The 1997/98 season was one fraught with stress and tension all the way from the new bhoy Larsson’s poor pass in the very first game until that glorious moment in the final minutes of 9 May 1998.
Born in the ‘70s, I grew up the 80’s where Celtic were one of 4 separate championship winning clubs within a strong league that won 2 European trophies with a further semi-finalist of the European Cup and finalist in UEFA Cup.
My memories include crowding around a crackly transistor radio in an overcrowded caravan in Ayr in 1986 when news of Albert Kidd filtered through and we nearly punctured a hole through that caravan floor as we jumped up and down.
Another is, along with my 8 year old brother, being one of the hundreds of fans in 1988 ushered through an exit gate, opened at the behest of the police, to relieve the pressure on Janefield street and then marched along in front of the Jungle to the no-mans land between the home and away fans in the old Rangers End. The sight of the scarfs raised and the sound of YNWA at the end of that game gives me Goosebumps to this day.
Wonderful times to be a Celtic fan, especially when added to the 1985 cup final and both the semi and final in 1988 and the building of the new frontage to the main stand. Despite throwing away the league title in 1987 to a now resurgent Rangers, there was a feeling that we were a club on the up and my naive 15 year old self, had grand visions of winning the 1989 European Cup. I never could have imagined the fall from grace that my club suffered.
Despite winning the 1989 Scottish Cup, the deterioration of the club was well underway, although I refused to believe it. By the summer of 1991 I was working as a lifeguard paying my way through University and, following another dismal showing in the league and a semi-final defeat to Motherwell, a summer recruitment drive again had me upbeat about our prospects for the coming season.
A Rangers supporting colleague – who was known in the centre to be a bit dim – made a comment to me that Rangers were 10 years ahead of Celtic. I dismissed this out of hand as ridiculous but he insisted that Rangers infrastructure, stadium, spending power et al put them well ahead of us. While in the end it wasn’t 10 years, his premise was spot on and we had further to fall before being saved by Fergus and Dempsey et al.
For Rangers first 7 in a row, Celtic did not provide any challenge to their city rivals and had to rely on the odd victory in a derby game. I remember clinging to the St Patrick’s Day Massacre at Celtic Park for months after. During this time we had to endure signings of the quality of Wayne Biggins and talk of Cambuslang while Rangers continued to sign proven internationalists and expand their stadium.
I remember watching a Spurs game on Sky with my father and he remarked that a stadium of the size of White Hart Lane is all we would need. That thought alone was devastating to me that we would end up a small club playing to 30,000 fans just a few years after 70,000 plus had squeezed into the old one. I was beginning to lose my close-season optimism and resigning myself to being an also ran. The fabled 9 was also starting to permeate my thoughts and I was already starting to feel anxious as they made it to 6.
When the Fergus McCann revolution started it was a slow burner and we still had to endure the torturous season at Hampden, the League Cup final defeat at Ibrox and Rangers title win number 7. The stress of watching the Scottish Cup final and the elation at the final whistle, lifted some of the fog but it wasn’t until we got back to Paradise and saw first-hand the enormity of the structure being built that I started to believe again.
Even now, having been to some of the biggest and most famous sports stadia in the world, I still pause in awe every time I walk up the steps at Celtic Park and out into the arena.
Season books for 1995-1996 were offered for the temporary stand at the Celtic End whilst the next phase of the stadium was built. We bought some exciting players in, the likes of Andreas Thom to add to big Pierre from the previous season and optimism was returning. Tommy Burns, one of my playing heroes, was beginning to build a team that could win games and play in that swashbuckling style he did as a player.
We were scoring goals and playing good football. When Jorge Cadete finally arrived that wet, wet night against Aberdeen, belief was beginning to course that we could do it. Despite only losing one game that season, there was still a fragility to the team and too many needless draws saw us fall 4 points short. But, and it was big but, we had competed for the first time in 8 years and finished behind a team that had taken a record points haul and were 28 points ahead of third placed Aberdeen.
Number 8 had been achieved nonetheless and once again the stress of how close they were returned.
1996-97 season brought Paolo to the heady mix of Pierre and Cadette and a move from the temporary stand into section 111 in the corner between the 2 towering stands. Optimism built again but always with the worry in the back of the mind. Added to this was the increasing fear and morose of my father about the prospect of ‘them’ equalling the fabled 9.
The season had its ups and downs but again our fragility of mind allowed too many dropped points at crucial times and despite getting close, Rangers eased to a 5 point margin and we didn’t have the mental strength to see off Falkrik at a rain soaked Ibrox in the Scottish Cup semi-final replay. Tommy Burns was done for and we all knew it but given the man and the footballer he was, along with the way he tried to play the game, and what many felt was the undermining from Fergus, no ill will was felt towards him.
We headed to the Pavilion for Peter Grant’s testimonial show hoping to give TB a strong send off. His eulogy of PG and the acapella singing of Whitney Houston’s ‘I believe that children are our future’ brought the house down and he walked off the stage to his managerial fate an even bigger hero to that audience than ever before.
God rest you TB!
Now to season 1997-98 and the arrival of ‘The King’. In truth, there was little optimism in our household and by now my father was permanently grumpy. As the season wore on, there were times he was close to tears with the thought of 10.
The season started badly with 2 straight defeats and some concern that the new dreadlocked striker was not a patch on the 3-Amigos. A stuffy win in the league cup away to St Johnstone eased the early season woes and an 8 game winning run took us to the top of the league. That run was ended by a defeat in the derby and had us all thinking that we didn’t have the mental strength to pose a challenge.
Despite that defeat in early November, two things happened in the October and November of 1997 that I believe turned the whole season around. By this time I had moved to England and could only make weekend games but I made sure that I was at Celtic Park for a Uefa cup tie against the mighty reds of Liverpool.
After being battered for 30 mins, I began to notice something in the team. They appeared to be learning as the game progressed. They were realising how to play and impose themselves on the game. As the game wore on, we were not only competing with Liverpool but dominating them and were deservedly 2-1 up heading into the final minutes when a certain Steve McManaman picked the ball up in his own half and meandered through our tired defence to snatch an equaliser.
We would eventually go out on away goals after a battling performance at Anfield but I felt that cold night in Paradise had taught us how to play football and installed a belief in the players. The big challenge would be could we do it against Rangers? In the first game the answer was no, but another was to follow two-weeks later.
I was holed up in a council flat in deepest Fenland England trying desperately to maintain any kind of signal for Radio Scotland as the team took the field on that November night against Rangers.
For most of the game it looked as though the old frailties had returned as they were leading 1-0 with 10 men. I couldn’t listen so switched the radio off, but like a fly to a flame, I was continually drawn to the action and would switch on, hear the score and switch back off again to pace around the sparse bedroom until I could no longer stand the anguish and switch back on again, repeating this many times during that stale second half. As the game moved into added time, I switched off again and cursed my team and the certainty of 10.
My one comfort was that I did not have to face my father and his anger and sadness. One final time the fly was drawn to the flame and I tentatively turned on again to get confirmation of the defeat at the exact second that the great big hulking Scouse centre half was leaping into the air to connect with the ball, sending it into the net.
The sounds emanating from that wonderful amphitheatre were awesome.
Steel and resolve was shown in the match to snatch that late draw when for the previous 9 years a Celtic team would have meekly accepted defeat.
Some encouraging results followed in the lead up to Christmas, including both the hard fought defeat of a table topping Hearts and the comprehensive defeat of Dundee Utd at Ibrox to win the League Cup. Demonstrating a strength of character and no little flair, could this team conceivably challenge for the title?
We were tentatively singing ‘…you think you are fine, you only got nine, you’ll never get 10 in a row’.
Despite these strong results, we approached the 2 January derby at Celtic Park four points behind our city rivals and defeat would surely end the title challenge and gift wrap the 10. That question was emphatically answered that glorious winter’s day as goals from Burley and a screamer from Lambert sealed a monumental win. Game on!
When watching the recording when we got home, Martin Tyler suggests, during the build up to Lambert’s goal, that a second would surely win it for Celtic, just as the ball flew from that cultured right boot. As the ball hit the net, Tyler shouts ‘And what a way to win it!’ He always did have a way of saying the right things at the right time. Along with Derek Rae, still the best commentator in the game.
Celtic went on another long unbeaten run – 11 games. For those of you used to 20 plus games unbeaten and the Invincibles, 11 games back then was monumental. We headed to Ibrox with 5 games to go with a 3 point lead. A meek 2-0 defeat with the returning Gough raising his hands to gesture 10, sent Rangers to the top on goal difference. All they had to do was match us in the final 4 games.
The pressure of what was at stake started to take its toll on the whole club.
Fortunately, Rangers were feeling the same pressure and what could have been an exciting run in turned into a war of attrition. The fans could see the strain on the players, especially the Scottish born Celtic fans in the team, were suffering from and this translated to the supporters.
My father? Well he was becoming more apoplectic by the week. My parents had split up a couple of years before and the record of his boyhood team was about to be broken by what he believed was a vastly inferior team to the Lions.
Anyone who has ever watched football with my dad will tell you he is never happy and there is always a chance we could let that 3 goal lead slip. The 4 and a bit months of 1998 were intolerable for him – and for all of us in section 111.
Rather than kick on, Rangers collapsed to defeat at Pittodrie while Celtic thrashed Motherwell 4-1 to go top again. A draw with Hibs again halted the momentum. The moment that should have helped us seal the title was wonderfully ironic and didn’t involve Celtic.
As absurd as it sounds now in 2019, back in 1998 retiring referees were allowed to pick the venue and game they would like for their last. Bobby Tait, long suspected of being a die-hard Rangers fan duly selected Ibrox and was pencilled to referee their match with Kilmarnock.
With the game heading into injury time and Rangers needing a win to keep them in with a shout of the league, the bold Bobby added 5-minutes. It was this 5-minutes that sealed Rangers fate as Kilmarnock stole a winner.
This left Celtic needing to beat Dunfermline in their penultimate game to win the league. Easy, right?
I spent a nerve jangling 90 mins walking around a swimming pool lifeguarding while trying to hide the headphones in my ear as I listened to 5-live and Arsenal sealing the English championship with occasional updates from East End Park. I am so glad there were no incidents in the pool that afternoon as I barely looked at the water as the match ended 1-1. So, after nearly 10 years and an excruciating 9 months it would all come down to 90 minutes at Celtic Park against St Johnstone. A win was needed as goal difference was not in our favour.
So here we are, the day of the game. I hadn’t slept all week, my father was almost certifiable and the whole country waited with baited breath to see who would come out on top. My sister was working with BA and in the time before low cost air travel, was able to get me a staff discounted flight. The only drawback was the ticket was standby.
I duly arrived at Heathrow T1 at 7.30am for a 10am flight to be greeted by a sea of green and white. Hundreds and hundreds of fans waiting for flights, some with no tickets for the game but just wanted to be in the city.
There was a feeling of this being a momentous day.
My reverie was shattered by the check in girl who informed me that the flight was over booked and I was 23/25 on the standby list. Ok, what about the next flight? Sorry sir that is 15 overbooked and you are 14 on the list. ‘Please tell me what I can do?’ I pleaded.
Over the next few hours I was told ‘I can get you a flight to Belfast and you can try from there’.
‘What?’ I asked. No way. ‘Ok’, she said, ‘I can get you on a flight to Newcastle, can anyone pick you up?’
Still no good, I would not make it on time. Finally, she said she could change my ticket to British Midland on the 12pm flight to Edinburgh and that was her final offer. Done! It was now 11.15 and the flight would be boarding in 15 mins and I had to get to a different terminal. I made it as the girl was closing the gate and placed a desperate call on my massive mobile phone brick from the plane to my Rangers supporting girlfriend to ask to pick me up at Edinburgh Airport and take me to Paradise.
I landed at 1.15pm and made it to the 5-Ways Inn (it still might have been the Auld Straw Hoose back then) at the corner of the Gallowgate and Springfield Rd by 2.15. Just in time to meet my Dad, brother and friends and down a quick pint to calm the nerves before we made our way tentatively towards the ground and our fate.
The noise as the teams entered the field was as loud as anything I had heard since that May day in 1988 against Dundee and the excitement reached fever pitch as the future King scored only his 16th goal of the season after just 3 minutes. I think we all thought that it would be a procession from there but the goals did not come and then St Johnstone had a header at point blank range fizz past the post when it should have gone in.
The nerves were starting to tell and when a long ball up the park from the Saints keeper dropped in front of Stubbs rather than him attack the header, my dad finally lost it. ‘Don’t let the bloody ball bouncy Stubbsy!’ he bellowed almost rupturing his vocal chords. It is a line that has gone done in the folklore of our group and for a time in section 111 before the green brigade took it over.
With news that Rangers were winning, the nerves in the stands were becoming more frayed and that was translating to the players with a vicious circle of poor play resulting in growns from the crowd, leading to more poor play…until about mid-way through the second half, 49,000 people almost telepathically realised that WE were part of the problem and slowly, quietly at first, a cheer began to rise. We needed to support the team, not get on their backs.
Then the Celtic Song came out followed by Fields and the support was driving the team on. All except my dad, who by this time was rocking back and forth on his seat. Then, just as we thought we might be about to crumble, up stepped the bold Harold to rifle a shot past the Saints keeper and send the crowd apoplectic.
Rob MacLean famously said on BBC, ‘if your picture is blurred, do not adjust your sets, it’s not us, this ground is actually shaking’.
The scenes were wild, I honestly do not remember a single thing about the remainder of the game apart from faither, saying through the bedlam, ‘We could do with a third!’ To which I promptly told him to sit down and shut the eff up, the league is won.
The outpouring of emotion was almost tangible, the elation, relief, joy, it was the most emotional I have ever been at a football game and the noise eclipsed even 1988.
The presentation was a blur, my memories of that part of the day rely on TV evidence but as we finally left the stadium and headed to our favourite haunt, Molly Malones, we regaled our stories of the past 10 years and what this would do to us as a club going forward. Hope for a European run, big name signings, Bratbaak’s goal and this young superstar from Sweden that we had unearthed.
We had our spot in Molly’s and despite having to queue to get in, it was still there waiting for us as if reserved. The beer flowed, Stevie ended up standing on the plinth above the door holding a beer barrel above his head bench pressing it. Graeme, who doesn’t drink, was so caught up in the atmosphere he was almost stopped from getting in his car at the end of the night for being drunk and even my Rangers supporting girlfriend, who had saved my bacon earlier in the day came in and joined in the singing of YNWA.
In all of my years supporting Celtic and through all the great times described above and in the last 20 years, including being there in Porto to see Henrik beat Boavista, that day in the sun in Paradise still reigns supreme in the memory bank.
I think to truly experience the highs of sporting triumph, you need to experience the lows and having gone through those terrible 9 years, I think we deserved that little bit of joy on that day.
I never take any trophy we win for granted and savour them all but that one was just a little bit special.