GORDON STRACHAN has been swift to come out in defence of under-pressure Neil Lennon.
The former Celtic manager called for unity among the support as the champions face an almighty battle to claw back 22 points as they maintain their focus on 10 in a row.
The Hoops have four games in hand and are well aware that this evening rearranged match against Hibs at Parkhead is a must-win encounter.
Strachan has continued to back Lennon, despite some shock reversals.
But back on the Tuesday evening of August 2 2005, it was Lennon, then the club captain, who lent his support to his beleaguered gaffer after Celtic had toppled out of the Champions League at the qualifying stage, beaten 5-4 on aggregate by Artmedia Bratsilava.
Martin O’Neill’s successor had presided over the-then heaviest European defeat in the club’s history with a five-goal nosedive in the first leg in the Slovakian capital.
Strachan, struggling to keep his emotions under control, said: “This is the worst night of my footballing life. I’m still in shock.”
Later on, he added: “When I die, I reckon the inscription on my headstone should read: ‘This is much better than Bratislava’.”
READ ALL ABOUT IT…Alex Gordon’s latest Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One’.
Ahead of the second leg against Artmedia, Strachan remained obstinately positive: “We know what we have to do. It’s all there in front of us. We’ll give it everything.”
A stipulation to his players that was never made public was his insistence in scoring two goals in the opening forty-five minutes without conceding.
The Slovakians were almost swept off the pitch as Parkhead rocked to its foundations with a crowd of 50,063 in a ferment. Green-and-white hooped players swarmed around, posing threats from all over the place right from the first shrill of Spanish referee Alberto Mallenco’s whistle. It was a procession towards Juraj Cobej in the visitors’ goal.
As heroic failures go. it is up there with the best of them. Alan Thompson, with a penalty-kick, and John Hartson scored in the first-half and Stephen McManus and Craig Beattie repeated the feat after the interval. Alas, there was to be no fifth which would have taken the game into extra-time.
However, in the aftermath of a haphazard European exit, which wasn’t in the script, the players at least had the satisfaction they had put in a rumbustious and passionate effort in attempting to reverse the dire first leg result.
Skipper Neil Lennon commented: “I think everyone could see that the boys are right behind the manager and we’re all pleased for him.
TOUCHLINE TENSION…images of Gordon Strachan from new Celtic book ’50 Flags Plus One’.
“We only have ourselves to blame after letting ourselves down last week, but on this occasion there was quality, passion and everything else you would want from a Celtic team.”
Author Alex Gordon tells the story in his latest Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One’ – his fifteenth tribute tome to the Parkhead team – of a traumatic start to Strachan’s managerial career at the club.
Fortunes changed dramatically for Strachan, Lennon and Celtic as the campaign progressed and on the evening of April 5 2006, in front of an audience of 59,699, the club won their fourth title in six seasons and their fortieth in history.
Hearts were the visitors on a cool, still night in the east end of Glasgow and, with six games still to play, Strachan realised his team were a mere ninety minutes away from championship success.
The sparky, quirky character admitted with typical candour: “We want it badly – and we want it tonight. This has been our priority for so long. Now the players can get a reward for all their efforts.”
Only three minutes had gone when John Hartson scored what turned out to be the winner who thundered a 30-yard first-timer beyond Craig Gordon, the Hearts keeper, who, of course, had such a glorious career at Parkhead later in his career.
Afterwards, Strachan said: “To have won the trophy and be twenty points clear is scary.”
The full story of a truly remarkable debut campaign for Strachan is told with insight and inside knowledge by author Alex Gordon, a former Sports Editor of the Sunday Mail, whose other Celtic books include the autobiographies of club greats Bertie Auld, Tommy Gemmell, Davie Hay and John Hughes as well as the acclaimed tribute to Billy McNeill, ‘In Praise of Caesar’.
* ‘CELTIC: 50 Flags Plus One’ celebrates the club’s remarkable fifty-one league championships in their glorious history. To order a copy – and get a FREE book, ‘Seville: The Celtic Movement’ – please go to: ‘CELTIC: 50 Flags Plus One’.