GORDON STRACHAN was the manager when Celtic travelled to Tannadice almost 14 years ago to seal one of the most dramatic championship triumphs in the 21st Century.
It was an evening of excruciating tension on Tayside before the crown was achieved. Strachan, who has just celebrated his 65th birthday, spent four rarely-dull years in the hot seat after taking over from the charismatic Martin O’Neill in June 2005.
And he capped an extraordinary first three years by claiming a third successive league title.
PRIZE GUYS…skipper Stephen McManus and Georgios Samaras with the 2008 league championship trophy.
Strachan guided the team to the crown in his first campaign when John Hartson lashed in the only goal of the game against Hearts at Parkhead 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 – with Stephen McManus captaining the team – and led the Parkhead club to their forty-second championship success in their glorious history – and he joined the legendary double-act of Willie Maley and Jock Stein as Celtic managers to win three consecutive flags.
Author Alex Gordon recalls the rollercoaster campaign in his fifteenth 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’.
Strachan’s side 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.
TRIUMPHANT – AGAIN…Stephen McManus lifts Celtic third successive title in 2008.
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.”