Initially I was only looking forward to this game because it was a night-time kick off. We hadn’t had a late night match against our rivals since 2005 in a league cup clash. I was working down Clydeside at the time and finished at 1pm for the day and promptly spent the next five hours in The Admiral Bar on Waterloo Street, getting as sloshed as I could to put up with the inevitable gloating by their fans how they would probably stroll to the title after this game.
Let’s face it, our record against them was nothing short of appalling since Smith’s return to Ibrox. We’d lost twice to them the season before and went down pitifully at Ibrox 3-0 and 1-0 in 07/08. They weren’t exactly Milan early 90’s, yet Strachan’s Celtic made their defence seem as impenetrable as Alanya Castle and also seemed terrified of a frontline featuring Jean-Claude Darcheville and Kris Boyd.
And as for us – we were struggling. The 1-0 loss to Motherwell at home just about derailed our title challenge. The fans had just about had enough of the manager. Boos and abuse echoed around the stadium at full time towards everyone connected with the club. Funtimes.
A few days before this match, we played Motherwell at Fir Park and hammered them 4-1. This turned out to be a vital win and one which gave the players belief that they could get a result against Smith’s side. Motherwell weren’t mugs, and their pitch was not even fit for Pinochet to use for his sole purpose. Yet, we dug in, hassled, harried and made light work of a team who deservedly claimed three points against us a week earlier. A major reason for this was because Scott Brown was suspended and Strachan was forced to play Barry Robson and Paul Hartley in midfield. The exact type of game they were made for. The finest no nonsense duo since the Outhere Brothers.
It was arguably Robson’s actions in the first 30 seconds which put us in front for the rest of the game. Centre of the park, 50/50, ball in the air……BANG!! He won the ball and smashed Religious Newspaper with an flying elbow not seen since the days when The Legion of Doom would dominate the WWF. How dare we get all thuggish against WALTER’s team! This was the same side who encouraged Daniel Cousin to knock out Stephen McManus at Ibrox earlier in the season and wink and laugh about it seconds later of course. It was about time we stood up to Rangers and played them at their own game, as every Celtic fan in the stadium erupted when Dailly went down like a sack of tawtties.
We had the better of the first half, with Rangers rarely threatening. Sadly, this was what we were used to seeing in previous games against them before they scored first and took control of the rest of the match. The first goal was extremely important and it came through a moment of genius from Shunsuke ‘Dusnae dae it V them’ Nakamura. First off, Nakamura did have great games against Rangers. He took them apart in a 3-0 win in November 2005 and was also fantastic in the league cup game that month. For all he received pelters for not showing up against Rangers, did anyone else when Smith took over ? Scott McDonald, our top goalscorer, was nowhere to be seen in the two games at Ibrox since he signed. Big Jan was still without a goal against them and Aiden McGeady, a frequent tormentor of our rivals, rarely got the better of no-marks like Steven Whittaker and Kirk Broadfoot, so the abuse Naka came in for was unfair.
Latching onto a slightly wayward pass from Gary Caldwell, Yo Sushi took aim and fired a rocket past McGregor from 30 yards. It was our first goal against them since December 2006 and it was well worth the wait. We would survive a brief scare from the ever flatfooted Darcheville before the ref blew for half time. Even that half time show would go onto be pretty fun as well, as a certain fansgroup unfurled the now famous ‘Scotland’s Shame’ banner, giving us all comic relief before the biggest 45 minutes of the season.
An arena like Celtic Park is a fine place, but not when rats are scurrying around the stadium. It’s bad enough having one in the crawlspace of the stands but when one is on the pitch and about to cause havoc, it’s a time for panic. Unfortunately, Tommy McCrindle wasn’t around to exterminate a pest named Nacho Novo and as a result he drew Rangers level with what must be said was a very good finish from a tight angle minutes into the second half.
So that was that, we thought. Either the game would stay as it was or Rangers would go onto win it. However, our players decided to step up and show bottle that was missing in previous Old Firm games by crunching into more tackles, flinging themselves in front of every effort towards Boruc’s goal and looking the more likely to be the team that scored next.
It seemed like we would need help from a ref to score again, because McGregor was inspired in the second half, and Kenny Clark answered our prayers in the 70th minute when he gave us a penalty AND sent off Carlos Cuellar – a rare occurrence up against a Walter Smith managed Rangers team. Joy. Elation. Hope.
McGregor saved McDonald’s penalty and the title aspirations of the Govan side. At the time, I was livid with McDonald and wanted him deported along with the ‘Walkabout’ franchise and every DVD of Crocodile Dundee that I happened to own. However, it’s fair to say the save from McGregor was very good and now I can finally apologise for my verbal assault of our ex Aussie. But I won’t.
The Rangers goalie went off injured shortly afterwards and his season was over early and taking his place in goals was Neil Alexander, who wasn’t exactly a poor backup by any means, at the time.
With Alexander and the rest of the Rangers defence wasting time and running down the clock, the SPL trophy was looking like it would have started to have the ‘R’ carved into it such was the importance of one solitary point to our visitors.
Then, something extraordinary happened. From a throw in that was delayed due to Nacho Novo timewasting and being a plastic hardman, Caldwell picked up the ball 35 yards out and lofted a perfect chipped pass to McDonald, who headed across goal where big Jan Venegoor Of Hesselink duly nodded home from a yard out to send us all into a state of Euphoria! I ended up three rows in front of my seat at Row G in Block 102 and I don’t think I felt anything broken with the adrenaline pouring through my veins. A very important goal and the rest of that season is history.
A glorious end to one of the better derby games and Jan will never need thanked off me for inadvertently giving me the next day off work. Most of it was a hangover right enough.