Harry Potter and the Disappearing Defender – from Hampden to Cluj, Part 1 by Matt Corr
So, one month on from the magic of the Eternal City, it’s time for another European adventure. Well not so much of an adventure really, given that we’re off to Cluj for the second time in just four months. This means that I will have already used up all of my sightseeing anecdotes and collection of bad puns related to Dracula and all things Transylvania, a real pity given that there is nothing at stake for this game. A slightly different diary approach will be required for that awayday to keep things interesting. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Anyone keeping count?
I had probably decided in my head that I would pass on this trip, given the proximity of Christmas, the recent visit and the other demands on my time. Then it happens. Just after the Lazio victory, the email arrives from Nirvana, ‘only x seats remaining on the flight’. My fear of missing out kicks in. Ten minutes later, I’m booked up. That’s it. No discussion. This is what I do. I was always going. It’s in my blood.
It has been some week so far. On Sunday, I attended my first Cup Final as a guest of the club, together with my fellow tour guides (see above pic). I’ve continued to do my own thing with the kids for finals since I started working at the ground, last March.
Then, on Lisbon Day of this year, I enjoyed perhaps the most surreal Celtic experience of my life, looking after the Treble Treble trophies from the dressing-room area at Hampden, upstairs on the team bus (complete with lapel flower) then back to the hotel for the official reception.
There was only one glitch, when after being advised by the police at the stadium that the procession up the Saltmarket and along the Gallowgate was going ahead, the team bus was diverted left along the Broomielaw, due to the massive crowds in the city centre. Had that celebration taken place, they could have buried me happily the next day. Well after shooting me first, obviously. Still I’ll always have the Brazen Head. The scenes of joy at the famous Gorbals pub will live with me forever.
I was a bit more apprehensive than normal for this latest game. Even by my standards. In forty years of attending League Cup finals against the original Rangers, I had witnessed victory only once. That was on Saturday, 4 December 1982, the wettest day ever but also my dad’s birthday, when Charlie and Murdo won the elusive trophy for Billy, his only such success as a manager. Of course, Cesar had lifted it five times in a row for the Hoops in the mid to late sixties, before the curse of Matt struck.
Although I had attended the Scottish Cup final of May 1970 against Aberdeen, the Bobby Davidson Final, with over 108,000 in the ground, I was not allowed to go to Hampden that October when Celtic faced Rangers in the League Cup finale. ‘It’s Rangers, son. You don’t get to go.’
I was actually at Petershill Park in Springburn when the tannoy announcer advised the crowd that Rangers were a goal up at half-time, and the place erupted. A new experience for the 9-year-old me. The header scored by Derek Johnstone, only seven years older than myself, would prove to be the only goal of the game, as the Ibrox side picked up a first trophy since 1966. I never returned to watch my local junior side again.
I couldn’t be blamed for that one but sadly the same thing couldn’t be said the following year, as Celts faced newly-promoted Partick Thistle. I left the house for my second cup final proclaiming ‘6-2’ to my mum. It very nearly was as well. Thistle were 4-0 at half-time before I made my second mistake of the day, checking with my dad that we needed five in the second half. If looks could kill. We got just one.
That dreadful start in League Cup finals would continue largely unabated over the decades until the millennium, with Hibernian, Dundee, Aberdeen and even Raith Rovers winning the day at our expense, in addition to the countless (sorry!) defeats at the hands of the Ibrox side, whose name seemed to be permanently on the trophy, often in controversial circumstances.
Whilst the record would improve in the new century, even Martin O’Neill would fail at the final hurdle against his Glasgow rivals, his Celtic side storming back from the loss of two early goals in March 2003 to make it 2-1 before John Hartson had a perfectly-good strike disallowed for offside.
The big Welshman then contrived to miss a late penalty, as once again a combination of circumstances saw the trophy head for Govan. It was left to Gordon Strachan to secure the only victory in this particular fixture since the monsoon of December 1982. By this time, March 2009, I had given up hope of ever seeing that. My son and I were in the Parlour Bar in New York City, watching the match with my American cousins and aunt, ahead of the St Patrick’s Day parade on Fifth Avenue two days later. Fittingly that weekend, it was two Irishmen from Dublin and er…Rutherglen, Darren O’Dea and Aiden McGeady, who scored the goals. Incredible stuff.
Two years later, I received the gift of hospitality as the teams met again in the final on the weekend of my 50th birthday. It was Neil Lennon’s first full season in the Parkhead dug-out and his exciting side was chasing a Treble. You can guess the rest. An extra-time goal from Jelavic – bought with money it transpired Rangers didn’t have – wins the cup, the ball hitting both posts before trundling over the line. That ruined my big weekend and Neil ended up with only the Scottish Cup, as Walter Smith’s side enjoyed a final hurrah. But the victors that day would suffer immeasurably more. By the end of the next season, the Ibrox club had gone into liquidation, as over a century of bitter rivalry died with them.
So, Sunday would be the first cup final meeting of Celtic and the phoenix club, and whilst times had changed, there was still a sense of big-game atmosphere in the build-up, driven by a frenzied media. I hoped that the weather on the day was an omen, a miserable, dark, wet day like ‘82, albeit this time we would be under cover.
Instead, the heavy pitch and conditions seemed to suck the life from Celtic, Rangers making several chances but running into a brick wall in the shape of Fraser Forster. The lack of an experienced target man and/or out-ball seemed to force us constantly back on our heels and the interval couldn’t come soon enough. Surely Eddie will appear after the break. And possibly Mikey.
We got the latter, immediately, but it was approaching the hour mark before French Eddie replaced Lewis Morgan, to a huge roar from the good guys inside the stadium. And his impact was immediate, hacked down by Goldson on the left within seconds. From Ryan Christie’s deliciously-curling cross, we had a perfect view as Chris Jullien reacted first to prod the ball home. A vile chant is silenced by a goal. Just as it was back in March 1977, when big Roy Aitken volleyed in a late equaliser at the Copland Road end of Ibrox, as Jock’s Bhoys homed in on his last Double. Cue bedlam in the stand for the Tour Bhoys.
Minutes later, it looked like the League Cup jinx may strike again, as Morelos collapsed under a challenge from the excellent Jeremie Frimpong, and referee Collum immediately awarded the penalty. At least this time ‘Wing Mirrors’ was facing the right way to do so. Then the double jeopardy kicks in as the young Celt is shown a red card. I’m waiting on the net bulging as the kick is taken, then jumping around like a lunatic as the ball is saved by big Fraser then scrambled clear. Let-off for us. Big-time.
Within minutes, there is a chance to seal it, as Eddie again terrorises Goldson before setting his fellow substitute Johnston clear, one-on-one with McGregor, for a glorious opportunity. But the talented youngster takes one touch too many, before rushing his shot wide of the post with the keeper beaten.
The final twenty minutes became a personal crusade for Morelos against the 10-man Celts. Would he miss more chances or carry out more illegal challenges without seeing a card? Incredibly, he remained on the pitch, just as he had at Ibrox previously, despite the foul count. Finally, it’s all over. And there’s joy and relief in equal measures as a tenth consecutive trophy is secured. A phenomenal achievement.
We’re on the bus and I’m thinking I must have missed something, as all the talk is of Rangers and an offside goal. We were directly in line and I can recollect no claims whatsoever in that regard at the time, albeit word started to drift through later that the TV pictures were calling the big Frenchman off. I’ll have a look at that later. The tone of the BBC Sportsound team is funereal. Only in Scotland.
The icing on the cake is a trip back to Celtic Park for some food and drink. Broony and Big Fraser bring in the cup and say a few nice words before the staff have a photo opportunity with the trophy. I’m in my element with the other Bhoys from the Tours team, a cracking bunch.
There’s time for a chat with Willie McStay. During the week, he had come out of the dressing-room with the latest youth signing and his parents, just as I was taking a tour party in, having spent some time speaking to the kids about how, just occasionally, dreams come true and young Celts get the opportunity to sign for the club. Willie spent some time talking to the guests and was an absolute star. I also get the rare chance for a blether with some of the lovely folk from the Ticket Office and the Foundation. Monday is cancelled.
Well not quite. There is a programme deadline looming and I have an article to complete. Last season, I wrote a series about the nineteen Championship wins achieved by Celtic since the return of Cesar as manager, in May 1978, ‘We are the Champions!’ For every home League game, the story of each flag-winning campaign was revisited, from Ten Men Won the League until Brendan’s last title.
This year’s topic is the nineteen players who have made most League appearances for Celtic, under the heading ‘A League of Their Own.’ Counting back from the man in nineteenth place, it has already been a real ‘who’s who?’ of Parkhead history. Week one was Tommy Burns, the Celtic-daft redhead who should have been celebrating his 63rd birthday today, taken much too soon. His Centenary team-mate, Peter Grant is in there also, with the remaining Bhoys covered on the list so far dating much further back, to the time of Maley and McGrory. Adam McLean.
The great James Edward McGrory himself. Bobby Evans. ‘Sunny Jim’ Young and Alec Thomson. As luck would have it, the piece I had just submitted when I bumped into Willie McStay was all about his namesake and great-uncle. It was nice to highlight the unique situation where two sets of brothers, bearing the same surname, played in Celtic Scottish Cup-winning sides, six decades apart. There’s a bit of work involved in this but it’s a real labour of love.
With the latest article submitted – programme-buyers will know by now it featured Andy McAtee – it was time to catch up on social media.
Some of my old Cairn pals are on a WhatsApp group, and they have been busy. There are some great angles which show the Rangers defender, Filip Helander, level with the Celtic players in the lead-up to Sunday’s winning goal, blasting away the complaints of ‘three men offside’ which I’ve been hearing since the game ended. This should come as some comfort to the almost-inconsolable Ibrox skipper, James Tavernier, who looked close to tears during his post-match interview.
It’s a fabulous spot to be fair. The blue number five jersey of Helander ‘disappears’ briefly amongst the Hoops attackers as the ball is struck. He’s level and, therefore, playing them all on. So, unlike the scandalous decision in the same fixture sixteen years earlier, which robbed Big Bad John of an equaliser, this goal was good. I haven’t had a moment to review the media retractions as yet.
Tuesday is Granda Day, as this week I have both kids to look after. So, by Champions League time I am soft-played out and frazzled but stay up to watch the highlights programme. Wednesday is a working day at the stadium. Highlight of the shift is Jimmy from Clydebank.
He’s struggling with some mobility issues as he celebrates his 75th birthday in the only possible option, Celtic Park. Despite that, he tells me that he is determined to walk down the tunnel unaided. And he does. There’s not a dry eye in the place as he emerges to the strains of ‘You’ll never walk alone’. Sometimes, this job is just magical.
It’s another European footie night on TV but I decide to record the highlights and catch some sleep before the 2.30am rise for Transylvania. I’m sure there’s another punchline in there. By 4am Thursday, my wife has dropped me off at a frozen, dark Glasgow Airport and we’re on the road again. Sheer lunacy!
To be continued…Hail! Hail!
You can follow Matt on Twitter @Boola_vogue
*The views expressed or opinions given on the Rangers are those of Matt Corr and while these views are pretty much are shared by just about every Celtic supporter, they are NOT necessarily the views of Celtic Football Club and as Editor it is my responsibility to point this out. Matt writes for this site as a Celtic supporter and not is his rile as a Celtic Tour Guide. Matt has NOT asked me to point this out.