An Irish legend arrives at Celtic…”So you signed a Cork Bhoy today then?”
The one-point lead was already gone by the time Celtic arrived at Pittodrie on the following Sunday, 4 December 2005, a Rudi Skacel double giving Hearts the three points at home to Livingston the day before. And when Jamie Winter fired the Dons in front with a free-kick eight minutes into the second half, Gordon Strachan may have wondered how a side featuring three changes – Mo Camara, Alan Thompson and Chris Sutton making way for Ross Wallace, Shunsuke Nakamura and Maciej Zurawski – would react.
He would have his answer within 10 minutes, by which time the Hoops had scored three times. First, Aiden McGeady reacted quickest to fire a shot high past Ryan Esson, after Bobo Balde’s shot had been blocked then, two minutes later, Stan Petrov did likewise, after the Aberdeen keeper had fumbled a John Hartson drive.
Just after the hour, Paul Telfer picked up a short Nakamura corner on the right, evading his man like a regular winger before firing home. This was Paul’s first, and as it transpired, only goal in his Celtic career. More importantly, the crucial one-point advantage had been immediately restored. The fact that news of defending champions Rangers losing yet another two-goal lead that weekend – this time sharing the points with Falkirk at Ibrox – was greeted with something approaching apathy, showed just how much the balance of power had swung in Glasgow in a few short months. The 2005/06 title would be a two-way shoot-out between Celtic and Hearts.
There was another thrilling fightback at Celtic Park six days later, as Hibernian came to town, a young Scott Brown wearing the number seven in their starting line-up, which also featured future Celts Gary Caldwell and Derek Riordan. For the first time, Chinese defender Du Wei took a seat on the substitutes’ bench, where he would remain for the duration of the game. Celtic’s other two dragons were very much involved though, combining expertly for the first goal.
Five minutes from the interval, John Hartson got on the end of Shunsuke Nakamura’s free-kick from the left, to nod the Bhoys in front. The game then turned on its head twice in the opening 20 minutes of the second period. First, Guillaume Beuzelin forced his way in front of his marker Stan Petrov to head Hibs level from a near-post corner, then Steven Fletcher sent a tremendous left-footed volley past Artur Boruc from the edge of the box.
Celts hit back immediately. As the Hibs defence prepared for another Nakamura special, Shaun Maloney stepped up to curl a beautiful dead-ball over the wall and past the stranded Zbeigniew Malkowski. The Celtic winner duly arrived on 65 minutes, Maloney’s shot from a Nakamura cross beating the keeper but rebounding off the far post, only for Hartson to bundle home the fifth and decisive goal of the game.
As against Dundee United back in August, the Welshman was then denied his hat-trick by the width of the crossbar. It would prove a pivotal day in the flag race, Hearts held to a goalless draw at home by Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Celtic’s lead at the top thus extended to three points. Despite that, there was mixed feedback from Gordon Strachan at the post-match debrief.
“It was entertaining for people who came to watch the game, but for the coaches it will be a restless night. We conceded from a set play, and I don’t like losing goals from them, so we have to look at that, and the second. But there was some great stuff, and it was a great game, as I predicted.”
Next up for Strachan’s Hoops was a visit to the Scottish Highlands, to face that same Caledonian Thistle on the following Sunday. Three days before that, however, on Thursday, 15 December 2005, a very special player arrived in Glasgow as an early Christmas present for Celtic supporters.
Just 24 hours before Celtic completed that November double over Rangers, events were unfolding some 200 miles south which would have direct consequences for the player involved and the Parkhead club. An official statement from Manchester United confirmed that skipper Roy Keane had left Old Trafford by mutual consent, a seemingly inevitable conclusion to a series of conflicts between player, teammates and management over recent weeks, which had culminated in an explosive interview with the club’s own TV channel, deemed so contentious it was subsequently never broadcast.
I guess like many Celtic supporters, my ears pricked up at the news and the immediate possibility that he could end up in Glasgow. Roy Keane had for many years epitomised for me the identikit Celtic midfield player. The Cork-born midfielder was a world-class footballing talent with an unbelievable will to win and he had never hidden his admiration for the club.
I had seen photos of him sitting in the Free Broomloan on several occasions and then at the Scottish Cup final of 2002, I had the good fortune to bump into him as I approached Hampden from Aikenhead Road with my two sons, leading to one of my most treasured photographs, Roy and my Bhoys. The highlight of that day as it transpired.
Despite the obvious tensions, both club and player made respectful noises as they parted ways, with the now former Manchester United captain Roy Keane commenting;
“It has been a great honour and privilege for me to play for Manchester United for over 12 years. During my time at the club, I have been fortunate to play alongside some of the best players in the game and in front of the best supporters in the world. At all times, I have endeavoured to do my best for the management and the team. Whilst it is a sad day for me to leave such a great club and manager, I believe that the time has now come for me to move on. After so many years, I will miss everyone at the club. I send my best wishes for the future to the management, players, staff and supporters of the club.”
That was reciprocated by Old Trafford boss, Alex Ferguson;
“Roy Keane has been a fantastic servant for Manchester United. The best midfield player in the world of his generation, he is already one of the great figures in our club’s illustrious history. Roy has been central to the success of the club in the last 12-and-a-half years and everyone at Old Trafford wishes him well in the rest of his career and beyond.”
Whilst the 34-year-old Keane had not played since suffering a broken foot at Anfield in September, the comments from all sides made it clear that he would be continuing his playing career elsewhere, with Celtic immediately installed as one of the favourites for his signature. Parkhead manager Gordon Strachan had previously refused to engage in discussions around the possibility of Roy Keane joining Celtic whilst the Irishman was still a contracted Manchester United player, however, that obstacle had now been removed. Even as a man in his mid-40s, I was excited at the prospect of him finally wearing the Hoops, glued to the daily TV updates as the speculation mounted over the coming weeks.
With the Irishman apparently ruling out a move to another English club, despite Everton’s David Moyes and Sam Allardyce at Bolton making hopeful noises, the biggest threat to Celtic securing his signature appeared to come from Real Madrid, where he would join a midfield already including his former Old Trafford teammate David Beckham, the French genius Zinedine Zidane and…er…Thomas Gravesen.
At one point that deal looked sure to go ahead, Keane famously contacted by the club’s vice-president Emilio Butragueno, whilst sitting on the toilet. However, on 4 December 2005, Real Madrid sacked their Brazilian coach Wanderley Luxemburgo, outspoken president Florentino Perez then announcing that any transfer decision would have to wait until the winter break on 21 December. Thankfully, that would prove to be six days too late, as to my absolute delight, on Thursday, 15 December, Roy Keane signed for his boyhood club, Celtic.
I wasn’t alone. Chief executive Peter Lawwell moved quickly to welcome Keane on behalf of the club, whilst shooting down suggestions that major shareholder Dermot Desmond was funding the signing.
“We are absolutely delighted – the board, management and the players. Dermot Desmond has been a fantastic supporter of this transaction but in terms of his support, that is where it started and ended. There is no financial contribution Dermot will make towards this deal.”
Celtic manager Gordon Strachan also expressed his delight.
“He has proved over the last 15 years that he is a competitor. You can’t get enough competitors in your squad and this was too good a chance to miss.”
As always, the doubters were quickly out in force, advising that Roy Keane was too old and/or couldn’t play in the same midfield as Neil Lennon. The Celtic captain, actually six weeks the senior to his fellow Irishman and now in the final year of his own contract, dispelled that particular myth.
“We are quite similar, but that was said about Paul Lambert and myself, a few years back. I wouldn’t envisage any problems with that at all. Roy has experience and will to win, and if he helps us win the title, he will be a great signing.”
That same subject had cropped up in discussions involving Keane, Lawwell and Strachan at Dermot Desmond’s London home to discuss and ultimately agree the deal. Gordon Strachan later provided a fascinating insight into how that transfer played out, in his autobiography, My life in football.
“The need for Celtic to tighten their purse strings even applied to the signing of Roy Keane. When Roy joined Celtic on a free transfer in December 2005, most people were left wondering how we could afford him and why he should be interested in playing in Scotland. He had been reckoned to be on something like £80,000 a week at Manchester United and it was clear that, though the Premiership clubs who were interested in him could not match that, they would nevertheless be able to take him closer to this figure than we could. When he signed for us, a number of reports indicated that he would be on £40,000 a week at Parkhead and that the deal would be funded partly by Dermot Desmond. But neither was correct.”
“The salary we agreed with him was considerably less than £40,000 a week, and even then, it was dependent on the number of first-team appearances he made. Far from being Celtic’s highest earner when he joined, he was no higher than eighth on the list. Dermot was brilliant in this matter. As one of Roy’s Irish admirers, he wanted Roy on board as much as anybody, but not at the expense of leaving us short of money for the group of younger players I wanted to sign.”
“I had known for some time that Roy’s United contract was due to expire in the summer of 2006 and that he had expressed the hope that he might be able to end his career with Celtic. Various people around the club – and especially his Irish fans like Eddie Jordan – had alerted me to this almost from the day I started at Parkhead, but it was very much a longshot as far as I was concerned. With more pressing matters to deal with, I just pushed it to the back of my mind. I was amazed when it came off.”
“Coming to Celtic was some decision on Roy’s part. One could argue that he already had enough money in the bank, following his brilliant 12-year career at Old Trafford, but he was only 34 and I cannot think of many people of that age in professional football who would be willing to pass up opportunities to give themselves and their families further financial security.”
“Perhaps the most surprising aspect of his decision was that I could not even promise him a regular place in the team. At our meeting to discuss the move, at Dermot’s house in London, I told him;
“I still see you as a central midfielder, but the problem is that Neil Lennon and Stiliyan Petrov are doing too well in that area to be left out or moved elsewhere. If I had to select a team for the next match, and the three of you were all fit, I would have to plump for Neil and Stiliyan.”
“He was perfectly happy with that, for the simple reason that because of his affection for Celtic during his upbringing in Ireland – an affection shared by countless other people there – he had genuinely set his heart on playing for the club.”
I suspect that over and above those reasons, the challenge of being told he would not be an automatic first pick for Celtic would have been all the additional incentive required for a proud Roy Keane to offset any concerns he may have had about the move to Glasgow.
In any event, I thought he spoke excellently at his first media conference as a Celtic player.
“I gave other clubs a chance and was impressed with them all, but it’s a great move for me. I feel that this is where I belong and I’m here to work hard and win games. I’ve been in the Premiership for a long time and feel I have proved myself there and needed a different environment. Different teams. Different grounds. Every boy in Ireland has an interest in Celtic, although my English team at the time was Spurs for some reason. I’ve been up to Celtic to watch a few games and always enjoyed my time here. This is not a financial move for me and I’m not coming here for an ego trip or to unwind. I had an important role in front of the back four at United, but I might be given more licence to play here. I push myself hard in training and try to push others hard, and people seemed happy with that until a few weeks ago.”
A great day for me was made even better that evening when my teenage son and I headed over to the south side of Glasgow to watch the Pogues play the O2 Academy. I had been a huge fan of the band for many years without ever managing to see them play live. The atmosphere was incredible, party central as they ran through their playlist, congas in the aisles, a la Inverness a few years later. The works. About an hour into the set, Pogues legendary frontman Shane MacGowan grabs the microphone and addresses the audience;
“So, you signed a Cork Bhoy today then?”
I thought the roof was coming off the place.
One of the best days and nights of my life.
An extract from Majic, Stan and The King of Japan out now on Celtic Star Books and available from all Celtic stores and at Waterstones stores across Scotland. Dedicated to the memory of the one and only Shane MacGowan.
Follow Matt on Twitter/X @Boola_vogue