When Martin O’Neill stepped into the role of Celtic Manager in Summer 2000 he inherited a team low on confidence having conceded the league by twenty-one points the previous season to Rangers. However, he also inherited some genuine leaders.
Paul Lambert, Tommy Boyd and Johan Mjallby were all well-established international footballers already plying their trade at Celtic Park by the time O’Neill arrived. A Swedish striker by the name of Henrik Larsson had also shown he had something to offer.
These players were then joined in the 2000/01 season by some equally hardy characters such as Neil Lennon, Chris Sutton and Alan Thompson, providing O’Neill with a side full of resilience, experience and of course, undoubted ability.
As a group their number one aim was to return the Scottish league title to Parkhead. And return to the east end of Glasgow it did.
Tommy Johnson would seal the title with the only goal in a 1-0 win v St Mirren on 7 April 2001 as Celtic went on to win the title by fifteen points. A thirty-six point swing from the season before. To add the Scottish Cup and League Cup for a first treble since 1969 was simply the icing on the cake.
AN UNSUNG HERO
Some of the names listed above are the players forefront in the minds of most supporters when thinking back to that glorious era under O’Neill’s leadership. But was there anyone who flew under the radar during those times? Perhaps not getting the credit or recognition they deserved? In addition to the Suttons and the Larssons, O’Neill was asked of the figures who played a notable part in his success.
“I was able to add some players (when I arrived). Didier Agathe came in for £50,000. Alan Thompson did brilliantly for £2.5M. Joos Valgaeren came in. Changing Johan Mjallby from a central midfield player to a centre-back. All of those things.
But if you’re asking about someone that I feel now was a really good player – a player it took me a little bit of time to realise how good a player he was – and I don’t know why because I’m generally a half reasonable judge of player…It was Jackie McNamara.”
McNamara of course had arrived at the club some five years prior and had impressed under Tommy Burns and Wim Jansen, playing a key part in “stopping the ten” in 1998.
Like most of his team-mates difficult times then followed under Jo Venglos and then John Barnes as we endured another trophyless spell. He also faced a challenge to win over O’Neill during his early days, though that wouldn’t last for long.
“A brave lad. Scared of nothing. He could play right back, he could play right side midfield. He could even play centre midfield if he wanted too as well. It took me a little bit of time, but McNamara was really a terrific player.
“And if he was underrated at the time at Celtic that was maybe as much my fault as anything else. I’ve since apologised to him profusely a number of times. Whether he’s accepted it or not… But he was terrific. An absolutely terrific player.”
Together O’Neill and McNamara would lift three Scottish league Titles, three Scottish Cups and a League Cup during a trophy laden spell at the beginning of the century.
Personal triumphs for McNamara included scoring the opening goal in the 2001 Scottish Cup Final against Hibs, being named Scottish Football Writers Player of the Year in 2004, and receiving a testimonial in 2005 for ten years of service to Celtic.
It was an unforgettable time for McNamara, for O’Neill, and of course the Celtic support.
The full interview with Martin O’Neill is available now exclusively to subscribers of The Celtic Exchange Plus. Click here to listen now for FREE with your 7 Day Trial of The Celtic Exchange Plus.
In this week’s exclusive interview with Martin O’Neill on The Celtic Exchange podcast, the legendary former Celtic manager discusses the following topics:
– The One Thing He Would Exchange From his time At Celtic
– Seeking Approval From Brian Clough
– An Early Introduction to European Football
– Words of Wisdom From “The Barber”