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The Great Unknown

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lubo

Scottish football can be a parochial wee place at times, especially our media, and most especially when it comes to passing judgement on Celtic signings.

a while during the 90’s, whilst Rangers were signing players such as Gabriel Amato, a surface reading of our media would have made you believe they were amongst the best informed in world football.

Every single player who arrived at Ibrox was hailed a genius.

(They still are today, but with most of them arriving on frees from clubs such as Swindon you are more likely to break into sudden laughter when you read such nonsense.)

Everyone “jetted in”, and their playing histories were all researched and laid out to prove just how good these guys were.

If those histories didn’t reveal genius, our hacks were on hand to provide numerous excuses as to why.

Times were hard at Celtic during much of that period, and we had two managers on the bounce who were the subject of huge derision, and whose signings were scorned before they’d even kicked a ball.

Yet those two coaches were, in different ways, hugely successful and had a material influence on the future of our football club.

Jansen, “the worst thing to hit Hiroshima since the atom bomb”, in the crass, shameful words of The Scottish Sun, was the man who Stopped The Ten and brought with him to Celtic Park the legendary King of Kings.

Dr Josef Venglos, or the man The Daily Record christened “Dr Who?”, ended up redeveloping our entire scouting and training network and brought to Celtic one of the finest footballers it has ever been my pleasure to witness in the flesh.

Note that I’m not qualifying that remark with the words “in the Hoops.”

He was one of the greatest footballers I’ve ever watched.

Anywhere.

Period.

His name was Lubomir Moravcik.

In time, the fans would affectionately refer to him only as Lubo.

He was signed from German club Duisburg, whom he’d made just five appearances.

He cost us a mere £300,000, at a time when Rangers were paying three times that bench warmers.

Oh yeah, and he was already 33.

The Scottish media, who knew chapter and verse about every player Rangers signed at the time, no matter how exotic or far flung (or maybe they just accepted club PR or wrote what the fans wanted to hear, eah?) didn’t bother to check out the footballer from Eastern Europe with whom our manager had an 11 year working relationship.

No, that would have been balanced.

Fair.

Reasonable.

Instead, they leapt overboard.

And boy, oh boy, did they look damned stupid.

Hugh Keevins, as ever, led the way with what would prove the most unintentionally hilarious piece of “informed writing” I’ve ever seen.

“I don’t know what I find more laughable,” he wrote, “The fact that Celtic cannot find £500,000 from their biscuit tin to sign a proven talent like John Spencer, or the fact that they then spent £300,000 on one of Dr Jo’s old pals, the unknown Lubomir Moravcik!”

I don’t know which part of that is funnier. The notion that a supposedly serious journalist did no homework at all on Lubo Moravcik or the name of the player he thought we should have spent an extra £200,000 to sign.

A “proven talent like John Spencer.”

Jesus wept.

As opposed to a guy with over 40 caps Czechoslovakia and 30 odd for Slovakia.

A guy who had played in his native country, France and Germany and would have been at Marseille and one of the elite footballers of Europe but an injury at a crucial time.

All of that information was out there Keevins and others to find.

They had, apparently, researched numerous players to “jet in” to Ibrox.

On top of the stats were a host of really exceptional footballers, Pavel Nedved most notable amongst them, who could have told our hacks that Celtic were getting an explosive talent.

None of them bothered to go looking positives.

Jim Traynor, in keeping with Keevins, slated the “cut price” nature of the deal, and predicted that it would result in “further embarrassment” to the club.

In the end, the only people who suffered embarrassment were our intrepid hacks.

I mean, openers, take just one moment to ponder on the mentality that criticises us for not overpaying for a footballer.

Cut price nature?

He means, I guess, as opposed to the ridiculous spending of Dick Advocaat and his overblown football squad.

To put it into perspective, that was the year Rangers spent £2 million on Daniel Prodan, £4 million on Colin Hendry, £3.5 million on Stephane Guivarch and £2 million on Neil McCann.

They also paid millions more the aforementioned Amato, Andre Kanchelskis, Van Bronckhorst, Numan and others.

Did any one of those players set the league on fire like Lubo did, in particular after Martin O’Neill figured out his best position and started to use him behind the front two?

In particular, there was the partnership he formed with Larsson, who’s signing a mere £600,000 was to prove an even more inspired piece of business.

Everyone has their own memory of the moment they realised what a player we had.

My own came halfway through his second game, the week before we played Rangers at Celtic Park in the match where he started down the path to legendry status.

On the morning of the Rangers game, I was attending an STUC Youth Committee meeting, and Grahame Smith, who is now General Secretary and was then an assistant, asked me how I thought the game would go.

Grahame and I were supporting different teams that day, and I told him I thought Celtic had very little chance of escaping short of a hiding.

We were in the midst of an awful spell, and St Johnstone had taken points off us the week before, with only Lubo shining.

Grahame’s words are still memorable to me.

“The days of Celtic and Rangers beating each other four or five one are over,” he said. “I think it’ll be a tight game.”

I then added one caveat, and I am proud to this day that I did.

“If we have any chance at all,” I said, “it could come from the new guy, the Slovak.”

“Do you reckon?” he asked me, doubtfully.

“He’s got something,” I said. “You could see it in the last two matches.”

And at that I left, for Celtic Park.

I was at Charing Cross when I jumped on a bus, and I was on that bus when I heard the team.

And I tell you, I almost went home.

The tactical decision to play one up front with Lubo behind Larsson seemed cowardly and ridiculous.

Yet it was inspired, and the partnership was inspired.

That day will live long in the memory, not just for the goals Lubo scored but for everything he did on the pitch.

His skinning of Porrini was a moment that had Celtic Park on its feet, and his two goals were beautiful, the first a fearsome left foot shot and the second a magnificent header right on the penalty spot.

He won the man of the match award by miles, leaving the field late to a tumultuous standing ovation which allegedly included some of the media hacks who had scorned him.

He stood on the touchline at the end, as an interviewer asked “How does it feel to go from zero to hero?”

Lubo, speaking through an interpreter, replied simply, “Tell him I was never a zero.”

Indeed not.

Dr Jo Venglos spoke to the media after the match, and he poured scorn on the notion that the signing had been even remotely chancy.

“Do you think I don’t know about Moravcik’s qualities, after 73 international caps and his games in World Cups and European Championships under me?” he asked.

That day everyone in Scotland knew about those qualities.

Over time, the biggest clubs in Europe would too, and when Juventus left Celtic Park in 2001, their players talked about three things; the passion of the fans, the stadium and the performance of Lubo Moravcik.

The moment when he nutmegged Nedved will live with all of us, but the former Juve legend particularly, forever.

He had grown up worshiping Lubo.

“He was my idol as a young player,” Nedved said years later. “Lubo had wonderful ability with both feet – he could do anything with the left or the right. He played for many years at Celtic and I followed his career. I was lucky to play at Celtic Park at the same time as Lubo – but I wasn’t fortunate with the way he played against us that night.”

My own fondest memory of him is also one of the greatest days I’ve ever experienced as a football supporter, 29 April 2001, the day I saw Celtic win at Ibrox for the first time.

Everyone who was there that day remembers it clearly, I think, and Lubo was purely and simply astonishing.

With the full bag of tricks, he tormented, tortured, teased and terrorised Rangers all day long.

I have rarely seen a more complete football performance in my life.

His two goals that day were sublime, but that second one in particular where he turned the defender inside out and slotted the ball into the back corner was magnificent.

I said in the piece on Nakamura that he also scored one of my favourite goals ever, against Motherwell at Celtic Park, in what would otherwise have been a wholly unmemorable evening.

Andy Goram played for the away side that night, and had one of his inspired games where he seemed to possess an almost indecent ability to get everything that came near him, and when Lubo stepped up late in the game to take a free kick he must have been feeling pretty good.

A second later he was picking the ball out of the net, and reacting in petulant fury, slamming the ball with his hand in the manner of someone who’s just been told his lottery numbers are up but he’s forgotten to put on the ticket.

We all have our own fond memories of the little magician, and my own would also include the moment he trapped the ball with his backside in a match against Hearts as well as the magical goal he scored at Easter Road and another he scored at Aberdeen.

He was unquestionably one of the greatest players ever to grace Scottish football, and everything that made him wonderful was there, on the day we signed him, even as we ate a ton of opprobrium for doing so.

But of course the hacks ate a cement mixer of humble pie before he was done.

What are you favourite Moravcik moments, friends?

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23 comments

  • eddiebhoy says:

    You may not believe this but I watched the 5-1 game at iBrokes. The game was not on TV for some reason so it was the only way to see it. £5 entry into snake mountain and hands under my legs the whole game. Terrifying and utterly excellent at the same time. Bricking it leaving the stadium incase I had the slightest grin on my face. I can’t overstate enough how goood it was to see the faces on the rest of ‘the people’ in the ground. Jumped in a taxi and driver asked if I enjoyed the game and I said no to which he replied he was a celtic fan. Couldnt get my story out quick enough and the driver was in hysterics. Free taxi from govan to the west end of glasgow. Brilliant!!

  • Pat Gallagher says:

    It was my 40th birthday when the magician & Celtic trounced the former club 5-1 . Lubo , you gave me the worst hangover of my life , thanks pal , lol

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