It’s a long way down from the top. Celtic, unfathomably and improbably, were never competent enough to even achieve second place in the Premier League during the remaining three years of Billy McNeill’s reign.
Despite the manager’s inspirational leadership qualities, he was unable to apply the brakes to a disastrous downward spiral. Celtic, alas, were in freefall. A 2-1 defeat from Rangers in the 1991 League Cup Final was as good as it got in that competition. Europe was a wasteland.
Billy McNeill, like Davie Hay three years before him, had beseeched his chairman, Jack McGinn, and the directors to strengthen the squad while they were at the pinnacle during the summer of the Centenary Year. ‘I asked the Celtic board for £5million to combat Rangers’ investment in players. They offered me £1million. I wanted three players – a defender, a midfielder and another striker. Winning the Double should have been the springboard to even greater achievements, but not everyone at Celtic Park appreciated the need to consolidate our position from a base of strength. I was aware that Rangers would not simply sit back and accept the situation. It was evident that they were prepared to spend big in a determined effort to regain the upper hand.’
Apathy in the boardroom will undoubtedly lead to anxiety in the dug-out. Frustratingly, McNeill was forced to spend £300,000 of his transfer cash on a goalkeeper. Pat Bonner was struggling with a back injury and the club had sold Allen McKnight to West Ham during the break. McNeill moved quickly to sign Ian Andrews from Leicester City. Alas, it did not prove to be money well spent.
Andrews, in fact, played only five league games after his confidence was battered beyond repair in a dreadful 5-1 defeat from Rangers at Ibrox on August 27. It was the Parkhead team’s worst result against the Govan side for twenty-eight years. The former England Under-21 international played only two more games before being loaned to Leeds United in December. He left Glasgow on a permanent basis when Southampton bought him for £200,000 the following February. McNeill was left with a major goalkeeping headache and eventually turned to former Scotland international Alan Rough, who had been playing in the States with Orlando Lions after quitting Hibs in the summer. The thirty-five year old answered the SOS and performed in five league outings – two of them defeats against Dundee and his former Easter Road club – before Bonner returned at the end of October.
McNeill was being asked to manoeuvre another season out of Centenary heroes Tommy Burns, Billy Stark and Mark McGhee, none of whom would see a thirtieth birthday again. There was also talk of Frank McAvennie finding the lure of a return to London and its nightlife irresistible. His obvious unrest was creating friction with his manager while the continual conjecture about his future was also unsettling his team-mates. Eventually, he was sold back to West Ham for £1.25million in March 18 1989 only hours after playing in an explosive 2-1 Scottish Cup quarter-final win over Hearts at Celtic Park. Leaks of the imminent transfer had reached the ears of the support and, for the first time, McAvennie was booed by the fans who had showered him with adulation the previous season. McNeill had become increasingly fed up with the entire business and was happy to put the whole affair behind him. Uncannily, the situation imitated Mo Johnston’s final months at the club when he was coming out of contract in 1987. Interestingly, both players employed the same agent, Bill McMurdo.
McAvennie moved while the sparks were still flying following a bad-tempered encounter with Hearts that saw three players sent off in a turbulent first-half. Mark McGhee and Roy Aitken, with a penalty-kick, had put Celtic two goals ahead by the thirty-sixth minute when Tynecastle defender Alan McLaren was first to be dismissed by referee Davie Syme for talking out of turn. Then Tosh McKinlay was extremely late with a tackle on Billy Stark and Mick McCarthy took up the cudgels on behalf of his stricken team-mate. He threw a punch at the Hearts defender who tried to fight back. There was a flurry of blows and players from both sides got involved. Once order was restored, to a certain extent, the match official expelled both of the principal combatants. Eamonn Bannon, who had joined the Edinburgh outfit from Dundee United, sent a free-kick hurtling beyond Pat Bonner eighteen minutes from time, but Celtic held on to reach the semi-final.
Billy McNeill was far from impressed. He said, ‘As far as I am concerned, any semblance of football finished at half-time. Passions definitely have a place in football, but here they clearly carried too far.’
Thankfully, the semi-final confrontation with the other half of Edinburgh’s big two, Hibs, was a more sedate affair. Celtic were three goals ahead in the first half-hour with Mick McCarthy, Mark McGhee and Andy Walker on target. An effort from Stevie Archibald, back in Scotland after his lucrative spells with Spurs, Barcelona and Espanyol, pulled one back, but nothing could prevent Celtic heading for their forty-fifth Scottish Cup Final. Rangers had struggled in their semi-final tie against St Johnstone and had been held to a goalless at Celtic Park. They won 4-0 in the replay and Graeme Souness was making noises about his team completing the Treble. Celtic appeared to be mere nuisance value to Rangers on their triumphal trek.
A vociferous crowd of 72,069 made their presence known on a beautiful sun-kissed afternoon at Hampden on May 20. Rangers, after beating Celtic three times in their four league games, were huge favourites. Joe Miller had been asked by Billy McNeill to play through the middle alongside Mark McGhee in the previous two matches against Hibs and St Mirren. With Frank McAvennie plying his trade elsewhere, Tommy Coyne, recently signed for £500,000 from Dundee cup-tied, and Andy Walker injured, the Celtic manager had no alternatives. Miller proved to be the match-winner in the last two league outings of the season, scoring the only goal in each game. The big question was, could he complete the hat-trick at Hampden?
The slight but tenacious player provided the answer three minutes from the interval. Peter Grant pushed a speculative pass forward, but his radar was faulty and the ball was headed clear by Richard Gough. It was returned by Paul McStay and went straight to Rangers full-back Gary Stevens. Miller, though, didn’t give up the chase. ‘I had noticed that Stevens was short with three passbacks before that,’ he said. ‘He was forcing the keeper to sprint off his line to clear the ball. I took a chance he would do the same again. I read the pass and sprinted onto it.’
Stevens was shockingly short with the ball back to Chris Woods and Miller, anticipating it perfectly, seized on the wayward pass and stroked it low past the startled goalkeeper. ‘Where’s your Treble gone?’ was the gleeful serenade from the Celtic end as Rangers toiled to get back into the contest. Derek Whyte cleared a Mark Walters shot off the line, but Stevens, attempting to atone, did likewise at the other end with a Tommy Burns header. The final whistle from Bob Valentine, Davie Hay’s old adversary, brought the game to a conclusion with Celtic claiming their twenty-ninth Scottish Cup.
In the midst of the cheering, singing and hollering, Billy McNeill said, ‘I was not one bit concerned about stopping Rangers from winning the Treble. My commitment is to Celtic. We are now in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup next season and we have done it through our own efforts. That’s what this victory is all about. It’s nothing to do with Rangers. I thought we deserved to win. The players in the back four were excellent and Joe Miller finished off magnificently for the winning goal. Now we can have a break and prepare for a new campaign. This Cup victory can send us all away on our summer holidays with a smile on our face.’
Celtic’s aspirations immediately dropped into a black hole and it would be 1995 before they lifted silverware again. Once more, it was a 1-0 Scottish Cup triumph with Pierre van Hooydonk heading the only goal against Airdrie. The years in between could be filed in the insufferable category for those of a Celtic persuasion. After the splendour of the title success to mark one hundred remarkable years, Celtic finished third in the league on forty-six points, ten behind Rangers and four short of Aberdeen the following season. The fallen champions suffered eleven losses as opposed to only three the previous term. Dundee United knocked them out of the League Cup at the quarter-final stage and Werder Bremen did likewise in the second round of the European Cup.
There was also an emotional Sunday afternoon on March 4 when Celtic hosted Liverpool in the Hillsborough Memorial Game to honour the ninety-six Merseyside supporters who had lost their lives in such tragic circumstances in the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest at the ground of Sheffield Wednesday. A crowd of 60,437 turned out in an astonishing show of unity. Never has ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ been rendered with such feeling.
The smile on Billy McNeill’s face in the summer of 1989 was erased fairly quickly with the news that the expected return of Mo Johnston had hit a snag. Celtic thought the deal was as good as done and dusted with the striker returning from Nantes in a £1.2million move. The Parkhead club, in fact, had already shelled out £400,000 as a deposit for their former player. ‘I was pleased,’ said McNeill. ‘Johnston was younger than McAvennie and he was at the top of his form, scoring six goals in Scotland’s successful World Cup campaign. He was also a more complete player than the one who had left Celtic two years earlier. But, suddenly, the rumours started flying around. The word on the streets was that Rangers had stepped in to try to sign Johnston.’
McNeill wanted to get to the truth of the matter before he took his family to the States on vacation. Scotland were in their Troon HQ, the Marine Hotel, as they prepared for international games against England and Chile in the Rous Cup. The Celtic manager met Johnston and was immediately dismayed. ‘My suspicions were confirmed. He was both evasive and, I think, embarrassed.’ At this stage, FIFA, football’s world governing body, agreed with Celtic that a letter of agreement, signed by all parties, was legal and binding. It was not a contract, as such, but a letter of intent. FIFA told the Celtic board Mo Johnston was their player. If someone else wanted to sign him, they would have to deal with Celtic. It would have been highly unlikely that Rangers would have chosen to travel that route. McNeill also implored his board to pay the outstanding £800,000 to make absolutely certain the deal was cemented and remove any contractual loopholes.
Absurdly, Johnston was now saying he wouldn’t complete the deal. It hadn’t been too long beforehand that he was captured on film, beaming brightly, holding a Celtic jersey in front of him, while announcing, ‘Celtic have come in for me and I’m delighted to be rejoining them.’ No-one detected his nose growing at that stage.
McNeill was clearly more in touch with the real world, or, at least, the legalities of the situation, than his board of directors. Publicly, he maintained praiseworthy decorum when he was told Johnston had changed his mind. The manager, realising the power of FIFA, was quite prepared to call the player’s bluff. Privately, he told close friends, ‘If he doesn’t play for us, he won’t play for anyone.’ McNeill was quite prepared to put the player out of football. He was also astute enough to understand how Johnston would react to such a prospect. It seemed a bit late for Wee Mo to seek alternative employment. The Celtic manager knew the player would be forced to relent, bite the bullet and get on with business on a football field. There weren’t too many other employment opportunities on the horizon.
McNeill told the board of his thoughts. Unfortunately, and not for the first time, the Parkhead power brokers failed to heed the advice of their manager. While he was in the States, the directors issued a statement to the effect that they would not pursue the transfer ‘on a matter of principle’. In doing so, they opened the door to Ibrox. Johnston was unveiled as a Rangers player on July 10. It was the most remarkable transfer in Scottish football history and created a furore within both sets of fans. The Celtic support immediately labelled him ‘Judas’ while an army of Rangers fans were furious at their club signing a Roman Catholic. And a high-profile one into the bargain. Rangers scarves, flags and even season ticket books were burned outside the front door of Ibrox Stadium when the news broke.
The clandestine move for Johnston was done under the noses of the Celtic board, but, as Sports Editor of the Sunday Mail at the time, I find it inconceivable that those in power within the Celtic Park boardroom never got a whiff of the impending defection.
Certainly, I received enough information myself, long before Johnston, with a smug smile on his face, was being paraded in front of the press as a Rangers player. As a newspaper, the Sunday Mail had done everything to uncover the story. We hit a wall of lies and denials. My colleague Don Morrison, our excellent Chief Sports Writer, pinned down his agent Bill McMurdo and asked him directly, ‘Is Mo Johnson signing for Rangers?’ Don told me McMurdo laughed and replied, ‘It’s a complete fabrication – you could run that story for ten years and it still wouldn’t be true.’
I used the quote in the newspaper. A few days later Johnson was unveiled as a Rangers player.
Davie Hay also recalls vividly the day his former player signed for Graeme Souness. ‘I was preparing to leave Norway after winning the league with Lillestrom when I received news Mo was signing again for Celtic. I telephoned him to wish him all the best on his return to the club. There was a pause before Mo came back on the line. “Davie, the deal’s not done,” he told me. “I haven’t signed a contract.” I asked him if there was a problem. Again, there was silence. “Not sure,” he replied. I told him good luck again and thought no more about it. You can get all sorts of hitches before a contract is finally done and dusted and I simply thought they had encountered a wee hiccup; nothing that couldn’t be sorted out.
‘I came home to Scotland and a friend picked me up at Glasgow Airport. “You’ll have seen that Wee Mo has signed, then?” He asked. “Aye, good,” I replied. He almost drove the car off the road. “What do you mean? He’s signed for Rangers!” I could hardly believe it. To put it mildly, I was astonished. From what I knew of Mo, I believed he was a big Celtic man. Obviously, a revision of my thoughts was required. I watched Mo playing for Rangers and I’ll tell you something. Mo Johnston was a lot happier playing for Celtic than he ever was for Rangers.’
Billy McNeill still had much work to do as he prepared his team for season 1989/90. ‘There was nothing more I could do in the Mo Johnston situation,’ said the Celtic boss. ‘So, I looked elsewhere. I paid £600,000 to Pisa for centre-half Paul Elliott after Mick McCarthy had joined French side Olympique Lyonaiss at the end of his contract. I also brought in the versatile Mike Galloway from Hearts for £500,000.’ McNeill, though, realised he had to strengthen his attack, especially with Mark McGhee, who couldn’t be promised a regular place in the starting line-up, returning to former club Newcastle United.
By this stage, the Celtic board either refused or didn’t have the nous to embrace the acceptance that players’ wages had spiraled out of control. They wanted Celtic to be a big club, but were far from acting like one. Adding to McNeill’s frustrations was what was happening across the city at Ibrox. Their board appeared to have grasped the reality of the situation and were willing to pay the going rate as they continued to attract big-name players. McNeill, consequently, had to lower his sights and search elsewhere. He paid £500,000 for Legia Warsaw striker Jacki Dziekanowski and most fans were intrigued when they were informed he was ‘Poland’s answer to George Best.’ McNeill also shelled out £400,000 for his team-mate Dariusz Wdowczyk, a dependable defender. Souness, meanwhile, dealt in millions. The outcome, sadly, was inevitable.
Celtic finished fifth in the Premier League behind Rangers, Aberdeen, Hearts and Dundee United. The Parkhead side were beaten twelve times in the new thirty-six game set-up. It was a disastrous fall from grace. Aberdeen sunk them 1-0 at the quarter-final stage of the League Cup and they didn’t get past the first stage of the Cup-Winners’ Cup, exiting the competition in an imagination-stretching scenerio. They drew 6-6 on aggregate with Partizan Belgrade and went out on the away goals rule. Poor Dziekanowski. He scored four goals in the 5-4 win in Glasgow, but a dozy defence allowed the Slavs to score in the last minute and his good work was obliterated. There was a spirited run to the Scottish Cup Final that included a 1-0 victory over Rangers in the Fourth Round. The Final against Aberdeen ended in a goalless draw after extra-time and Wdowcyzk and Anton Rogan missed from the spot in the penalty shoot-out as Celtic lost 9-8.
If it could go wrong, it most assuredly would. Even Mo Johnston scored two goals against Celtic that season. He netted the only goal of the game at Ibrox on November 12 and was booked by referee George Smith for overdoing the trackside celebrations with his ‘new’ fans. He scored the second in a 3-0 victory at the same venue five months later.
Allegiances to Celtic were being stretched to the unbearable. Could it get any worse than this?
*From Caesar & The Assassin. Managing Celtic after Jock Stein, Billy McNeill & Davie Hay with Alex Gordon, published by CQN Books. Order your copy, at a discounted price, HERE. The story continues shortly with the follow-up book, THE WINDS OF CHANGE which tells the story of managing Celtic from 1991 t0 2004.