The goalless draw with Saints meant that the single point required could now be gained at Tannadice, scene of the previous season’s memorable title victory, the following Saturday. A huge Celtic support once again made the journey up to Tayside, full of hope and expectation, the gates closed well before kick-off as we crushed into the uncovered terracing behind the goal.
Always one of my favourite away grounds, despite witnessing quite a few defeats there over the years, there was a brilliant atmosphere as the teams emerged from the tunnel on our left into the sunshine and bedlam. Whilst this seemed to inspire the home side, on this day of days, Celtic failed to turn up. United piled forward continually from the off and the Bhoys struggled to muster any kind of resistance, the situation deteriorating badly as first Sullivan hobbled off injured then Hegarty headed the hosts in front within twenty minutes.
Counting our blessings at reaching the break still only one behind, Sturrock, a wonderful striker, soon sickened our happiness by firing in off the post within a minute of the restart. And when star striker McCluskey then limped off moments later, the ‘game was a bogey’ as they say. Defender McAdam was pushed forward to renew his earlier, successful partnership with young Crainie, in a desperate attempt to salvage a point. Sadly, only one more goal was scored, a third for the men in tangerine as Milne beat Bonner from the edge of the box with ten minutes remaining. A dreadful day all round.
It was an inquest rather than a party on the subdued bus journey back to Springburn. From a seemingly unassailable position just a week earlier, two successive opportunities had been passed up, the team appearing to have run out of steam short of the line. There was still a point to be won before the flag could be claimed and, worryingly, Aberdeen had continued to rack up the points and the goals, winning their games in hand to take Celtic all the way to the final game of the season.
In one of those fixture quirks so beloved by the football gods, the Dons’ final match would be against Rangers at Pittodrie, the Ibrox side having nothing to play for. Celtic would be at home to St Mirren, for the second time in a fortnight, having failed to win either of their two previous Parkhead meetings. Scary biscuits.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the media and the anoraks had a field day in the run-up to the Saturday games, looking at all the permutations which would prevent a second consecutive championship for Cesar’s Celtic. The more things change etc. It all came down to this; one point for the Bhoys would make them uncatchable, regardless of events at Pittodrie, whilst a win for Saints by a single goal and a winning margin of five in the Granite City would see the title return to Aberdeen. It couldn’t happen…could it?
The hype worked, as 40,000 fans rolled up to Parkhead that afternoon. From my stance in the Jungle, I have to say, it felt like there was that number in there alone. The atmosphere was electric, as the Hoops were urged for one more push. As with the previous game against St Mirren, there was tension in the air which inevitably would spread to the pitch. We eventually reached the interval, still goalless.
To this day, I firmly believe that this was the only title in history to be won at half-time. The news came through that Aberdeen were four goals ahead at Pittodrie, Hewitt with a hat-trick, Rangers ‘resting’ half of their first team ahead of the Cup Final against the Dons the following week. Anger at this turn of events changed into defiance, creating the most incredible noise, as Parkhead roared like the old days. As the teams ran back out, for the first time in weeks, I truly believed that this would be the day.
The volume is turned up as the Hoops go in for the kill, midfield trio Burns, McStay and MacLeod now controlling the game and it is only a matter of time. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as half-fit George McCluskey takes a ball in and smashes it home with his left foot and ‘It’s lift-off in the Jungle’. The songs are still being belted out as McAdam nods past Thomson but sees it cleared off the line…or is it?
The referee looks across then makes a beeline back to the centre circle. It’s 2-0 Celtic. The place is absolutely jumping but Chicken George isn’t finished yet, another dazzling move from midfield ends with the striker burying a shot behind Thomson and now it is game over. The remaining fifteen minutes are a giant singalong, as we say hello to two-in-a-row, as relief turns to joy and it feels great.
There is a brief field invasion at full-time, then Cesar strides out with that look and grown men run for cover. Skipper McGrain is hoisted aloft Celtic shoulders and the trophy is presented on the pitch. There is a proper lap of honour in front of our own, this is how it feels to be Celtic on title-winning day. And we did it the Celtic way, McCluskey’s opener was the 100th goal in all competitions, despite season-ending injuries for main strikers Nicholas and McGarvey, despite missing the inspirational McGrain, Provan and MacLeod for months. This is also a title won by sheer guts, determination and courage.
And the youngsters have stepped into the boots of the stricken giants. Just as last season saw the emergence of Nicholas, Bonner and Reid, there are Bhoys doing men’s work in the shape of McStay, Crainie and Moyes. Some will go on to be legends, whilst for others, this was their moment in the sun.
This season has also been the peak for the Celtic youngsters of an earlier era, as McCluskey, Burns and Aitken perform at the absolute height of their powers. George is the top striker and goal-scorer in the country, at a time when the opposition is formidable, minus his two main partners for much of the time. Tommy has outshone his nemesis Strachan to become the best midfielder in Scotland, week after week identified as the outstanding player on the field by the reporting press and fans alike.
The Young Bear is now a captain-in-waiting whilst ‘bearly’ into his twenties, standing in for Danny through his injury absence with confidence and aplomb well beyond his tender years. They are ably supported by the survivors from the ‘Ten Men Won the League’ team, notably Provan, MacLeod and the legend McGrain. There is real disappointment when Jock picks only Danny and Davie for the World Cup squad heading for Spain next month. For me, Tommy and George, in particular, deserved to be on that flight.
From a Celtic point of view, there is much to look forward to next season. Nicholas and McGarvey will return to bolster the attack, stronger than ever, a mouth-watering prospect. The youngsters with this title-winning season under their belt, will be all the better for that experience. Billy is building a Celtic side that looks and feels like Celtic and we can identify with these players. We will be the team to beat.