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THE FRENCH CONNECTION 2: BIG TG’S GLORY AND HENRIK’S HORROR

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CELTIC are planning for an assault on the Champions League with their first obstacle being provided by big-spending Paris Saint-Germain at Parkhead on Tuesday, September 12.

The Hoops have faced French opposition seven times in the past with five wins, six defeats and three draws from the 14 games.

The sequence kicked off in the historic 1966/67 season when Jock Stein’s team, after knocking out the Swiss champions FC Zurich on a 5-0 aggregate in the opening round, beat Nantes 3-1 in both legs home and away.

In the second instalment of our four-day series, we look at some more tough and tense occasions against the teams from France.

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CELTIC were in grave danger of making another quickfire exit from the European Cup – only two years after their historic achievement in Lisbon on May 25, 1967.

Following the shock 3-2 aggregate loss against Kiev Dynamo at the first stage the previous season, Jock Stein’s men faced a second leg against French cracks St Etienne two goals adrift with many critics claiming the club’s bubble had well and truly burst.

Celtic, though, were never a collection of determined individuals with a similarly-minded manager to prematurely wave the white flag of surrender. On a calm, still evening in the east end of Glasgow on October 2, 1968, the Hoops were to once again emphasise their right to participate among Europe’s elite.

Wave after wave of attacks perished on the rocks of a stubborn French defence until a mere minute was left of the first-half. Joe McBride was sent tumbling and the referee immediately pointed to the spot.

Once again, it was a job for Big TG, cavalier left-back Tommy Gemmell with the penchant for almost ripping the net away with the ferocity of his deadball efforts.

In his autobiography, ‘All The Best’, published by CQN, the late, great Celt put it this way: “I recall their keeper moving his arms and legs before I took that spot-kick.

“The goalies weren’t allowed to move their feet in those days, they had to be planted on the goal-line, but they could move other parts of their body.

“We were 2-0 down on aggregate at the time and were drawing 0-0 with the half-time whistle about to blow when we were awarded that penalty-kick. It was absolutely crucial that I stuck it in the pokey.

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“I battered it with everything I had and it went straight up, struck the underside of the crossbar and, thankfully, flew into the net.

“We scored three after the interval to win 4-2 on aggregate.”

Celtic had to wait another 17 years before they again came up against French resistance in Europe, this time the Cup-Winners’ Cup in season 1995/96. They were drawn against this month’s opponents Paris Saint-Germain in the second round of the Cup-Winners’ Cup with the first leg due in the French capital on October 19.

Tommy Burns’ men gave a reasonable account of themselves before losing 1-0, but giant Dutchman Pierre van Hooijdonk realised he should have given the visitors a valuable draw late in the game. The striker was left with a clear header virtually under the crossbar, but, amazingly, nodded the ball wide of the target.

It was a horrible – and costly – miss.

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In the 25th minute of the return at Parkhead, PSG’s eccentric keeper Bernard Lama thwarted Andy Walker with a flying save to tip his goalbound header around the post. It was a fabulous save that turned the game in favour of the visitors.

Unfortunately, Celtic shotstopper Gordon Marshall could not emulate the heroics of his opposite number and he presented PSG with a goal in the 34th minute after fumbling a low shot from Laurent Fournier and Patrice Loko followed up to smash the ball into the inviting net.

Seven minutes later, Loko volleyed a second into the net and Celtic were left reeling and heading out of the tournament. They needed four goals in the second-half and it was a mountain too steep for this team.

In the 68th minute, PSG claimed a third and the European dream was over for another campaign.

The next confrontation against a top-level French outfit came during John Barnes’ short and disastrous reign as Hoops manager in season 1999/2000. On this occasion, Celtic were drawn against Olympique Lyon and the away meeting on October 21 had dire and long-term consequences for the team and their boss.

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Henrik Larsson tangled with Lyon’s Serge Blanc in only the 12th minute. The outcome of the challenge was a broken leg that would keep the Swedish superstar out until the last game of the season, long after Barnes had collected his P45 and Kenny Dalglish had taken over in the dug-out in a caretaker basis.

It just wasn’t Celtic’s night in the UEFA Cup second round clash in front of 37,500 frenzied fans. Ironically, Blanc, who was completely blameless in the incident, rifled in the only goal of the evening in the 61st minute.

A crowd of almost 55,000 turned out for the return a fortnight later, but, unfortunately, the technically-superior French triumphed by an identical scoreline. This time it was Tony Vairelles who hit the winner in only the 17th minute to silence the home support.

It was abundantly clear the Hoops were going to miss the talismanic Larsson.

In the summer, Martin O’Neill arrived to take over and suddenly there was renewed hope among those of a Celtic persuasion.

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* TOMORROW: THE FRENCH CONNECTION PART THREE

Read Part 1 HERE

LISTEN to the Thomas “Kidso” Reilly story on the current edition of the CQN Podcast…

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