So from darkness into light.
But everything is relative.
I mean what qualified as sunny days back then wouldn’t really cut it nowadays.
For season 1995-1996 Celtic returned to Paradise.
With the new stand erected the stadium had a 36,000 capacity. Behind the goal, at the Celtic End, a temporary stand would later be constructed and that being the part of the ground that would be redeveloped last, the temp stand would be a regular sight for the next few years.
Leading up to that there had been a summer of expectation and speculation.
Summer transfer signing rumours abounded on a near daily basis.
We had been promised quality so expectations were high.
Of course back then, outside of the World Cup no one really had a clue about most players from the continent.
A foreign name and big transfer fee would suffice as evidence of quality.
Dmitri Radchenko, Peter van Vossen, Marc Degryse, and David Ginola were all linked with big money moves to Celtic.
The Degryse one lingered for weeks but ultimately came to nothing.
Fergus was astute. No fast talking agent or player with dubious credentials and a non-committal attitude was going to to be signed.
Transfers were seen as an investment.
John Hughes became the club’s first summer signing to usher in the new era, in a £380,000 deal from Falkirk in August 1995. I saw Hughes in an early season midweek game. What he lacked in skill he made up for with sheer determination and will. I remember Big Yogi running full pelt tracking a player to the byline. The guy sitting beside me looked over and laughed. John lacked pace, to put it mildly. But if he ever did catch up to you there was a good chance you’d know about it.
It’s worthwhile noting that summer transfer activity was very different back then.
The full implications of the 1995 Bosman ruling hadn’t come into the game yet. Nowadays it’s standard for clubs to have enormous first team squads and for players to be signed up for only 6 month or season long deals. Back then even players out of contracts still cost a fee, players were paid far less, contracts were much longer and the prevalence of agents was also much lower. There also wasn’t transfer windows, therefore, there wasn’t the current clamber to get all of your business done over the summer or the month of January as there is today. As a result, player movement was far more restricted hence one or two summer signings with a similar number heading out being pretty much the norm.
With the new season nearly upon us, there was a desire for a new big name singing though.
Across the city, Rangers had unveiled Paul Gascoigne.
Celtic needed to respond.
That response came in the form of German internationalist attacking midfielder Andreas Thom, for a club record £2.2 million fee from Bayer Leverkusen.
He’d been the East German footballer of the year in 1988. It was in that part of the world he’d won 5 league championships and two national cups with Dynamo Berlin albeit with a lot of help from referees in the old Soviet controlled nation. He would go on to become the first East German to sign for a Bundesliga side when in December of 1989 he joined Leverkusen. There he won the German Cup in 1993. Having scored over a hundred goals in his career before arriving the month before turning 30, he’d also been capped 51 times for East Germany and more impressively 10 for the unified Germany. Expectations were high.
The first game of the season was a 3-0 League Cup second round victory away against Ayr Utd.
Already we had matched our biggest scoreline from the previous term.
It was a sign of things to come that being a free scoring Celtic team who were more than pleasant to the eye.
We started off the league campaign with a 1-0 win against newly promoted Raith Rovers, our League Cup final conquerors, at Stark’s Park. Pierre Van Hooijdonk headed in at the back post 11 minutes from the end in an entertaining game where Thom, in particular, looked impressive.
Then came the long awaited first competitive home game back at Celtic Park in front of the new stand.
The actual christening of the new stand had taken place in a preseason friendly against Newcastle Utd but I had missed that due to being on holiday. Taking my usual seats in the old stand with my dad it was a rather surreal experience.
Behind you everything was as it had always been but facing us was this gargantuan structure. It towered over the main stand and the entire east end of Glasgow skyline for that matter. Indeed it was as if the jungle had never been. It truly was an incredible achievement by Fergus McCann.
For the first time in my lifetime genuinely monumental infrastructural change and progression had been made at Celtic.
It felt like the ushering in of a new era and that’s exactly what it was.
The opposition that night almost felt irrelevant. Quite simply you spent the whole night staring at the new stand in awe and occasionally glimpsing at the football. They were, in fact, Raith Rovers again only days after meeting them in the league. This was a mid-week League Cup rematch of the previous year’s final. Van Hooijdonk put us ahead with a sublime edge of the box free kick taking over the duties from regular taker John Collins who wasn’t bad with them himself. Tony Rougier equalised before Simon Donnelly prevented another penalty shoot-out decider against the Kirkcaldy men with an extra time winner making it 2-1.
We wore our third strips that night, in what was a completely new concept.
That being the notion of a third strip and wearing them at home instead of the hallowed hoops.
The season had kicked off in earnest.
You just felt this was going to be night and day compared to the previous term and so it proved to be.
Celtic served early notice of a long overdue title challenge with a 3-2 win at Aberdeen.
Tom Boyd turned a header into his own net in the first half and soon after Eoin Jess made it two with a neat finish after being played in by his strike partner Scott Booth. It was still within recent memory then of times where Celtic getting results at Pittodrie was rare as hen’s teeth. Indeed not too long before we had taken quite a few pastings up there. Another one seemed on the cards but this Celtic team was different to any I’d seen before. They were hungry and dynamic. They also had incredible self-belief and we got it back to 2-2 thanks to two individually brilliant goals, firstly from John Collins who finished magnificently from the edge of the box with the outside of his left foot and then Andreas Thom who’s cross come shot went in off the far post. John Collins then took advantage of a shot being parried out by the feet of Don’s keeper Theo Snelders and stroked home to make it 3-2.
All of this happened in the opening 45minutes.
John Hughes got sent off for two bookable offences in the second period but we held on for a superb victory.
Indeed it was our first win at Pittodrie since the centenary season.
Over 7 years and at the 15th attempt.
Another example of how different the landscape of Scottish football was back then.
Two weeks later Celtic recorded a 4-0 demolition at Tynecastle against Hearts.
Brian McLaughlin and Walker both bagged doubles on 23rd September, the weekend before the eagerly awaited first Old Firm league game of the season. McStay’s long distance pile-driver was parried out to the diminutive McLaughlin who didn’t need to be asked twice and then 3 minutes later he scored a wonderful solo effort breaking up through the right-hand side of the Hearts defence from midfield, skinning a few defenders in his wake and then burying it high into the net. Minutes into the 2nd half Andy Walker latched onto a loose ball in the midfield and burst through the middle of the high Hearts line to finish well. He added a second later on in the half when Hearts again played a high line resulting from a rebounded header coming into the box from a corner and he was given the freedom of Tynecastle to take his time and chip over Craig Nelson from the edge of the box in front of the Celtic away support who were housed in the then temporary Roseburn stand which was at the opposite end of where we are seated now.
A superb performance.
One that gave genuine optimism in regards to our chances of toppling Rangers seven days later.
We’ll get to the actual meetings with them later.
Firstly I’ll recount some of the highlights of that season and there were plenty.
On the transfer front, we made two important acquisitions. Jackie McNamara was purchased for £650,000 from Dunfermline Athletic in October of 1995. About to turn 21, McNamara was an attacking right back who would go onto forge an exciting partnership down the right flank with Simon Donnelly.
Morten Wieghorst was also bought for £500,000 plus letting Barry Smith go in the opposite direction to Dundee in December 1995. The Dane was a tall driving presence who had helped Dundee reach the previous season’s League Cup final.
On the field, on the 2nd of December Celtic beat Kilmarnock 4-2 at home.
This is one of my most favourite memories of that season. Having fallen 2-0 behind after 20mins after Ally Mitchell took advantage of a dithering Gordon Marshall and turned it into the net and then lifelong Celtic fan and current Ross County manager Jim McIntyre made it two before running towards the Celtic fans and gesturing towards his father and brother who were season ticket holders in the new north stand. The thousands of fans in between them and Jim didn’t realise this though so as you can imagine he got dogs abuse.
But such was the way with Celtic back then, you never doubted their ability to come back and Peter Grant, with a powerful back-post header, and Andreas Thom with a blistering right foot shot after letting the ball come across him just inside the box from a Pierre pass, both hit the net only minutes apart and just before half time to tie it up at the break. A double from goal machine Van Hooijdonk in the second half secured the points and it could have been much more as the second period was all one-way traffic.
The week after we recorded a 4-0 trouncing of Hibs at Easter Road. Simon Donnelly clipped a pass into the box which Jackie McNamara volleyed superbly high into the net. Andreas Thom then produced some wizardry on the left-hand side and crossed into the box with the outside of his left foot to set-up Phil O’Donnell to finish. In the second half, O’Donnell chipped into the box for big Pierre to head home and then the Dutchman set-up Donnelly to make it 4. 8 goals in a week. The stuff of fantasy compared to the previous campaign.
In mid-January, we beat Aberdeen 2-1 at Pittodrie.
A goal down we scored 2 within a few minutes of each other early in the second half firstly via Andy Thom and then Thom produced some sublime skill on the left-hand side touchline to skin the Dons fullback and cut back from the byline line to set-up Van Hooijdonk to finish.
Fast forward to March and we secured Jorge Cadete from Sporting Lisbon.
Pairing him with big Pierre was exciting enough to make you giddy.
Two bona fide goal machines.
Cadete’s debut came in a Monday night game against Aberdeen. We were now beating the Dons for fun but the first of what would become the regular occurrence in the succeeding seasons of absolutely hammering them occurred that night.
In what had been another of many magnificent showings that season this one lives long into the memory as Cadete scored on his debut under the floodlights on April the 1st.
With Celtic already 4-0 up, Tommy Burns decided to give the new man a run out and minutes after coming on as a sub Cadete was unleashed through on goal via a neat Peter Grant pass and ignored Pierre’s please to set him up, instead opting to race through on the Dons keeper and chip over him immaculately into the net.
He then hurdled over the downed goalie and kept running to celebrate with his new team mates.
It was awesome to behold.
The dream debut.
Of course, the fans went wild.
You couldn’t have written it.
It remains one of my abiding memories as a Celtic fan. An ‘I was there’ moment.
In the league that season we played 36, won 24, drew 11 and incredibly lost only 1.
74 goals were scored (an increase of 35 from the previous term) and 25 conceded for a +49 goals difference and an 83 points total.
Yet it wasn’t enough.
Too many draws had cost us.
We finished 4 behind Rangers who lost 2 more but also drew 5 less.
We also ended up 28 points ahead of Aberdeen and Hearts who were tied on 55 points for 3rd / 4th place.
So began the regular sight of the two Glasgow giants leaving everyone else in the dust as the league became very much a two horse race.
Pierre van Hooijdonk was the league’s top goalscorer with 26, 9 ahead of his nearest challenger Gordon Durie.
Outside of the draws, it had been the matches with Rangers that had cost us.
Tommy Burns had recorded 2 wins, 1 draw and suffered only 1 defeat against our cross town rivals in the previous season with an inferior squad and various other handicaps. But unfortunately, we couldn’t maintain that record even with significant improvements on and off the pitch.
The first of the major deciding derby games was a 2-0 defeat at home against Rangers on 30th September.
Having hammered Hearts 4-0 away the previous weekend we went into that game understandably optimistic. However, an Alec Clelland first half header from the edge of the box and then a neat second half finish from Gascoigne as Rangers broke away with Celtic desperately looking to equalise decided the result.
The next encounter was the memorable 3-3 draw at Ibrox on the 19th of November.
This one had the rare distinction of being shown live by STV on a Sunday afternoon.
Andreas Thom gave us the lead with a 30-yard pile driver that gave Goram no chance and almost ripped out the net. David Robertson had the ball in the net for Rangers soon after but it got chopped off. STV and commentator Gerry McNee though failed to register this and bizarrely still believed the game to be on equal terms for over 10 mins much to the bemusement and confusion of the home audience. People were literally calling one another’s houses to see what was going on.
Brian Laudrup eventually did equalise for the light blues 6 mins before half-time.
6 mins into the second half, Celtic were awarded a penalty after Richard Gough used John Hughes as a climbing frame. John Collins duly converted.
Then Celtic appeared to capitulate as they conceded firstly on 62 mins from an Ally McCoist header and then went behind for the first time in the game 8 minutes later when Tom Boyd committed defensive suicide with a totally inappropriate back heel on the left flank which led to Oleg Salenko prodding it into the box where Tosh McKinlay touched it into his own net.
In between those two goals, McKinlay had set up Van Hooijdonk with an inch perfect cross that big Pierre appeared to have finished to perfection but Andy Goram made one of the best saves I’ve ever seen to deny him. Less than two minutes after going behind Tosh and Pierre tried it again though and this time the Dutchman elected to use his head and the ball crashed in off the post to make it 3-3. It was an incredible game with both sides taking credit.
The next encounter was the New Year’s, Derby.
This one ended 0-0 with Rangers on 3rd January 1996. Celtic dominated the match but alas found the Rangers goalkeeper that night in imperious form. Tommy Burns made his famous tombstone comment about Andy Goram in the aftermath:
“It will have to read: `Andy Goram Broke My Heart.’ ”
The final Old Firm league encounter of the season ended 1-1 with Rangers on St.Paddy’s day.
John Hughes equalised with a second half header in another evenly matched encounter.
So barring the first one all of the league matches had been pretty even.
But our true agony against Rangers would come in the cup games.
Having eliminated Ayr Utd and Raith Rovers in the League Cup’s early rounds as recorded earlier we met Rangers in the quarter final at Celtic Park on the 19th of September. It actually took place 11 days before the first league encounter against them and unfortunately gave us a taste of things to come. The match was all square until the 74th minute when Gascoigne’s cross to the back post found Ally McCoist to put them in front and we never recovered.
The next dagger to the heart from Govan came on the 7th of April of 1996 in the Scottish Cup semi-final.
Having cuffed non-league Whitehill Welfare (3-0) and Raith Rovers (2-0) again we then had a truly dramatic quarter-final win over Dundee Utd. In one of our poorest displays of the season by some distance and on a surface at Celtic Park that had cut up badly over the winter we found ourselves a goal down and going out in the dying embers of the game. Then Pierre powered in a totally underserved equalising header from a free kick into the box on 88 mins and straight from the restart and when everyone had settled for a replay Andreas Thom broke away and blasted in the winner. The stadium went bananas.
From despair to unbridled joy in literally under 2 minutes.
Our semi-final opponents were none other than Rangers of course in our sixth meeting of the season.
Again it was a disappointment.
This time we were 1-0 down, two mins from half-time. Laudrup then made it 2-0 with a chip over Gordon Marshall in the second half. Big Pierre pulled us back to 2-1 with a neat header across Goram and then Simon Donnelly raced through to equalise but his attempted chip over the Scotland keeper ended up miles over the crossbar. It ended 2-1. But the ramifications from this defeat added up to a lot more than just Celtic exiting the Cup.
Despite pulling on the jersey for the first time and dramatically scoring on his Celtic debut, as noted earlier in the article, against Aberdeen on the Monday 6 days before the Scottish Cup semi final, Jorge Cadete was still not allowed to play in it.
His registration had been delayed by the SFA.
Fergus McCann believed it was personal and that SFA chief executive Jim Farry, in particular, was the principal architect.
McCann and Farry had, to say the least, a strained relationship ever since Fergus’s arrival.
Firstly there had been Farry’s refusal to grant Celtic a license to play at Celtic Park during its redevelopment on safety grounds, his Harlem Globetrotters comment in relation to them either playing at Hampden or nothing and then the record £100,000 fine for tapping up Tommy Burns upon his appointment from Kilmarnock in the summer of 1994.
Farry despised what he saw as McCann’s rather boorish attitude as well as his apparent disdain for the rather parochial nature of Scottish football governance.
Fergus was used to the business world of North America.
He found the practices in Scotland to be somewhat antiquated and rubbed up a lot of people the wrong way.
On the other hand, McCann described Farry on a recent documentary as a ‘Panjandrum’ that being he found him to believe himself to be beyond reproach and above criticism. There is of course truth in both camps but Farry made it personal and thought he could effectively circumvent the laws and make the rules up as he went along in order to show Fergus who was boss. In denying Celtic the chance to play Cadete, who one could have imagined burying the aforementioned Simon Donnelly chance, he had gone too far.
The SFA tried to shake it all off but Fergus was not a man to be messed with in such matters of legality and incompetence.
He had soundly defeated Lou Macari in the courts and was now after Jim Farry.
The issue dragged on for 3 years and eventually, Farry got his jotters in March of 1999.
Such was his character he continued to claim that there was no error on his part right to the end.
As Fergus McCann would later point out:
“I was there when he (Farry) was giving evidence and his position, which was quite amazing, was that he was right, his executive committee were wrong, FIFA were wrong. He did not agree with his own assistants and he maintained that black was white. If I had been his counsel, I would have done the same thing, brought it to an end as soon as possible.”
Finally on the football front, Celtic also returned to Europe courtesy of the previous season’s cup win.
In the 1st round of the Cup Winners Cup, we defeated Dinamo Batumi of Georgia 7-2 on aggregate. A 3-2 win in Georgia (our first win away in Europe since 1986) was then followed up by a 4-0 demolition at Celtic Park on a fantastic night. A large group of Borussia Dortmund fans who had been over for their game against Rangers at Ibrox the previous night were actually in the stadium to support us that night. It was apt that it was a German Andreas Thom who scored a double that night in the first half, adding to the two he’d already bagged over in Georgia before Simon Donnelly netted a howitzer from 30 yards into the top corner early in the second and then Andy Walker made it four.
Into the second round, we went.
That actually meant the last 16 back then. Consider that now a Scottish club would have to go through 2-3 qualifying rounds, followed by a play-off then a 4 team, 8 game group stage just to make the last 32 of the UEFA cup.
Changed days alright.
The second round did not bring a kind draw.
Instead, it brought Paris St. Germain.
What a team they were. Blessed with the talent of Bernard Lama, Paul Le Guen, Bruno N’Gotty, Youri Djorkaeff, Alain Roche, Patrice Loko and captained by Rai who’d lifted the World Cup with Brazil the summer before they were a slick passing team with threats all over the pitch.
Where as Celtic hadn’t been involved in a post-Christmas European encounter since 1980, PSG had been in a major European competition semi-final every year for the past 3 seasons before this one including the previous seasons Champions League semi-final.
Needless to say, we were up against it.
In the away leg in Paris, we actually did quite well. Only beaten 1-0, big Pierre had a golden chance to equalise with a header but later claimed he was blinded by the flood lights. That game was actually beamed back to Parkhead. A large screen was erected in the middle of the pitch and you could pay to sit in the main stand and watch it. The brainchild of Fergus due to there being limited coverage of non-Champions League European football on TV back then, alas the screen broke down at one point and smoke started coming out of it. This led to panicked maintenance workers running around the centre circle. They got it back on but the experiment in beam backs proved to be a one-off.
In the home leg, we were optimistic especially having given Aberdeen the run around 2-0 in a league encounter at Celtic Park only days before.
But PSG delivered a master class.
Loko hit a double in the first half to kill the tie and Pascal Nouma added a third on 68 mins.
That was the level Celtic had to aspire to.
PSG went onto win the Cup Winners Cup that year scoring 16 goals and only conceding 4. They took the scalps of Parma, Deportivo La Coruna and in the final Rapid Vienna en-route to doing so. Who knows what could have been in regards to a European run with a kinder draw back then.
And that was that both domestically and in Europe.
Some great football but ultimately no silverware and even more distressingly Rangers were now sitting on 8-in-a-row and were now alarmingly close to equaling our 9.
As much as it had been a disappointing season for those very reasons it had also been a great one with a quality of play that even outdid Liam Brady’s first season and a consistency and steel not seen since the centenary year. With the likes of Van Hooijdonk, Thom and Cadete we also had a level of imported talent that was way beyond anything we had seen at Celtic Park from the continent before.
The only way was up surely?
Well, not quite as it would happen, as Celtic geared up for a doomed attempt at preventing Rangers equalising 9-in-a-row and the fans began to turn on Fergus as the return to Paradise honeymoon period began to sour.
But we’ll get to all that next time.
Out of the darkness, into the light? Paul Cassidy is happy to be getting near to the good bits. Sort of.