Take a left down Memory Lane and you come to Misery Avenue…
Despite Celtic’s poor start to the season the team soon began to play some very neat football. Having stabilised confidence with a 1:1 draw at Ibrox – Pat Bonner playing the game of his life in the process – the Hoops notched up successive league victories against Hearts and St. Mirren while also progressing to the League Cup final by demolishing Dundee United with Paul McStay at his very best. It meant an appearance in our first League Cup final in four years.
It was this very progression which seemed to grind our season to a halt. In the League Cup final we were set to face Rangers. Anyone who remembers the 1:1 draw at Ibrox that season will tell you that never was a team luckier to have escaped a real hiding. Pat Bonner saved just about everything that afternoon. Time after time the Celtic defence was torn apart, but big Packy was a rock, beaten only by a deflected shot.
The team certainly weren’t displaying much in the way of confidence. The games in the immediate build up to the final were all draws: St. Johnstone and Dundee United at Celtic Park (both 0:0) and a 1:1 at East End Park thanks to a last minute goal from the Maestro. The signs were not good.
Then two things happened.
Firstly, the Friday before the final the board held the club’s AGM. Nothing too dramatic was expected from this; the usual reports would be read out, the directors would congratulate each other and this year Michael Kelly and Brian Dempsey would be welcomed aboard. But when it came to ratifying the line up the new board something odd occurred. After there had been a show of hands to approve the appointment of Dempsey there was a call for a second vote – this time a poll vote. Dempsey was voted off the board by the combined share power of the Kellys and Chris White, the very people who had asked him to join in the first place!
The surprising thing about the shoddy affair was that when it came to the vote which finally got rid of Dempsey there were only two men – together with the voting power of their assorted aunties, cousins and Uncle Tom Cobleys – who stood against him. The others had long since realised that they could never come up with the ideas or the cash required to re-establish Celtic as a force in European football (jeez, even domestic football was beginning to look like a challenge too far for them) and had decided to throw in their lot with a man who didn’t need to be supported by the club.
The reason for this coup was the long-running stadium issue. Dempsey had been pushing for the club to relocate to Robroyston and build a stadium on some land which he had acquired. This did not go down well with some of the other board members, who felt that their position would be weakened if this were to happen. Dempsey, it was decided, had to go.
We now had a situation at the club where two men had demonstrated to the rest of the board that no matter they thought, if it went against the White/ Kelly axis then their views amounted to nothing. Their impotence at boardroom level had been glaringly exposed and they were left in an awkward and embarrassing situation.
Chris White emerged from the fiasco to thrust himself forward as the man to lead Celtic into the coming decade and beyond. His qualifications for the job were many and varied:
1. His father used to be the Chairman.
3. That was it.
At least now we knew where to point the finger when the going inevitably started to get tougher.
Event number two concerned Rangers. Their captain Butcher had been struggling to find fitness, although in the build up to the final it seemed certain he would play. In the event he refused to do so. Which can be interpreted either as “I don’t want to play” or “I’m not fit enough to play.” Whatever the truth, Butcher was soon on his way.
To add to Rangers’ worries Le Merde also picked up an injury and was ruled out. On balance, things were beginning to look up for Celtic.
On the morning of October 28th the heavens opened up. Heavy rain had been falling since early in the morning, which was not good news for those of us without tickets for the main stand at Hampden who would inevitably be soaked to the skin by the time the first throw-in had been awarded.
The first half of the match itself was notable only for the lack of real chances at either end and the leniency of the referee towards Rangers’ one man football threshing machine Terry Hurlock. This was a player of such thuggery that even legendary lunatic and one time Birmingham City winger Robert Hopkins singled him out as a nasty piece of work. Time and again Hurlock would have a hack at McStay’s ankles, as often as not without even so much as a foul being awarded.
The second period finally brought some football action. Early in the half Celtic won a corner. Collins swung the ball into the box and a half clearance fell to Wdowczyck on the edge of the penalty area. His low shot was turned into the net by Paul Elliott, who trusted his own footwork so much he dived to the ground in order to head it in! One up, and the poor drookit souls at the Kings Park end went mad.
For the next ten minutes the Hoops held firm. Celtic had an unusual right back that afternoon. Peter Grant. Thus far he had kept Walters well shackled, tailing him wherever he went. But it was this point that big Billy’s Book of Mysterious Tactics emerged and the cup was thrown away. Off went Joe Miller from the right wing and on came regular right back Chris Morris, with Grant moving into the right midfield area. A more puzzling move couldn’t have been imagined. Would a winger not have been a valuable asset in running down the clock? Why move a player who was doing such an effective marking job? We will never know.
What we do know is that within five minutes of this substitution Walters – freed from the close attentions of Grant – had scored to take the game into extra time.
However, before this we still had one more agony to endure. Two minutes of injury time had elapsed when Celtic were presented with a gilt-edged chance. Rogan robbed McCoist of possession and released Dziekanowski. Not for the first time the Polish ‘flatter to deceive’ merchant failed us by tamely shooting straight at Woods when glory beckoned. In the last minute of the previous season’s Scottish cup tie between the teams he done exactly the same thing. In the last minute of normal time in this match he failed to put Elliott through on goal by hanging on to the ball too long. Put simply, the man was becoming a liability.
With three minutes of the first period of extra time remaining Bonner and Morris had a misunderstanding which allowed Gough to score. The cup had finally slipped away.
Rangers played keep ball for the remainder of the game and Celtic had neither the strength nor the nerve to come back. At the final whistle McStay sank to his knees. We had failed to beat a rangers team minus its captain and top scorer after having taken the lead.
With that cup thrown away the collapse of Celtic’s league challenge could begin in earnest.
Successive Saturdays saw the Hoops lose games away from home in truly depressing circumstances, firstly at Aberdeen (0:3) then at Tynecastle (0:1). The sad fact was that both games had registered barely a Celtic goal attempt worthy of the name.
Sandwiched between these defeats was a home win against Motherwell, significant for the return of Tommy Coyne to the forward line, the manager having clearly had enough of Jackie’s increasingly feeble attempts to lead the line. This game also saw the debut of Mark McNally in defence. Coyne scored twice in his comeback to secure a 2:1 victory with the second being a carbon copy of the chance Dziekanowski had passed up in the League Cup final. It was enough to make you weep.
The following week saw the team and – more importantly the fans – in action in Manchester for Brian Robson’s testimonial. Not only did the players perform admirably for the occasion, coming back from conceding an early goal to win 3:1, but the supporters were at their best, giving Robson a standing ovation as he came off the bench for the last 15 minutes and refusing to leave the stadium at the end of the game, preferring to stay and sing their hearts out with the United fans who had swarmed onto the pitch from the Stretford End to salute the Celts.
Back in Glasgow on the Sunday things took another steep nosedive with the second Glasgow league derby of the season. Rangers turned up without Butcher, Gough or Trevor Steven. Celtic were minus Whyte and Morris. Who would you rather have missing?
True to form Celtic gifted their opponents an early lead when Le Merde forced Lex Baillie into a hurried back pass which landed seriously short of where it was intended to go. Johnston lobbed it over a stranded Bonner. From that moment the visitors were pounded until finally Paul Elliott got between Hateley and Brown to head the equaliser.
The second half started with Celtic still very much on top and within two minutes Coyne struck a shot which hit the post, trundled along the line and then rolled agonisingly away from the goal.
It was a turning point. Minutes later Hurlock (again) seemed to catch Fulton somewhere around the throat. The Celtic players appeared to stop in anticipation of the foul and even Hurlock spared a glance at the referee. But when he saw that no infringement was being given he released McCoist who rounded Bonner to score.
Following this Rangers dug in and that was that. Murder.
While things on the pitch were not, to put it mildly, going well, at least there appeared to be progress in the boardroom. December saw the arrival of Terry Cassidy as the club’s first ever Chief Executive. It was a bold move and a tacit admission that the directors themselves were not in possession of the necessary business skills required to turn things around.
From almost every angle Cassidy apparently was the ideal man for the job; he had quite an impressive track record given that he had added £1.6 million to the turnover of the Irish Times in his first year there; he didn’t carry the baggage of being a “Celtic man” but he was familiar with the football situation in Glasgow from his days with the Evening Times and the Herald. Perfect. But Cassidy was fated to be one of the most controversial figures attached to the club in the 90s.
Quite an accolade if you stop to think about it.
One of his first press conferences saw him criticise Rangers for not hiring his services first and within one week of his appointment he was advising the Bank of Scotland not to increase the club’s overdraft.
One of the things he had discovered on his appointment was that Celtic didn’t have a business plan. This was 1990 and a club that was supposedly due to finance a multi-million pound stadium did not have the basic foundation that every business needs. Cassidy quickly deduced that if there was no plan for finance then there was certainly no plan to repay the overdraft and he advised the bank accordingly. The board found out about this and it immediately soured relationships.
Although his relationship with the media would have deteriorated sooner or later, early interviews with the press had the new Chief Executive complaining that this was the first time he hadn’t been invited to join the board of any company he had worked for and he was not impressed.
With Terry Cassidy about there were very few dull moments.
The team, meanwhile, had stuttered and stumbled on. Between October and February Celtic managed just four league victories in 17 games. The Ne’erday fixture at Ibrox had been a predictable disaster (0:2) and this debacle was followed by a turgid 1:1 draw at Celtic Park against Hibs, Peter Grant salvaging a point with a cynical last man foul in the dying minutes.
The following week saw the final ignominy when the game at Fir Park was cancelled because of the weather and the Pools Panel awarded Motherwell a home win.