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‘THE TRICK IS TO KEEP ON WINNING,’ O’NEILL

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CELTIC realise only a victory against Livingston at Parkhead on Saturday will be acceptable if they are to maintain hope of sealing a historic tenth successive title.

In the continued fall-out of the Covid controversy, a makeshift Hoops line-up will again take up the challenge while Neil Lennon and 13 of his first-team players are forced to self-isolate for the second Premiership outing in five days.

Gavin Strachan, taking charge in the absence of his boss and assistant John Kennedy, saw a victory snatched from his patched-up side on Monday when Kevin Nisbet rifled in the stoppage-time leveller to nullify David Turnbull’s superb free-kick.

So, the champions go into the crunch encounter with the in-form West Lothian outfit desperately holding onto the belief they can turn things around.

It was a different story nineteen years ago when Martin O’Neill’s Celtic team faced Livi on a sunny afternoon in the east end of Glasgow – and were a mere ninety minutes away from sealing the club’s thirty-eighth crown.

The recollection of an eventful 2001/02 season is told with insider knowledge by author 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”.

READ ALL ABOUT IT…Alex Gordon’s latest Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One’.

Alex, who has now had fifteen Celtic books published, looks back in an edited chapter in his tribute tome to the club’s 51 title successes and writes:

MARTIN O’NEILL had promised himself a stress-free summer before he prepared for the launch of season 2001/2002 and the defence of the treble silverware he had won so spectacularly in his debut campaign as Celtic manager.

In achieving the domestic clean sweep, he had matched the feat of the legendary Jock Stein who claimed the championship, Scottish Cup and League Cup hat-trick twice, in 1966/67 and 1968/69. The Irishman always liked to set rather grand targets for himself.

On one day, August 2 2001, O’Neill completed yet another treble – three players arriving on the same day. Intriguingly, one of the arrivals was John Hartson, who, just under a year earlier had failed a medical which had seen a proposed move to Rangers fall through. There were no such snags when the burly Welsh international striker joined the champions in a £6million deal from Coventry City. At the end of the season, Hartson enthused: “I couldn’t possibly in my wildest dreams have wished for it to work out better.”

In the queue that day in the east end of Glasgow to become part of O’Neill’s continuing revolution were utility defender Momo Sylla, at the cost of £750,000 from St Johnstone, and Steve Guppy, the left-winger from his former club Leicester City who was priced at £600,000.

Earlier, man-mountain central defender Bobo Balde had also signed after his French club, Toulouse, had been declared bankrupt. He replaced Ramon Vega, who had been impressive during his loan spell from Spurs. However, the Swiss international couldn’t agree personal terms and eventually signed for Watford.

Joining him in England would be unsettled midfielder Eyal Berkovic, who had cost John Barnes £5.75million from West Ham two years previously. O’Neill offloaded him to Manchester City for a cut-price £1.5million. It must be said the little Israeli, with the obvious disdain for hard work, never looked a good fit right from the first day the Irishman arrived in Glasgow. Moravcik v Berkovic? It was no contest.

Martin O’Neill made no promises at the start of the season while stating, as was his well-practised mantra, that he “would give his all for Celtic and so will the players. The supporters can be assured of that.”

The Irishman had always maintained his priority – even above Europe – was to retain the Premier League title and he achieved that feat with a certain amount of flourish and swagger. O’Neill and his charges bludgeoned all before them as they roared to the championship with an awesome total of one hundred and three points, dwarfing last season’s previous best of ninety-seven.

The Parkhead men went eighteen games undefeated until they slipped to their solitary loss against Aberdeen at Pittodrie, 2-0 three days before Christmas where, unfortunately, Rab Douglas played the unwitting role of Santa Claus. To be fair, though, the underfoot conditions that day were nothing short of treacherous.

With four games still to play, Martin O’Neill’s second successive league title was wrapped up on a pleasant April 6 afternoon in front of 59,752 cavorting fans when Henrik Larsson fired in a supreme hat-trick and John Hartson added two in a rampant 5-1 success over Livingston.

The championship had been delivered with style and panache against Jim Leishman’s enterprising line-up that was sitting fourth in the league and determined to gatecrash the party. Larsson wrecked their plans inside three minutes when Paul Lambert and Hartson combined to set up the Swede and he did the rest with his customary aplomb from six yards.

Hartson added a second in nineteen minutes when he viciously volleyed a cross from Didier Agathe behind Javier Sanchez Broto, the Spanish keeper who would join up with the champions in the summer. His Livingston team-mate Davide Fernandez, a sprightly, clever frontman, would also take the same route in a £1million deal.

GLORY BHOYS…Henrik Larsson and John Hartson celebrate the 2002 title success.

Broto was helpless again when Hartson headed in No.3 six minutes later when he got on the end of a clever delivery from Steve Guppy and the ex-Leicester City winger was the provider again for Larsson to knock in the fourth just beyond the half-hour mark. Larsson claimed the matchball with his third goal in sixty minutes and it was left to Barry Wilson to give the small travelling support something to cheer by steering an effort past Rab Douglas late on.

Larsson attempted to play down his contribution to the runaway championship campaign. “I have never made a secret of the great service I and the other strikers get from our team-mates,” he said modestly. “Alan Thompson has been playing well and Paul Lambert provided me with two goals on this occasion.

“We have players who can score goals from back to front and that is what you need in football. It is very hard to rely on one or two players. John and I got the goals today, but the service was absolutely tremendous.”

He added: “You never get used to winning trophies. It feels absolutely fantastic. The title is the trophy we have been playing for all season and the way we did it was tremendous.”

Hartson, in his first season in green and white, said: “It doesn’t come much better than this. To play in front of this crowd every other week is a dream come true for me. It is fitting that we won the league here – the fans have been unbelievable.

“The service in the team is just different class. The players just keep on providing for their colleagues, irrespective of the score. We always want more. Look at Didier Agathe today, for instance. He was still bombing down the right wing in the last minute while we’re winning 5-1. Which striker wouldn’t want to play in this team?”

Celtic’s league form had been nothing short of breathtaking. They scored ninety-four goals in their thirty-eight games, clocked up thirty-three wins, four draws and that solitary, irritating blemish at Pittodrie prevented them from going through undefeated. Rangers, their nearest rivals, were eighteen points adrift.

As the club prepared to repel all boarders for a third consecutive season, the wary words of Martin O’Neill came to the fore: “The trick is to keep on winning.”

John Hughes, the club’s seventh highest goalscorer in history, acknowledged ’50 Flags Plus One’ and said: “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.

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