirty-six years earlier.
THE SCENE IS SET…Celtic and Porto players line up before the spectacular in Seville.
With painstaking precision, O’Neill, as ever, had agonised over his final selection. The strengths and weaknesses of all the players at his disposal would be poured over time and time again. The Irishman was rarely given to spontaneity in such circumstances. He worked overtime on his strategies, especially in the competitive European arena.
Celtic had played twelve games to reach this terminus. The challenges of FK Sudova, Blackburn Rovers, Celta Vigo, Stuttgart, Liverpool and Boavista had been met and answered, all interrogations of Celtic’s ability repelled. The ultimate prize was now within touching distance.
After the anxiety, the self-questioning and the soul-searching, O’Neill went with this line-up: Rab Douglas; Johan Mjallby, Bobo Balde, Joos Valgaeren; Didier Agathe, Neil Lennon, Paul Lambert, Stilian Petrov, Alan Thompson; Chris Sutton and Henrik Larsson. Over the course of the one hundred and twenty minutes, Ulrik Laursen, Jackie McNamara and Shaun Maloney would replace Valgaeren, Lambert and Petrov. Magnus Hedman, Momo Sylla, Davide Fernandez and Jamie Smith would remain on the substitutes’ bench.
John Hartson, unfortunately, was out altogether with a debilitating back injury. It was a line-up enriched with many talents and fused with a multitude of fluctuating skills, not least those the gods had bestowed upon the incomparable Henrik Larsson, who would score his two-hundredth goal for the club against the Portuguese. The passion, desire and ambition among the Celtic players came to the fore as soon as the game went into motion.
THE ENTRUSTED ELEVEN…Back row (left to right): Bobo Balde, Johan Mjallby, Chris Sutton, Rab Douglas and Didier Agathe. Front row: Stan Petrov, Neil Lennon, Joos Valgaeren, Alan Thompson, Henrik Larsson and Paul Lambert.
There was the usual sparring until the stroke of half-time when a dreadful piece of defending from Belgian left-back Valgaeren undid Celtic. Goalkeeper Vitor Baia actually miskicked the ball forward and it was helped on its way by a colleague. Valgaeren collected the ball and, with no-one pressing him, sliced a clearance that ricocheted off the startled Balde.
Deco seized on the opportunity, swept a cross to the unmarked Dmitri Alenichev at an angle ten yards out and the Russian rammed in a low shot to Douglas’ left. Unfortunately, the keeper couldn’t hold onto the rasping effort and pushed it sideways where Porto had the Brazilian Derlei lurking to fire in from close range. It was a sore one to take at such a crucial stage of the encounter.
Two minutes after the turnaround, Larsson got his magical double century for the club. Didier Agathe provided a superb diagonal cross from the right and the spring-heeled Swede leapt above Ricardo Costa to send a soaring header away from the helpless Baia. Unfortunately, O’Neill’s side could not hold onto their lead for longer than seven minutes when some trickery from Deco allowed him to set up Alenichev who tucked it beyond Douglas.
Unusually, lenient Slovakian referee Lubos Michel allowed the Porto players a full minute of celebrating with their fans on the far corner of the running track. O’Neill, through gritted teeth, later observed, ‘I thought they were all going into town for a drink.’
Back came that man Larsson, though, and his strength in the air proved masterful again as he rose to a Thompson right-wing corner-kick in the fifty-seventh minute to bury another searing header away from the much-vaunted Baia. Both teams had chances before the action stretched into extra-time.
A moment of rashness from Balde, with a tackle on Deco, saw the match official flourish a second yellow card and banish the centre-half. The advantage passed to the Portuguese and, five minutes from the end of an exhausting occasion, they scored the winner. Once again, fates conspired and, unfortunately, Celtic were on the receiving end of a snarl.
NUMBER ONE…Henrik Larsson’s header floats beyond the startled Vitor Baia.
Douglas slid out at the feet of Marco Ferreira and required strong hands and complete concentration. He didn’t make a clean contact and the ball rolled back to Derlei, who stepped inside and clipped a weak shot at goal. The ball took a nick off the scrambling goalkeeper and that was enough to deflect it past Mjallby and then Laursen on the goal-line. Ironically, if Douglas hadn’t got a touch on that occasion there was every chance either the Swede or the Dane would have cleared.
It wasn’t to be Celtic’s night. Referee Michel balanced the red card count when he sent off Nino Valente in the last minute for a cynical foul on Thompson as he cut in from the right to bring the ball to his lethal left foot. Substitute Maloney thumped the resultant free-kick high over the bar and Celtic’s last chance of carving something from this game was gone.
O’Neill had been far from impressed with the antics and play-acting of Mourinho’s players throughout the two hours. He said, ‘I will probably get into trouble for this, but there was a lack of sportsmanship. The rolling over, the time wasting. But they have beaten us, well done to them and it’s up to us to learn from this.
HANDS UP IF YOU’VE JUST SCORED A GOAL…Henrik Larsson celebrates with Stan Petrov and Alan Thompson.
‘It is a steep learning curve, but this was a wonderful, wonderful experience. The players put everything into it. We came roaring back every time they scored a goal and, when we had eleven against eleven in extra-time, I think we were the more mentally strong. But it was not to be with Bobo getting sent off. It was a massive blow.’
Henrik Larsson – hailed as ‘world class’ by O’Neill – insisted his two goals meant little to him. He said, ‘It is no consolation whatsoever. I’ve said before, I’d much rather not score and be able to lift the UEFA Cup, than to score twice and finish up on the losing side. There’s nothing to be happy about, but now we have to find a way to lift ourselves.’
A distraught Stilian Petrov, fighting his emotions, said, ‘I thought we deserved to win. It was really hard to walk past the UEFA Cup without being able to pick it up. But I think our performance will have made the supporters proud of us and we did Scotland proud as well.’
Didier Agathe, equally inconsolable, said, ‘It’s very hard to accept because we put so much effort into it, coming from behind twice, but that’s football. However, it’s good to know that Scottish football is good enough to compete at a high level in Europe.’
And, yet, at some stages of the colourful procession towards Seville, there were critics only too willing to write off O’Neill and his players; mainly, unsurprisingly, from across the border, principally Blackburn and Liverpool.
NUMBER TWO…Henrik Larsson rises and shines as he thumps in the second equaliser.
Celtic only featured in the UEFA Cup after failing to manoeuvre their way past Basle in the Champions League Third Round qualifier. The entire European campaign got off to a shocker when the Swiss side scored after only eighty-one seconds at Parkhead on August 14 in front of a stunned crowd of 58,530. Joos Valgaeren failed to cut out a through ball from Julio Rossi that ran to Christian Gimenez and the Argentinian striker made a mess of his shot. But it was enough to leave Rab Douglas flat-footed as it rolled gently towards the net.
Within two minutes, the Scottish champions were level when Henrik Larsson thumped home a penalty-kick after Stilian Petrov had been felled in the box by Marco Zwyssig. Six minutes after the interval, Neil Lennon tried his luck from thirty yards and Chris Sutton spotted keeper Pasacl Zuberbuhler moving to his right to deal with the danger. Instinctively, he shot out his foot and directed the ball into the other corner.
Larsson spurned the chance to claim a third in the sixty-third minute when Spanish referee Manuel Gonzalez awarded another spot-kick after Murat Yakin’s handball. The Swede drove the ball down the middle and the keeper scrambled it to safety. Two minutes from time, Momo Sylla volleyed in the third from a Steve Guppy cross to allay some of the anxiety.
Thirteen days later, the Champions League trip was over, Celtic losing 2-0 at the St.Jakob Stadium to go out on the goals away rule. Gimenez and Yakin struck in the first twenty-two minutes to extinguish any hopes of the club picking up the welcome £15million bounty that came with qualification to the group stages.
O’Neill said, ‘I’m obviously very disappointed, but we didn’t play well enough in the first-half. In the second-half, we threw everything at them, but it wasn’t to be. Now we will see what happens in the UEFA Cup.’
THREE CHEERS…Henrik Larsson celebrates with Joos Valgaeren and Alan Thompson.
Celtic cleared the first hurdle with effortless ease, winning 8-1 at home against the earnest Lithuanians of FK Suduva in the first leg and 2-0 in the return. It was deemed fitting Henrik Larsson should score the first goal in the run to the Final when he netted in sixteen minutes. Before half-an-hour had passed, the Swede had collected a hat-trick and, in doing so, hoisted himself level with Ally McCoist on the European record of twenty-one goals. He would render the Rangers player’s feat obsolete in the next round.
O’Neill’s men were coasting in Glasgow against opponents who appeared to appreciate the guile and expertise of the Scottish team. Stilian Petrov and Chris Sutton scored to make it 5-0 at the interval and Paul Lambert, John Hartson and Joos Valgaeren chipped in to take the score to 8-0 with a minute to go. The fans wondered if Celtic could match their all-time best of 9-0 against the Finns of Kokkola in 1970, but a mistake by Rab Douglas, with a sloppy pass, cost the side a goal, Tomas Radinevicius claiming the consolation.
It was chilly and overcast in the second leg, but Davide Fernandez, the Spaniard making a rare appearance, got the opener in the twelfth minute and Alan Thompson added a second before half-time. The game was played at walking pace in the second period, but Didier Agathe decided to illuminate proceedings with an eye-catching slalom run down the right touchline while beating five defenders in a mazy, solo surge into the penalty area.
Unfortunately, he didn’t get past a sixth opponent who flattened him. John Hartson might have made a better attempt with the resultant spot-kick to, at least, give his team-mate some sort of consolation, but, alas, the Welshman’s weak effort from twelve yards didn’t even hit the target.
LET’S GO AGAIN…Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton and Paul Lambert prepare to restart after a Porto goal.
As the luck of the draw would have it, Graeme Souness and his Blackburn Rovers team were the next obstacle to be placed in Celtic’s path. The former Rangers manager grimaced when he heard the ballot and, in a moment of light-hearted badinage, quipped, ‘I’ll need to look out the old tin helmet for Parkhead.’
On his club’s visit on October 31, Souness made all the right noises in public, but away from the TV cameras and the reporters’ notebooks, he was supremely confident of the outcome; the Celtic players would not be requiring passports for football journeys beyond the middle of November.
In truth, O’Neill’s men failed to spark in the first leg and had to rely on a goal from Larsson five minutes from time for a slender advantage to take across the border for the second meeting on November 14.
Souness made the usual soothing, middle-of-the-road noises in Glasgow in the aftermath of his side’s defeat, but his cover was blown by his own captain, Garry Flitcroft, when he talked to the press. Dodging the niceties that are normally observed on these occasions, the Englishman blabbed, ‘The gaffer has just said that was men against boys out there.’ Martin O’Neill didn’t have to work too hard on his player motivational skills when that quote became public.
A Celtic team, with the likes of Larsson, Sutton and Hartson, were well up for the second tie. Once it was known what Souness really thought of the opposing team, he went on record on the day of the game. ‘If Celtic score one, then we can score three,’ he postured. ‘Hopefully, by 10pm tonight, people will be saying, “Bloody hell, that Blackburn Rovers are a good side” and we’ll be in the next round.’
MY BALL…Paul Lambert slides in an attempt to rob Porto’s Brazilian dangerman Deco.
Seldom have the acoustics been so good at Ewood Park where vast swathes of green and white embraced a grey, old ground. Around ten thousand Celtic fans brought colour to a drab part of Lancashire and they had every reason to enjoy their visit to the home of Souness. There were quizzical looks swapped among the Blackburn Rovers players as the Parkhead side dominated proceedings. They had faced a ghost team in Glasgow, but they were now asked to deal with the real thing. They weren’t up to the task.
Inside fifteen minutes, they were a goal adrift and two on aggregate when Didier Agathe and Chris Sutton combined to set Henrik Larsson free and he nimbly lifted the ball over Brad Friedel. The Darwen End of Ewood Park resembled the east end of Glasgow as the entertainment flowed from Celtic. Sutton, a former Rovers player, put the finishing touches to his old team’s hopes of progression when he claimed the second with a header in the sixty-eighth minute.
At the time, there had been a lot of informed reporting about Celtic wanting to move across the border to play their football. The Rovers fans taunted, ‘You’ll never play in England’ and by the end, on the evidence of this confrontation, Souness and Blackburn Rovers should have been grateful.
There were gleeful cries of ‘Ole!’ and ‘Easy…easy!’ as Lennon passed the ball to Sutton who touched it to Hartson who knocked it to Larsson who switched it to Thompson. ‘Can we play you every week?’ resounded round the ground. Souness had watched his team being out-played while the home fans were out-sung. It was a very comprehensive, sound beating for the English team.
THE RACE IS ON…speedy Celt Didier Agathe tussles for possession.
Celta Vigo, a skilful Spanish outfit, came out of the ballot for the Third Round, the first tie again in Glasgow due for November 28. French referee Claude Columbo spoiled the game as a spectacle with some bizarre decisions and Martin O’Neill was eventually banished to the stand by the incompetent match official after the Irishman could contain his frustration no longer.
Henrik Larsson was the man who mattered again with the only goal in the fifty-second minute in front of a crowd of 53,726. It was typical Larsson as the Swede reacted more quickly than anyone else to rise above defenders and head home after Bobo Balde had nodded on a Steve Guppy corner-kick.
O’Neill said, ‘The referee’s performance left a lot to be desired. He tried to ruin what was a brilliant evening for us. But that’s enough talking about it because the referee did detract from our performance. Our players, however, were terrific against a top-class side. We got the goal we deserved and we should have scored a few more. I couldn’t have higher praise for the team.’ Celta Vigo coach Miguel Angel Lotina sniffed, ‘I wasn’t very impressed by Celtic. I knew it would be more or less like this, but I was more impressed by the atmosphere.’
CRUNCH…a determined Chris Sutton tries to power past a Porto defender.
It was taut and tight in the return and Celtic urgently required a superb strike from John Hartson to get through on the goals away rule after the game had been tied at 2-2. A wicked deflection from Ulrik Laursen sent a shot from Jesuli past Rab Douglas to hand the initiative to the Galician team in the twenty-fourth minute. Celtic, however, recovered heroically and Hartson plundered his so-important goal in the thirty-sixth minute. The brawny frontman got on the end of a Chris Sutton flick before defender Eduardo Berizzo to slide a low drive beyond keeper Jose Pinto at his far post.
In a match without respite, the Spaniards took the lead on the night in the fifty-fourth minute when Benni McCarthy stole ahead of Bobo Balde to get to a Gustavo Lopez cross and clip the ball away from Douglas. The last half-hour was frantic and O’Neill took off Hartson to replace him with Jackie McNamara who went straight into the backline. The tactic worked and Celtic went into the draw for the last 16 the following morning.
The Celtic manager said, ‘It was a terrific effort from the players to beat Celta Vigo over two legs , but I have to admit it was a long last forty-five minutes. They have some useful players, so we needed a great performance to get through. We conceded a bad goal at a bad time, but we did well to get the equaliser and we hung on in the second-half. It was backs-to-the-wall stuff near the end. It’s a great night for the club to be in Europe beyond Christmas for the first time in twenty-three years. Full credit to the players – they created a bit of history tonight.’
DEJECTED…Rab Douglas is alone with his thoughts at full-time.
Going for the ‘Sore Loser of the Season’ award, Celta boss Lotina moaned, ‘They gave us a very good game, but we should have scored a third goal and gone ahead to win the round. Celta Vigo would have been better winners and deserved to win more than Celtic.’
The Parkhead side were given a February double date with Stuttgart in the next stage. And O’Neill faced the Bundesliga outfit without the talismanic Henrik Larsson, out with a double fracture of the jaw sustained in the previous game, a 2-1 home win over Livingston. John Hartson, too, was sidelined through suspension.
However, it looked as though things were swinging the Glasgow side’s way when Brazilian Marcelo Bordon, the German club’s strongman centre-half, was sent off for a professional foul on Shaun Maloney in only sixteen minutes by Italian referee Pierluigi Collina. Incredibly, they took the lead ten minutes later through a header from their highly-rated frontman Kevin Kuranyi.
Immediately, Celtic stepped up the tempo and Paul Lambert levelled in the thirty-ninth minute with a controlled drive into the corner of the net . On the stroke of half-time, Maloney, Larsson’s deputy alongside Chris Sutton in central attack, snapped onto an Alan Thompson pass and stroked the ball wide of Tino Hilderbrand.
The keeper was beaten again in the sixty-eighth minute when a shrewd pass from Lambert released Stilian Petrov and he squeezed a shot between the keeper and the near post to wrap it up at 3-1. O’Neill welcomed the win, but, at the same time, realised such a scoreline did not guarantee progress in Europe. ‘We know what we have to do in Germany,’ he said tersely.
TRIO OF TEARS…Ulrik Laursen, Henrik Larsson and Johan Mjallby at the end.
There was an unlikely scenario after only fifteen minutes in the Gottlieb-Daimler stadium on February 27 with the visitors leading 2-0 on the night and 5-1 on aggregate with goals from Thompson and Sutton. Stuttgart, who were sitting third in the German top flight, were rattled, but, with right-back Andreas Hinkel, a future Celt, forcing them on, they came back into the contest and Christian Tiffert hauled one back with a header in the thirty-eighth minute.
Fifteen minutes from time Alexander Helb made it 2-2 and three minutes from time Michael Mutzel gave Felix Magath’s side a victory on the night, but Celtic advanced 5-4 on aggregate much to the delight of their manager.
O’Neill said, ‘We’re through and that’s what matters. We also deserve to be in the quarter-finals. This was another marvellous effort and, although I became more nervous than necessary for us late on, I thought, by and large, we were in command. The start was excellent and exactly what we wanted and from there we should probably have won the game. But Stuttgart are a quality team. We have achieved another excellent result over two legs.’
Europe was beginning to take notice of the upstarts from Scotland who had now knocked out teams from the English Premiership, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga to get within two rounds of the UEFA Cup Final and a date with destiny in Seville. Liverpool were next to attempt the derailment of the steady progress being shown by O’Neill and his team.
SO LONG, SEVILLE…Martin O’Neill and his players salute the Celtic fans following the medal presentation.
Singer Gerry Marsden led 59,759 fans in a highly-charged version of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ before kick-off. And, in one hundred seconds, Larsson, returning ahead of schedule after being out for five weeks with a broken jaw, put Celtic ahead with the roof threatening to be lifted somewhere in the direction of George Cross as the decibel level reached a deafening intensity.
John Hartson mishit a ball across goal, Alan Thompson turned it into the goalmouth and the eager Larsson was lightning swift as he diverted an effort beyond Jerzy Dudek. However, the Anfield side quickly recovered, regrouped and settled into a game of containment.
Having weathered the early storm, with Hartson also clipping the bar with a fierce drive, Gerard Houllier’s side stealthily moved forward and left-back John Arne Riise raced away before setting up Emile Heskey at an angle in the box. The striker’s finish was meticulous as he rolled it wide of Rab Douglas at the far post. Dudek was the busier of the two goalkeepers throughout the remainder of the tie as there were no alterations to the scoreline.
The evening was somewhat marred by the filthy actions of Liverpool’s disgusting El-Hadji Diouff who spat at Celtic fans as he went to collect the ball for a throw-in. His needless act would have been deemed even more despicable if there had ever been any shred of evidence the Senegalese actually possessed even the most infinitesimal quantity of grey matter.
ANGUISH…Paul Lambert cannot disguise the pain of defeat.
Liverpool were favourites to finish the job at Anfield, but Neil Lennon well remembers the speech that Martin O’Neill delivered to his players in the dressing room just before kick-off. ‘Everyone, but everyone, had predicted our demise, but at that point Martin showed his mettle. He gave us an unforgettable talk. Personally, I didn’t think we needed much motivation as we were all sure of ourselves and positive that we would compete and get a result. Yet Martin’s words inspired us to even greater heights of determination.
‘He looked around the dressing room and pointed out young Shaun Maloney. “This is a European quarter-final and this boy is only nineteen, but he might never get this opportunity again.” He looked around the older guys and added, “You guys in your thirties probably won’t get the opportunity again to prove a point, to prove to England and Europe that you deserve respect and that you are worthy of a place in the semi-finals.”
‘He made his points tellingly in his usual manner and did so in two or three minutes, yet by the time he had finished, we were ready to go out there and run through brick walls if we needed to.’
The Anfield side, with Steven Gerrard the main man in the middle of the park and with the ‘Litte and Large’ striking team of Michael Owen and Heskey leading the attack, didn’t make much headway in the opening minutes although Dietmar Hamann let Rab Douglas know he was on the pitch with a rasping drive that carried just over the crossbar. Dudek made a glorious save from a Henrik Larsson free-kick, John Hartson twice missed the target with headers and, at the other end, Rab Douglas made a breathtaking stop from a vicious effort from Gerrard.
THE GALLANT LOSERS…Celtic stars Ulrik Laursen, Henrik Larsson, Johan Mjallby, Jackie McNamara and Paul Lambert are presented with their runners-up medals.
However, as the game flowed towards half-time, Celtic were beginning to grow in confidence. On the verge of the interval, defender Djimi Traore tugged at Larsson’s shirt and German referee Michael Merk awarded the free-kick twenty-five yards out. Everything now depended on the educated left foot of Alan Thompson and, also, no little cunning from the perceptive midfielder. As the wall of red line up in front of him, the Englishman decided to vary his deadball routine.
Goalkeeper Dudek stood crouched on his line, no doubt having already studied videos of his opponent’s technique on such occasions. Larsson ran over the ball and Thompson left the Pole standing open-mouthed in anguish and horror as he speared a low drive underneath the leaping wall, the ball going under the feet of Gerrard, as it reached its destination at the left-hand post.
Near the end, Hartson scored the goal of a lifetime. He played a swift combination with Larsson and moved off to his right, eluding a challenge from Hamann. The Welsh heavyweight hardly glimpsed at Dudek before he summoned up awesome power into the crucial moment of impact and his twenty-five yard pulverising drive raged over the keeper’s left shoulder as it screeched towards the top corner of his net.
NO REWARD…two-goal hero Henrik Larsson and Neil Lennon at time-up.
Lennon, in his excellent autobiography, ‘Man and Bhoy’, recalled it like this, ‘About half-an-hour into the second-half, Big John Hartson was going through a wee dodgy period and gave the ball away a couple of times. So, I said, “Hey, you, hold that ball.” Then he turned round and to me and said, “You shut up or I’ll rip your head off”. Something like that. Words to that effect, anyway. Two minutes later, I played it into him and he shrugged off Hyppia, played a one-two with Henrik and lashed one into the top corner. That was the best moment for me in the whole tournament, that goal. Just to see the Big Man wheel away to our fans and looking at our bench and you know that you are 3-1 up with ten minutes to go and there is just no way back for Liverpool.’
O’Neill was breathless at the end. He remarked, ‘That was an extraordinary result. It was hard for us early on, but I just told the players to hang on. They deserve all the credit in the world.’ However, without getting carried away, the Irishman added, ‘Certainly, we have a chance of going through to win the competition, but all the teams left in are capable of beating us.’
Celtic, Boavista, Porto and Lazio went into the semi-final draw. The Parkhead side were paired with Boavista, Portuguese opponents they had beaten 3-1 on aggregate in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in season 1975/76, while Jose Mourinho’s side were due to face the Serie A outfit. Porto made short work of disposing of their opponents, winning 4-1 at home and drawing 0-0 in Italy.
It was a bit more problematic for O’Neill in their bid to reach the UEFA Cup Final. The first game, yet again, would be at home and a difficult task became even more daunting when the unfortunate Joos Valgaeren diverted a cross from Joaquim Martilenho past Rab Douglas three minutes after the break.
DESPAIR…Johan Mjallby’s expression says it all.
Celtic’s reply was instantaneous. A cross from Lennon was knocked into Larsson’s path and he drilled the ball home from eight yards for his twenty-sixth European goal for the club and his thirty-seventh for the season. However, the Swede passed up an outstanding opportunity to send the Parkhead side to Portugal a fortnight later with a lead.
Fifteen minutes from time, Belgian referee Frank de Bleeckere awarded them a penalty-kick after a shot from Thompson was handled by panicking Portuguese defender Eder. Larsson lined up the kick and thumped it low to Ricardo’s right, but the keeper’s guess was accurate and he got across his line to beat the ball to safety.
O’Neill was upbeat afterwards. ‘All I know is that we have to score over there and I think we will. We are still well in this game, there is no doubt about that. After we had drawn with Liverpool here, there was an air of despondency in the dressing room and around the stadium. But we resolved that problem and we can do it again, I’m sure.’
There were only twelve minutes left in the second game with Boavista content to keep the ball, safe in the knowledge Valgaeren’s own goal would be enough to get them through to an all-Portuguese UEFA Cup Final. It had been a fairly dour affair, but no-one with a Celtic connection was too upset when, almost inevitably, Larsson struck yet again. The Swede attempted a one-two in the packed penalty box and his pass hit Filipe Anunciacao and rebounded back to him. This time his predatory instinct revealed itself and he clinically stabbed the ball past the astonished Ricardo.
THE NEARLY MAN…Martin O’Neill looks at the glittering prize.
The ball was over the line and nothing the desperate Boavista players could do in the remaining minutes would prevent Celtic from reaching their first European Final in thirty-three years. The travelling fans enveloped the Do Besso stadium in the midst of pure euphoria, emotion and elation at full-time.
Larsson agreed there was a little bit of good fortune at his goal. ‘I tried to slip the ball to John Hartson, but, thankfully, the defender slide-tackled and the ball came back to me. I didn’t get much on it and it certainly didn’t go in the right direction, but it doesn’t matter, we got one in the end.’
A relieved O’Neill commented, ‘Over the two games, we deserve it. They were so negative with their diving and time-wasting and eventually it came back to haunt them. I’m delighted for everyone at the club, the players and the supporters. I’ve always said it’s about those who pay and those who play. We know it will be difficult against Porto, but there is no reason we can’t win it.’
And, so, to Seville and a never-to-be-forgotten spectacle. Martin O’Neill’s mentor, Brian Clough, admitted he felt sorry for his former Nottingham Forest player, but also added he believed Celtic had been robbed. Clough, who was by this time retired and delightfully dotty at the age of sixty-eight, had his own unique take on the game.
SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR AWAY…Henrik Larsson gazes forlornly at the UEFA Cup.
He said, ‘I would have handed the UEFA Cup to Celtic in Seville. What was the referee thinking allowing the Porto players to run off the pitch for minutes on end to celebrate their goals? You can’t do that. One player leaves the field to celebrate a goal with his fans and he will get booked. Porto had an entire team disappearing to celebrate. If I had been the referee, I would have taken a note of all the players who had already been booked and I would have waited for them when they came back onto the pitch.
‘I would have said, “Sorry, son, that’s another yellow card, now off you go.” All the others would have been booked. And if they disappeared into the horizon after a goal, I would have been waiting for them again. “Sorry, son, you’ve got to go, too.” I’ve no idea how many players would still have been on the pitch by the end of the game wearing Porto colours. I think UEFA would have had to present the trophy to Martin and Celtic.’
It wasn’t a completely barren evening for Celtic. The supporters, marvellous throughout their stay in Seville and, in fact, the journey all the way to the Final, won the coveted FIFA Fairplay Award and Seville’s mayor, Alfredo Sanchez Monteserin, gave them this ringing endorsement, ‘You should feel proud to have such fans as these in Glasgow who give their city and country a good name.’
Yes, there is such a thing as glorious failure.