No More (Cult) Heroes – Chris Sutton

Chris Sutton’s arrival was signal number two that the board had tired of trying to unearth hidden gems and had decided on a policy of buying proven quality (signing number one was the arrival of Martin O’Neill). At that time in England Chris Sutton was football leper number one, proof positive of the London-centric nature of the English media; regardless of his undoubted ability, irrespective of whether he had already pocketed a championship medal and flying in the face of the fact that in season 1998/99 he had managed to be the league’s top scorer when his side were relegated.

The key aspect of Sutton’s career in the eyes of the media was that he hadn’t managed to fit in at Chelsea after a f10 m transfer. That apparently had damned him for ever (although his public refusal to play for an England B squad a couple of years earlier had ensured that several of the papers were already gunning for him). This turn of events had ensured that not only were Chelsea ready to cut their losses and sell the player for 60% of the fee they had laid out only 12 months previously, but that Sutton himself had absolutely no qualms at all about at least talking to a club from the SPL. Especially one coached by a respected manager who had only just made the same journey north.

Rumour has it that Sutton had absolutely no idea how big Celtic really was when he came up for signing talks and could
scarcely believe that he was in a stadium as big as Old Trafford (and far bigger than Stamford Bridge). With the club desperate to snap up a big name signing and Sutton eager to leave London behind the deal was wound up pretty quickly.

The Scottish media made all the usual big signing hoo-ha, but behind it you sensed they were all asking each other, “Isn’t this the kind of signing Rangers normally make?” although there were of course more than a few snide references to the previous season’s misery at Chelsea. The English media, meanwhile, took this move as proof positive of Sutton’s lack of ability; after all why else would he move to Scotland?

His first competitive game for Celtic at Tannadice was notable not only because it was Sutton’s debut, but also that of Joos Valgaeren and the return from injury of Henrik Larsson. It was hard to imagine a better start for the new forward
line; Larsson swept in the opener after Sutton had run straight into the heart of the United defence and Sutton himself lunged in at the back post to bundle in the winner. No months of waiting here for his first strike.

If that had shown the Celtic support what Sutton could do, the player himself didn’t have long to wait to find out what the officials in Scotland had in store for him. His next game was a home debut against a Motherwell side featuring Goram in goal and having picked up his first goal in Scotland he now picked up his first yellow, followed swiftly by his first red card, for the hideous crimes of playing the ball and being hauled to the ground . To see them again now on video it really beggars belief that he was even penalised never mind sent off, but at the time most of the hacks were adamant that referee
Alan Freeland had made the correct decision.

Any lingering misgivings among the support evaporated in the next two games; first up a stunning performance at Tynecastle where Sutton bagged two headed goals, followed by the legend, the near miracle, the dream sequence that was 6 :2. Sutton grabbed the first in 90 seconds and the last with about the same amount of time left to go. The tone for the season was set and Sutton had made good on his remark prior to that game that it was time to put Rangers in their place.

He continued to be a commanding presence for the rest of the season, but tended to miss more than a few games due to injury (notably the 5; 1 defeat at Ibrox). The partnership he struck up with Larsson was the most potent seen at Celtic (indeed Scotland) for a generation, far surpassing the Merde/McClair slaughterhouse of the mid 80s’.’

Sutton finished that season with a full collection of domestic medals, although Hugh Dallas had given him a straight red for his first foul in the League Cup final against Killie. In the same game Dallas also allowed Bobby Petta to be literally kicked out of the game within 15 minutes with no need to use the red card and allowed a Kilmarnock player to punch
Neil Lennon (he saw the incident but waved play on because Larsson was clear through and scored, but didn’t then go back and send the player off) .

For the ultimate Sutton/ Larsson goal look no further than the opener in the Scottish Cup semi final that season. Sutton chases an apparently lost cause to the bye line, whips the ball across the box where Larsson dives in at the front post to bullet the ball in.

His influence on the team can be well charted by the traditional method of assessing the number of media rumours that were circulating about his imminent departure. Easily dozens in Sutton’s case, the most popular being that clubs in England believed in him again, although there was also a variation on that one which suggested his wife was unhappy. When Sutton himself was asked about his desire to return to the EPL he would simply give a reply of the, “Been there, done that, got the medal” variety. Most refreshing and entertaining for us. Most annoying for the hacks. For the last word in press rumours try the night we actually lifted the league trophy against Hearts. Sutton was injured and was due to miss the game. Radio Scotland reported that he had left the stadium and on that basis was almost certain to leave the club. This allowed Jim Traynor et al to launch forth a torrent of drivel about loftier ambitions and unhappy wives. Pity for them it was all untrue. But then lies are their stock in trade. Sutton was on the pitch at the end of the game, trophy in hand.

Season 2001/2 was a real season of two halves for Celtic. The first four months were most enjoyable, the next five were OK, but a bit of a let down.

We started with one of the great performances under Martin O’Neill – a 3-1 win away in the Amsterdam arena, the highlight of the evening a thundering header from Chris Sutton that sealed the game (and the tie), and followed that by playing Ryan Giggs’ testimonial match – a 4:3 win with Sutton opening the scoring inside a minute (couldn’t cut it against English sides you see – although curiously his one Chelsea goal was also against United) .

On the back of that win we proceeded to once again run away with the league, while maintaining a decent presence in the Champions League, winning all three home games and unlucky not to got something from at least one of the away games (not Porto obviously). Sutton was a key player in this European adventure, particularly in the games against Juve; in Turin he won the penalty that sparked our revival, in Glasgow they simply couldn’t contain him. A powerful header on the stroke of half time gave us a 2: 1 lead (we had trailed 0 : 1) and in the second half he scored arguably his finest ever Celtic goal. A free kick from Lubo was played into the Juve box. It was headed to the edge of the area where Sutton met it with the mother of all left foot volleys. It nearly took the net out.

Ultimately the win against Juve was not enough and Celtic went out of the Champions League in third place with 9 points, thereby parachuting into the UEFA Cup. Another easy draw saw us face an excellent Valencia side. However things took a turn for the worse prior to the first leg in Spain. Sutton received news that his newly born son was seriously ill and he left for Glasgow immediately. Celtic had the answer of course; John Hartson, bought at the start of the season for £6m. Since his arrival the big question had been where would he fit in. After all, the Larsson/Sutton duo were the terror of every defence in Scotland and a few in Europe. Sutton’s enforced absence allowed Hartson in and to all intents Sutton never played up front for us again that season, O’Neill preferring to play him either in central defence on in midfield. It says loads about Chris Sutton that he never publicly complained, or even opinionated about his best position, publicly.

We still retained the league by a comfortable margin, and Sutton was still a key player for us, but it would be fair to say that the team lost something. Specifically we lost two games to a hopeless Rangers team that allowed them to collect two cups. You’ll never convince me that we didn’t throw a second consecutive treble away.

The League Cup semi was carelessly lost thanks to slack finishing, but the whole team was hopeless in the Scottish Cup final. Two of the three goals were central defensive nightmares; first Sutton and Mjallby got in each other’s way to allow Lovencrap a shot at goal, then a Bobo moment to concede a second equaliser. A bad end to a season that should have
been a landmark.

The following campaign saw Sutton playing more games up front than at the back (which was no bad thing). Even though this was a season of no trophies we contented ourselves with the mesmerising European trip to Seville. Sutton more than
played his part in that odyssey. His performances leading the line were splendid and he notched some notable goals; finishing off his old club Blackburn with a bullet header, for a start and sealing the tie against Stuttgart with a classic near post finish from Agathe’s run .

When, on the final day of the league season, we needed goals against Killie Sutton did his best, but fate had it in for us. In the aftermath of that he gave his infamous TV interview wherein he branded Dunfermline’s 6: 1 defeat at Ibrox “a joke”, commenting that everyone knew they would lie down. It transpired that Sutton had also been dismissed at the end of the game. The press (backed up by demented Pars chairman John Yorkston) demanded a lengthy ban. In the end he got six games. If anything it made him even more determined the following season.

Season 2003/4 was, for my money, probably Sutton’s most productive . He was still called upon to play a variety of positions (which he did without complaint and to a high standard) and had to content himself with only European canon-fodder games for the first six weeks of the season (three goals in four matches) but he also picked up the player of the year
award . In the league he had to cool his heels for quite a while, but when he got his chance he started as he meant to go on, with a great performance and a goal in his first game back against Motherwell.

Two weeks later he was the lynchpin in a back three with McNamara and Varga with Hedman behind them that shut out the huns in 1:0 win at Ibrox. A fortnight later he was back up front with Larsson at Celtic Park running Lyon into the ground and scoring a goal that typified his quick thinking and determination. Winning a throw-in near the Celtic dug out, sensing an opportunity Sutton quickly threw the ball to Larsson on the wing and ran for all he was worth into the box. Right on cue Henrik crossed the ball in and Sutton thumped it with his head in to the net.

I can’t think of any other Celtic player who displayed that kind of versatility. It was heartbreaking that his goal in Lyon didn’t see us through to the knockout stages of the Champions League. That was a true goal poacher’s effort.

His finale to that season was two pronged. First he scored possibly his finest goal for the club – certainly one of his best timed – when he chipped Klos in the last minute of a fairly turgid game against Rangers to complete a whitewash against them. Secondly he had the Scottish Cup final against, fittingly enough, Dunfermline, and a chance to rub Yorkston’s nose in it.

Our opening game of the season had been against Dunfermline at East End Park (funny how the fixtures ‘computer’ throws out these oddly symbolic fixtures; Dunfermline accused of lying down to Rangers have a point to prove against Celtic et voila Celtic at home first day of the season; Motherwell upset Celtic on the last day of the season at Fir Park, et voila Celtic start the next season at Fir Park) and Yorkston told the media that given that Sutton was not playing due to suspension he would not be welcome as a spectator at East End Park. O’Neill was singularly unimpressed with that one.

At half time the Celts trailed 1:0. Dunfermline got a corner, Balde cleared to Sutton who took a couple of strides and hit the most glorious 60 yard pass into the path of Larsson, who in turn took on his man and equalised. A pass such as that by
Beckham or Zidane would be lauded and pored over for a long time . This beauty was barely remarked upon, but it
paved the way for 3:1 win.

Season 2004-05 still had some memorable moments (his goal against Barca was a cracker, as was his opener against Rangers in the cup) but the whole season had a tired feel about it and we had a right to feel badly let down by him when he stupidly got himself sent off at Ibrox in November.

On that disastrous last day at Fir Park he was one of the few players who didn’t seemed overwhelmed with nerves, scoring the goal that seemed to have done enough. And of course he would have got a goal in the Scottish cup final if his studs had been that bit longer. Instead he wound up flat on his back as his penalty zoomed wildly away (the only spot kick he ever missed for Celtic).

During his last season he was injured more often than not and that more than anything saw him edged toward the exit door.

There were suggestions that he didn’t get on with WGS – fuelled by his neglecting to mention the then Celtic manager in his statement when he left – but Sutton distanced himself from these allegations and even managed to squeeze an apology from the Record after it printed them.

The one thing that everyone agrees on is that if Sutton plays for the full 90 minutes then Artmedia don’t win 5:0.

His final goal came in a 5-0 win at Almondvale against a Livi team managed by another O’Neill general.

Have Celtic, in more than 100 years, ever had such a versatile player capable of match winning performances in so many different positions?

And so in 2006 we bade farewell to Chris Sutton the man who started and finished 6-2.We wished him all the best trying to decipher the rambling of Bernard Cribbins look-a-like Steve Bruce at Birmingham.


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