SMILES AMID THE SORROW: THE ROAD TO SEVILLE: Part Five

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CELTIC came so close to their second European trophy when they played Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the UEFA Cup Final in Seville 21 years ago this week.

Alas, fated Martin O’Neill’s team of All-Stars, with Henrik Larsson leading the way, would suffer a glorious failure when their 10 men, minues red-carded Bobo Balde, lost 3-2 in extra-time.

Author Alex Gordon vividly captures the setting of a colourful episode in the club’s glorious history.

In Part Five of another¬†CQN EXCLUSIVE, Alex concludes his in-depth look of 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.

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 overcome, 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.

SEVILLE HUDDLE…Celtic players prepare for the UEFA Cup Final.

Over the course of the 120 dramatic 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.

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.

SEVILLE LINE-UP…Back Row (left to right): Bobo Balde, Johan Mjallby, Chris Sutton, Rab Douglas and Didier Agathe; Front Row: Stiliyan Petrov, Neil Lennon, Joos Valgaeren, Alan Thompson, Henrik Larsson and Paul Lambert.

Deco seized on the opportunity, swept a cross to the unmarked Dmitri Alenichev at an angle 10 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.

THE OLD ONE-TWO…Henrik Larsson watches his header soar past stranded Porto keeper Vitor Baia for Celtic’s first goal and (below) the Swede takes off to launch another unstoppable effort into the net for the Hoops’ second equaliser.

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 57th 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.

DOWN AND OUT…Rab Douglas is crestfallen in Seville.

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.

PAIN IN SPAIN…Ulrik Laursen, Henrik Larsson and Johan Mjallby await their runners-up medals after their extra-time loss.

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.

‘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.’

ENDGAME…Celtic’s hopes of Euro glory are scuppered and it’s hard to take for Neil Lennon and Henrik Larsson.

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 Stiliyan 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.’

HAIL, HAIL…Martin O’Neill and his dejected Celtic players acknowledge the wonderful Hoops support in the Spanish city.

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.’

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.

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.

IRISH SIGHS…a disappointed Martin O’Neill at the medal presentation.

‘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.’

SO NEAR AND YET SO FAR…two-goal Henrik Larsson can only think of what might have been as he views the glittering UEFA Cup.

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 a 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.

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