Stopping the 10

Take a leisurely stroll down Amnesia Lane in the company of AB Murdoch as we wallow in the triumph that was the climax of the Jansen Year.

Nine games to go, four points separating the top three and with Celtic not scheduled to play until the next day, Saturday 14th March looked like a good day for Celtic’s title hopes; second placed Hearts (two points behind) could only draw at home with Killie, while Rangers had taken the lead at Fir Park through McCoist, but had then let in goals from Owen Coyle and ex-Celt Willie Falconer to lose 2:1.

Advantage Celtic, and a home win the next day against Dundee United would see clear daylight at the top of the league. But we could only draw 1:1, our goal coming in the first half, a well placed volley from Donnelly. United were understandably fired up by the thought of revenge for the recent last-gasp Scottish Cup defeat, but Celtic’s performance was cause for concern; the players seemed to simply run out of steam in the second half and with 15 minutes to go United caught us on the break, Oloffson levelling the game.

Truth be told it felt like a defeat. A cushion at the top of the league would have been useful given that our next three fixtures were Aberdeen and Killie away with Hearts at home sandwiched between them. Tough matches.

Rangers’ fixtures during that time had a far easier look about them; St Johnstone and Hibs at Ibrox, Dunfermline away between those games.

But whatever the failings of the United game had been, the team travelled to Pittodrie and came away with a vital, precious 1:0 win, Craig Burley holding his nerve to score the only goal from the penalty spot right on half time. The award had been given after Mahe had his legs cleared from underneath him as he made for the byeline. It was a penalty so blatant even the press couldn’t argue about it.

While Celtic had been fighting like mad in Aberdeen, Hearts were also winning; 1:0 at Tannadice. Rangers too had a win that day; 2:1 at Ibrox against St Johnstone, a game notable in that it was the last time Gascoigne took the field for them. He was sold to Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough, just in time for the Coca Cola cup final. Gascoigne was ushered straight in to the squad at the expense of Craig Hignett who had played a role in actually getting ‘Boro to the final in the first place. Chelsea won the match 2:0. Gascoigne came on as a sub but was barely an influence. After the game, in a gesture adored by the media on both sides of the border, Gascoigne gave his losers medal to Hignett. We can only speculate as to what Hignett’s reaction to that was.

The meeting between Celtic and Hearts the following week was, to say the least, cagey. Neither side committed much to attack, both seemed to be counting on breakaways. In the end it finished a poor 0:0.

Over at East End Park Rangers were grinding out a 3:2 win; twice they took the lead, twice the Pars came back at them, until finally Thern gave them a third goal and Dunfermline didn’t have enough to respond.

On the field the previous couple of months had been pretty good. Only 4 points had been dropped (all of them in draws with Hearts) and tricky away venues had been conquered in the league and the cup.

Off the field was another matter. The situation with Wim Jansen had deteriorated significantly after Jansen had voiced dissatisfaction with his lot and had revealed to the press that he had a ‘get out’ clause in his contract that would allow him to walk away after one season. His main complaint was that even though he was on a three year deal no one at Celtic had approached him about what was to happen the following season. Given that Jansen’s team was leading the league when all this was happening you can imagine the reaction of the Scottish media; gleeful doesn’t do it justice.

Fergus has since revealed that while Jansen may have had reservations about staying, these concerns were mirrored at board level. Apparently his ability to split the coaching staff into two distinct camps, his lack of interest in the youth or reserve team and the absence of any long term plan had rung alarm bells. Spurred on by this, the press began to really enjoy themselves and soon we were reading about Stubbs to Everton and McNamara to Coventry. The only real surprise was that Burley wasn’t linked with another club.

The manner in which Jansen’s unhappiness became apparent is probably the most telling thing; it was Jansen himself who put this in the public domain, giving an interview to the Celtic Hotline (for those of you unfamiliar with this it was the premium telephone line equivalent of Celtic TV). He gave the interview on the condition that it was uncut. At the time this all looked like a monumental mistake on the part of the club

With all of this happening we stepped into April and straight into a game against Rangers in the Scottish Cup semi-final. Due to the renovation of Hampden lots had been drawn to decide the venue, thus allowing us to avoid the coin tossing scandal of 1993
(heads, ‘Celtic Park.’ No wait, best of three…).

If this game had been a boxing match it would have been finished on humanitarian grounds after the first 45. Rangers had been demolished and thoroughly outplayed, but crucially the score was still 0:0. Rangers regrouped for the second half and first McCoist then Albertz scored to seal the game. With the last kick of the match Burley pulled one back, but the sucker punch had been landed yet again. The treble dream died.

A psychological blow appeared to have been struck that day, but the team bounced back. The cup game had resulted in the cancellation of the weekend league fixtures. Rangers had played their match against Hibs prior to the cup tie, allowing them to pull level with Celtic, but the Hoops managed to restore a three point advantage at, of all places, Rugby Park, so often the graveyard for our league challenges. Larsson had given us the lead in 19 minutes, but we had allowed Killie to equalise just before half-time. 10 minutes into the second half a strong Burley run had put Donnelly through and he calmly lifted the ball over the keeper to give us the win.

Hearts had won their cup semi the previous weekend, but their league form slipped when they could only draw 1:1 with Motherwell in their rearranged game and the following Saturday lost to Hibs. They were effectively out of the race and would only win one more game in the league campaign.

Four days later Celtic travelled to Ibrox for the last game against Rangers that season. The home team finally gave a league debut to their Italian centre half signed at great expense the previous summer – Lorenzo Amorusso (no, seriously, they actually paid money for Lorenzo).
He had spent the whole season so far on the treatment table, having arrived with a serious knee injury, another triumph for the team who performed his medical prior to transfer.

For Celtic the game was anything but a triumph. We started with Larsson and Jackson up front, but after 15 minutes Jackson had to go off, complaining of stomach pains. He was replaced by Brattbakk. Jansen decided to play Harald up front as the lone striker with Larsson playing the link role. Years later, with the benefit of hindsight, we can confidently say that Jansen managed to get these players’ roles exactly
the wrong way round; Brattbakk got the majority of his goals playing as the link man for Rosenberg, Larsson was unsurpassed as a front man. The result was that Celtic barely managed a shot on target.

By the time Jackson went off we were already under pressure and unable to get out of our own half. 25 minutes in we conceded when a cross into the box was partly cleared to the edge of the area where it was met first time by Jonas Thern. Gould barely saw it as it flew past him into the net.

The second half followed much the same pattern (in fact the whole performance was horribly reminiscent of our early season rubbish) except that this time it was Albertz who scored. It put Rangers on top of the league thanks to their superior goal difference.

Things didn’t appear to get any better in the early stages of the next match, a home game against Motherwell. Thus far we had won one, drawn one and lost one against them and they had taken the lead in all three games. Make that all four; after 12 minutes we were a goal down. But this time we raised our game to crush them 4:1, Burley scoring two in the first half and Donnelly two in the second.

Celtic not only recaptured top spot but the next day we were allowed a three point cushion as Rangers went to Pittodrie and lost by a single goal, Stephen Glass heading the winner. The pendulum appeared to have swung in favour again. Three games to go, two of them at home to Hibs and St Johnstone, one away to Dunfermline. Rangers had two away; Hearts and Dundee United, and one home game against Kilmarnock. On paper the odds favoured us. Not only did we have more home games, but Hibs were already as good as relegated and surely Hearts would want to put a marker down for the cup final against Rangers.

The following Saturday Celtic could only draw 0:0 with Hibs. Fear seemed to have taken a grip on the whole team and the simplest of passes suddenly became awkward. In the stands the supporters’ nerves were shredded and the team didn’t exactly leave the pitch to rapturous applause. The mood wasn’t helped by the news that while we were struggling against Hibs, Rangers were destroying Hearts 3:0 at Tynecastle. Hearts had taken one point from Rangers all season and that had come during the 2:2 draw in February; over the two games in Edinburgh they had lost 8:2!

The gap was now one point. Two games to go.

Rangers v Kilmarnock was an important day at Ibrox. Not only was this the last game at Ibrox for Walter Smith, it was cheerio from players such as McCoist and Laudrup. Before the game they paraded on the pitch with their families waving to the crowd.

It was also the last game for the referee Bobby Tait, awarder of many a dubious decision to the boys in blue, Hugh Keevins had reported that Tait was an ardent Rangers supporter and there was a rumour that he had requested this game for his send off. You can decide for yourself, dear reader, whether that is true or not (Graeme Spiers in the Scotland on Sunday described the allegation of Tait’s allegiance as “absolutely true”), but suffice to say the day didn’t go quite to plan.

Rangers misfired badly, just as we had done the previous week against Hibs. Nothing seemed simple and the 90 minutes came and went with no goals scored, but still the game went on. This was in the days before the fourth official would hold up the board to let you know how much time there was to add. It seemed almost as though the ref was playing on trying to give Rangers one last chance.

Oops.

Four minutes into injury time McGowan of Killie gathered the ball on the right edge of the Rangers box. Laudrup was marking him but wasn’t remotely close, even when his opponent swung in a bouncing cross. John Henry threw himself at the ball, but missed. Gattusso at the back post was sleeping and sub Ally Mitchell steered the ball past Niemi to give the visitors all three points.

All over Glasgow car horns were blaring, yells let out and Celtic fans allowed themselves to believe that the day after we could finally win the league.

At the belated final whistle the Rangers team left the pitch to a cacophany of boos ringing in their ears. Not quite the send off they had planned. The squad waited ten minutes them re-emerged to take a salute from the fans that had stayed behind. All 12 of them.

The next day the sun shone brightly and East End Park was filled with green and white fans ready and waiting for a party. We would have to wait a bit longer.

Simon Donnelly scored in the first half, but again the nerves hit. The second period became increasingly fraught, with Celtic falling further and further back, despite the manager at the touchline urging the players to move out. With ten minutes to go Dunfermline brought on Craig Falconbridge, a tall gangling player who no one had really heard of. Three minutes later he headed in the equaliser and back into the emotional wringer we went. Seven minutes from being champions. Celtic still held the upper hand, but one slip would see everything turn to dust.

And so it all came down to the final day of the season.

It says a lot about the pressure of the situation that someone like Henrik Larsson could look back at his career and honestly say this was the most pressurised game he ever took part in.

The week leading up to it was hellish; basically there nothing else to think about, no escape from what might happen on Saturday. Rangers had even arranged for a helicopter to ferry the players back to Ibrox from Tannadice – the ground where they had secured nine in a row – in the event of them winning the league. In fact Rangers somehow managed to get permission to open Ibrox and screen the game to a crowd of nearly 30,000. Strange to think that the authorities normally go out of their way to see that our home games were never played simultaneously, even in the cups, yet on this most tense of days both stadiums were packed with people.

Just like the previous week it was a swelteringly hot day as the crowd rolled up to Celtic Park. The atmosphere was jubilant with just a hint of terror lurking in the background. Only a win was good enough. If Rangers won and we drew they would take the title even though the respective goal differences were almost identical thanks to them having scored a greater number of goals (for us to take the title with only one point we have to draw 14 each, unlikely we all agreed).

The team that ran out that day was Gould, Boyd, Annoni, McNamara, Rieper, Stubbs, Larsson, Burley, Donnelly, Lambert and O’Donnell.

Celtic started brightly, the team acutely aware that this was it – literally death or glory. The game was being played where we wanted it, in the St Johnstone half. Three minutes in, Lambert intercepted a clearance and played the ball to the left wing to Larsson down the left, about 35 yards from goal. He immediately cut inside and feigned to shoot once. The fullback retreated slightly, then he let it go, a right foot curling shot that fizzed past Alan Main and entered the far side of the goal,

The stadium very nearly shook with the strength of the roar that greeted the goal, All the pre-match tension seemed to lift in that moment as we realised that the league might now be within our grasp.

Meanwhile, over at Ibrox it was a case of crossed wires as someone announced that it was Saints who had scored. There was a brief moment of wild celebration before the truth trickled through. They probably sang something to cheer themselves up.

The goal settled everybody for a bit and Celtic made another couple of chances. Larsson was sent clear but lifted his chip over the bar. Then, gradually but perceptably, it appeared to dawn on the players that now they really did have it all to lose and the tension returned.

George O’Boyle missed a decent chance to level the game but we made it to half-time leading by the Larsson goal.

At Tannadice, Rangers were also leading 1:0. Laudrup had scored in the 11th minute, but the crowds at both games were mainly glued to their radios, concentrating on what the opposition were up to.

Half-time seemed to settle us again and Celtic started the second half far better than we ended the first. Donnelly had a clear sight of goal, but went for power rather than direction and wound up firing his shot straight at the keeper, which was almost his last involvement in the match as he was replaced by Harald Brattbakk.

At Tannadice Rangers were now 2:0 up, Albertz scoring with a penalty. Their game was almost certainly won.

It was now almost unbearable inside Celtic Park. Even Wim Jansen, the archetypal laidback Dutchman, was looking highly animated on the touchline.

Another goal at Tannadice, but this time it was United. A wee boost. At least we knew they were wobbling as well.

With 18 minutes to go St Johnstone were still pressing the game. As they attempted to make progress Tom Boyd stepped in. He carried the ball to the halfway line before sending it down the right wing for McNamara who ran on to it and played in a first time cross for the inrushing figure of Harald Brattbakk who calmly slotted the ball under the body of Alan Main to seal the championship 1997-1998.

The remaining 18 minutes raced by. St, Johnstone were in no mood to mount a comeback. They had made a game of it, but now they had shot their bolt. Brattbakk had a chance to volley in number three, but got too far under it.

As the game neared the 90 minute mark Fergus McCann appeared in the tunnel, as did the other first team players not selected for the game; Darren Jackson, Tommy Johnston, David Hannah, Stephan Mahe, Stewart Kerr and the man who had scored our first league goal that season, Malky MacKay.

With only a minute of injury time played Celtic were awarded a free kick just inside the opposition half. Tom Boyd went to take it, but before he could, referee Clark picked up the ball and blew for full time.

It was all over and the first Celtic title party in a decade could begin.

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