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THREE CHEERS FOR BIRTHDAY BHOY STRACHAN

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GORDON STRACHAN, who celebrated his 64th birthday yesterday, joined Celtic managerial greats Willie Maley and Jock Stein when he won three titles in succession.

The charismatic gaffer replaced Martin O’Neill in the Hoops hot seat in 2005 and led the team to a hat-trick of wonderful championship successes during a period of transition for the club.

All eyes were on Strachan as he took over from the immensely popular Irishman and had to begin putting together a new side with several of O’Neill’s big-money signings, with Chris Sutton among them, being phased out over the period. However, it didn’t prevent a goal from John Hartson reclaiming the flag when the Hoops overcame Hearts 1-0 in April 2006 to to lift the club’s fortieth crown.

The following year, Shunsuke Nakamura, one of the manager’s shrewd purchases, swept in an exquisite free-kick against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park as the team won the championship again.

The most nerve-wracking of triumphs, though, came in season 2007/08, when the champions had been written off after falling six points behind Walter Smith’s Rangers side who also had two extra matches to play – and a potential six points – to take them out of sight.

However, Strachan rallied his players and led the Parkhead club to their forty-second championship success in their glorious history – and he joined the legendary double-act of Maley and Stein as Celtic managers to win three consecutive flags.

Author Alex Gordon recalls the dramatic campaign in his latest Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One’, when the team clawed their way back from the brink to claim the ultimate prize.

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

The team sealed an extraordinary fightback to beat Dundee United 1-0 at Tannadice on the unforgettable evening of April 23 2008. It was an encounter they had to win with the Ibrox side playing Aberdeen at Pittodrie the same night.

A slip from the Hoops would have let in their Glasgow rivals, but the crown was secured with a thumping header from powerhouse Dutchman Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink to give the team the victory they required and so richly merited.

Both clubs had gone into their final league confrontations tied on 86 points. The 38th league game would bring to a conclusion a nine-month campaign that had seen two of football’s greatest rivals engaged in an intriguing and nerve-gnawing neck-and-neck pursuit for the silverware with the finishing line now in plain sight.

It had been widely anticipated goal difference would be required to settle the issue. Celtic were four goals to the good while Rangers were aware what was required against Aberdeen.

With 45 minutes of the league season to play, both games were balanced at 0-0. Eighteen minutes into the second-half, a yell of sheer delirium bellowed from the Celtic supporters; news had been relayed Lee Miller had just put the Dons ahead.

In the 72nd minute, Paul Hartley swirled in a corner from the left with measured perfection. Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink’s timing of his sprint into the danger zone and his leap above friend and foe were equally immaculate. The ball crashed off his forehead from six yards smack in front of goal and the whizzing sphere bulged the net behind a petrified Lukasz Zaluska.

The destination of the title was never in doubt from that precise moment.

Tannadice was engulfed in joyous ferment and there was more bedlam when it became known Darren Mackie had thrashed in a second goal for Aberdeen. .

It had been a truly astonishing climax. Seven weeks earlier, Celtic had lost 1-0 to Motherwell at Parkhead, sliding six points behind their Ibrox foes who had two games in hand.

Strachan accepted the criticism and, blessed with an unyielding backbone, refused to fold. If the relentless questioning of his managerial qualities had affected him or his strength of character, it had been impossible to detect.

Only seven games were left to play, but Strachan managed the feat and swung the championship in the direction of the east end of Glasgow.

He rightly took his place alongside club giants Willie Maley and Jock Stein for his remarkable achievement.

As the players and fans celebrated Celtic’s forty-second championship, Gordon Strachan drew breath and summed up: “I’m with a bunch of guys who believed in me and I believed in them.

“I really do believe this is one the most satisfying nights of my life.”

The thrilling 2007/08 campaign is told with insider knowledge by Alex Gordon, veteran of fifteen Celtic books, and the latest publication is acclaimed by Lisbon Lion Bertie Auld as “a truly unique tribute to Celtic”.

John ‘Yogi’ Hughes, the club’s seventh-top goalscorer with 189 strikes, acknowledged the work as “an amazing journey of several lifetimes”.

* ‘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’.

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