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The Dark Days: 1996-1997. Paradise Lost.

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In my previous article, I wrote about our return to Paradise in 1995-1996.

In many ways a wonderful yet ultimately disappointing season.

As great as it was to return to Celtic Park which was being moulded into a world class arena whilst being treated to a completely superior product on the pitch to the previous seasons we had ultimately fallen short of preventing Rangers capturing their 8th consecutive title and coming ominously close to matching our much-coveted 9-in-a-row.

Therefore the excitement was at fever pitch for 1996 -1997.

Construction of a new stand up at the traditional Rangers end of the ground had been completed off the pitch and on it, Tommy Burns was trying to add the next piece of the jigsaw that would see us go one step closer than the previous year and take the title for the first time since 1988.

We had lost midfield playmaker John Collins for nothing under the new Bosman ruling to Monaco that summer but two significant signings were made in the preseason. The first was the £1 million capture of Italian winger and all round entertainer Paolo Di Canio from AC Milan. The next was he Bolton Wanderers captain, central defender Alan Stubbs for a new club record £3.5 million as the club really upped the ante on any previous transfer business.

It’s also interesting looking back at a time when we could buy players from and a player that had just completed a season captaining a team in the English Premier League.

Changed days indeed.

At the same time, we had held onto our premier foreign talent in Pierre Van Hooijdonk, Jorge Cadete and Andreas Thom. The thought of adding the mercurial talents of Di Canio as well as the expansive defending of Stubbs was pretty mouth watering and gave everyone significant hope for the season ahead.

Unfortunately, some of the early signs did not meet expectation.

In the League Cup, we handed out 3-1 and 5-1 away pastings to lower league Clyde and Alloa before suffering a 17th of September 1-0 exit in extra time to Hearts at Tynecastle in the quarter finals with John Robertson finding the net for the home side.

The European dream also ended early.

We limped past Kosice of Slovakia 1-0 on aggregate in the qualifying round of the UEFA Cup. The solitary goal of the tie came 2 mins before the end of the second leg at home when Jorge Cadete saved our blushes. Di Canio played that night. He looked a player but also completely unfit.

In the 1st round proper we were swept aside 2-0 home and away by Hamburg of Germany to exit 4-0 on aggregate. Whilst our swashbuckling style was a joy to behold domestically it was taken to the cleaners on the European stage by the more capable teams who were far more streetwise than our bread and butter opposition.

Di Canio hitting the post over in Germany in the second leg was as good as it got for us in that tie.

None of that really mattered though.

As you’d expect it was all about the league considering what was at stake.

We began the campaign with a disappointing 2-2 draw at Pittodrie. But followed it up with 5 straight wins scoring an incredible 19 goals in the process. 14 of them came in three home games as we ripped apart Raith Rovers (4-1), Hibs (5-0) and Dunfermline (5-1).

The most memorable game of that period though was the 3-1 win away at Kilmarnock. 1-0 down we came back to score 3 in the second half in front of our huge travelling support with incredible attacking football.

Di Canio came on and equalised with some wonderful footwork in the box, and then Thom and Cadete both scored wonderful finishes on the break.

Jock Brown, commentating for Sportscene that weekend, described our second half display perfectly “Celtic’s counter attacking play is ferocious.”

But it was soon back down to earth with a bump as we were beaten 2-0 at Ibrox in our first encounter of the season with Rangers on the 28th of September.

Celtic actually played well that day in an end to end game but were handicapped by Tosh McKinlay stupidly getting himself sent off for two yellow card offences in the first half. The first was a pointless challenge on as he was punting the ball out and the second was for an even more pointless handball in the midfield.

Richard Gough headed the light blues ahead early in the second half.

Not long after though Celtic were, to say the least, unlucky as a Peter Grant shot from the edge of the box, it deflected off of the inside of Goram’s leg on its way into the goal, hit the post and then rolled across the line.

As the commentary team announced at the time: “That seemed to be impossible.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t though.

Even worse was to follow as a John Hughes header cannoned off Goram’s bar and Rangers broke away through Gascoigne who played the ball and then was on the end of the returning cross to head his side 2-0 up and seal the 3 points.

If any Old Firm game of that era came, to sum up, Tommy Burns’ complete lack of luck in the encounters other than the previous season’s New Year’s 0-0 affair then it was this one.

After the Ibrox disappointment Celtic went unbeaten in four, winning three and hammering Hibs 4-0 at Easter Road in the process as well as beating Aberdeen 1-0 at home. The only dropped points were a 2-2 draw away to Hearts one month after they had eliminated us from the League Cup at the same venue.

That was followed by another Old Firm encounter.

This one was played on a Thursday evening in mid-November and is memorable for all of the wrong reasons.

Celtic dominated the early stages but then Brian O’Neil slipped, fell on his arse and gifted Brian Laudrup the ball who happily accepted and buried it into the net after 7 minutes. As the match progressed Celtic got increasingly desperate in a powder keg atmosphere.

Wave after wave of attack was met by in typically defiant form and when Celtic conceded a penalty after young goalkeeper Stewart Kerr downed Laudrup it looked all over. But Gascoigne’s effort amounted to no more than a pass into the grateful arms of Kerr and Celtic were thrown a lifeline.

A fox ran onto the pitch, Celtic kept on committing more men forward and the back line had to produce various last ditch tackles as Rangers relentlessly counter attacked through Laudrup and Albertz.

One such counter attack resulted in the legendary Peter Van Vossen miss.

Having broken away at the half way line Albertz bore down on the helpless Kerr and charitably passed to Van Vossen to knock into an open goal. The Dutchman was having none of it though and blasted the ball way over the bar into row Z.

Shock and abounded.

In the final 10 mins, Celtic finally got a break and were awarded a penalty when Gough scythed down Simon Donnelly in the box. Big Pierre sauntered up to take it like he was out for a Sunday afternoon stroll whilst swinging a cane which resulted in his meek effort being palmed past the post by Goram.

To add insult to injury in the dying embers of the game Wieghorst was passed the ball 5 yards from goal and met it with a fresh air swipe.

In summation, anything that could have gone wrong pretty much did that night.

We lost 1-0.

That was followed by another 2-2 draw with Hearts who had suddenly become one of our bogey teams and the week after we were beaten 2-1 at Fir Park by our old bogey team Motherwell on the 7th of December 1996, our first non-Old Firm League defeat since May 2nd, 1995.

The decline was arrested via three straight wins which included a much needed 2-1 triumph at Aberdeen on Boxing Day with Jorge Cadete bulleting in a header 5 mins before half time and then Di Canio scored his famous winner with the golden boots as he beat the Dons’ offside trap, chipped the ball over the keeper and knocked it into the net displaying skill in the process.

The golden boots he wore went on to fetch a mammoth £58,000 in Radio Clyde’s ‘Cash for Kids’ auction.

Alas, another Old Firm game was just around the corner and it won’t come as much of a surprise that the New Year’s Derby played on the 2nd of January 1997 ended in more disappointment for Celtic. This one was vital for the Hoops and when it was announced that Rangers captain Richard Gough and talismanic winger Brian Laudrup were ruled out with the flu it looked like the stars were aligning for a Celtic victory.

Rangers were ahead though after only 9 mins when Jorg Albertz buried a thunderous free-kick past the hapless Stewart Kerr. The match was relatively toothless compared to previous encounters there after until the 60th minute when Van Hooijdonk came on and Celtic went for it.

This resulted in having to make some excellent saves before Di Canio equalised in the 66th minute.

The out pouring of joy at that goal was immeasurable.

Our first goal against our biggest rivals of the season and surely now the floodgates would open and we’d push onto victory. Instead, Celtic seemed to freeze. Unsure whether to stick or twist the game became a relatively tame affair until the 82nd minute when David Hannah and Jackie McNamara decided it was a good time to piss around at the back and gave the ball to Albertz who set-up the usually innocuous Erik Bo Andersen to give Rangers the lead.

Celtic then actually equalised through Jorge Cadete.

He turned and smashed the ball high into the net after receiving a Phil O’Donnell header in the middle of the box at his waist.

But linesman Gordon McBride saw his chance to enter Rangers folklore, who as luck would have it just happened to be his favourite team, and flagged it offside when in fact it clearly wasn’t. With Celtic desperately trying to give the officials another excuse to chop a goal off in the final minutes, Rangers hit us on the break and Bo Andersen sealed the win with his second to make it 3-1.

Despite losing all three encounters at this point against the team we were vying to win the league from Tommy Burns remained defiant.

There were 18 league games to go and we would try and win every one of them.

We actually gave it quite a good go and kept the dream alive winning six straight and nine out of ten scoring 26 goals in the process. This included rampant home annihilations of Motherwell (5-0), Kilmarnock (6-0) and Hibs (4-1) as well as away and home wins over Hearts (2-1 & 2-0) who’d previously given us headaches. The only defeat was a 1-0 loss at Dundee Utd who went onto finish 3rd that season and were no mugs.

They also beat Rangers twice that term in league action, something we couldn’t do even once.

The final, vital Old Firm game would soon be upon us and Celtic were going well.

In order to bring more steel to the team hard-man Italian defender Enrico Annoni was brought to the club for £300,00 from Roma in February. Hard tackling Dundee Utd midfielder David Hannah had already been signed back in December for £650K. In the Scottish Cup we’d smashed Clydebank (5-0) and then saw off Hibs (2-0) at Celtic Park in a replay after drawing with them 1-1 at Easter Road. Then came a quarter final clash with Rangers at Celtic Park on the 6th of March 1997.

Another Thursday night encounter for the benefit of the Sky TV cameras so as not to clash with their beloved English Premiership coverage the sense of anticipation was again almost tangible. We simply had to win this in order to end the psychological vice they had us in and the 10 games it had been since we had last seen victory in the encounter.

Thankfully it came to pass.

Malky MacKay rose high to head us into an early lead and then Joachim Bjorklund sent Cadete crashing to the deck to give us a penalty which Di Canio duly converted.

There was general delirium around the stadium, Rangers fans sat in silence with a stunned look on their faces like they had just been shown a sunrise for the first time and that was pretty much that. Game over after 18 minutes.

The rest of the game petered out with little to no further incident as neither side barely registered a shot on goal.

Finally, we’d beaten them.

It all seemed set up perfectly for us to go head to head with them again 10 days later at Celtic Park in what was effectively a title decider on the 16th of March 1997.

Celtic warmed up for this by losing 2-0 to Kilmarnock at Rugby Park on the Tuesday before it.

A disastrous result that seemed to come out of nowhere and appeared to indicate that the celebrations had not only been OTT in the stands and pubs amongst the fans after the previous weeks Scottish Cup victory. In the lead up to the game, big Pierre had been sold for £3million to Nottingham Forest.

I’ll get back to that.

Needless to say, it had been coming.

Di Canio was also injured that night which was a major loss. That apart the performance was unforgivably bad and we got what we deserved which was nothing. The result coupled with spiralling rumours that Tommy Burns would be getting sacked and replaced with Johan Cruyff meant Celtic went into the final all important Old Firm match under almost overwhelming pressure. Five points behind with seven games to play it was a must win.

Lose this and the league, as well as our claim over 9-in-a-row, were as good as gone.

Rangers themselves were struggling.

They’d only won three of their last seven league matches and were coming in on the back off a 2-0 loss at home to Dundee Utd.

Surely we couldn’t blow this?

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we did.

Di Canio crashed the ball off of the Rangers crossbar after having a free kick chipped up to him by Tosh McKinlay in a marvellous moment of ingenuity on the 41st-minute mark. Then 30 seconds before half time Alan Stubbs poor headed clearance was tracked by Ian Durrant who chipped it high into the middle of the box where Brian Laudrup squeezed it into the net with Stewart Kerr all at sea. The rest of the game was pretty forgettable.

Mark Hateley, who had returned to Ibrox shortly before the game, got a straight red card and Malky MacKay walked for two bookable offences.

Paulo Di Canio increasingly lost the plot as the game progressed and he ended up threatening to break Rangers’ serial hammer thrower Ian Ferguson’s leg. He was later shown a red card in the referee’s changing room after the game.

Upon the whistle sounding the Rangers players did a mock huddle.

The title was more or less theirs.

Tommy Burns again remained defiant. He refused to accept that he and his coaching staff were responsible for Rangers inevitably matching 9-in-a-row as they had not been in place for the first 6 and had been pretty much hamstrung by circumstances in his first season in charge.

In hindsight, that’s a fair point but at the time everyone’s anger and frustration outweighed reasonable or rational thought.

We drew three and won three of the final six. If we’d won all of those games we would have actually won the league though Rangers pretty much took their foot off the gas post the Celtic Park game and won it with a game to spare via a 2-1 win at while we meekly drew 0-0 at home to Kilmarnock.

In the end, our league form read: won 23, drew 6, lost 7, scored 78 and conceded 32.

With a goal difference of 46, we finished 5 points behind Rangers who were beaten 6 times in the league.

We actually scored four more than the previous season but conceded seven more for a slightly inferior goal difference.

It hadn’t been a bad league campaign compared to recent ones but losing all four Old Firm league games killed us.

Tommy’s fate as manager was sealed on the 23rd of April.

Having drawn 1-1 with second tier side Falkirk at Ibrox of all places in the Sottish Cup semi-final, winning the replay was another must win. I remember attending that first match with my father. We encountered the late Falkirk striker Paul McGrillen’s father, who my dad used to work with, outside the ground beforehand. He gave us a detailed account of his son’s recent fortunes before wishing us well. A Celtic man himself he’d be supporting his son that day.

It was a poor display from Celtic who really wilted in the last part of the season.

New signing Tommy Johnson put us ahead after 65 mins with our first shot on goal and our blushes appeared to have been spared. He was through for a second in the 82nd minute but fluffed his lines, Falkirk lashed the ball up the pitch and from the resulting breakaway and cross the enormous 6’7′ Bairns central defender Kevin James headed the ball home for a shock equaliser. Tommy Burns stated that we would “get the job done” the following week in the replay.

The replay came and Celtic didn’t show up though.

Falkirk won 1-0 with the aforementioned Paul McGrillen scoring the solitary winning goal on 19 minutes.

Tommy’s final post match interview went thus:

“There is nothing to describe my disappointment – nothing. My greatest fear as a player was being involved in something like this. I was fortunate that, in 15 years as a Celtic player, nothing like this ever happened to me. That is what makes this result all the harder to take. It is very difficult. People know my feelings for Celtic, they will know how deeply hurt and embarrassed I am. I have never been frightened to accept my responsibilities. It was my team who lost the game. My responsibility. No excuses. I spent 15 years as a player at Celtic Park. I can handle pressure. But I have to admit that we have too many players who can’t take the strain. It is at a time like this that you find out about players and other people within the club. I was never afraid of a challenge but that challenge has to be accepted by players as well as management. We have been hanging on to Paolo Di Canio’s coat-tails and need someone to help him shoulder responsibility. There was a desperate lack of leadership against Falkirk. It was disappointing and embarrassing.”

Tommy handed in his resignation on the 2nd of May.

Billy Stark, his assistant, took over the reigns for the final three league matches.

The loss of our manager had been on the cards since the Old Firm loss at New Year.

The press had a feeding frenzy with it.

Tommy did a lot of great things at Celtic as manager but came up short on the big stage almost every time, unfortunately. His Old Firm record made for eye watering reading. Only three wins in fifteen encounters with eight defeats. Also, his relationship with Fergus McCann and the board had gradually evaporated as the pressure mounted. Upon leaving the club Tommy gave an two-page interview to the Daily Record. To say the least, he wasn’t very complimentary to Fergus or the club’s internal structures. This was ill-advised. Tommy was angry and wore his heart on his sleeve. The job had been very personal to him which only added to the pressure. He later said:

“I probably did 15 or 20 years as a manager in those three years.”

Much of his frustration likely came about as a result of Fergus’s relationships and dealings with our foreign contingent and in particular, Van Hooijdonk, Cadete and Di Canio who he disparagingly labelled ‘The 3 Amigos’.

Van Hooijdonk had spent most the season complaining and alienating himself.

Pierre was a fantastic talent who scored 56 goals in 92 appearances but he wanted a move down south to the ‘promised land’ of the increasingly popular English Premiership and went about it by acting like a petulant child. His form dropped drastically in season 96/97 and he cut an almost permanently forlorn figure mopping around the touchline when he wasn’t started. He eventually got his move via a transfer to Nottingham Forest as mentioned previously.

He pulled the same trick with them not much later.

Cadete also wanted a move away to warmer climes and would get it that summer when he was sold to Celta Vigo for £3.5 million. His career pretty much plateaued with Celtic though. As great as Cadete could be, evidenced by an incredible 30 goals in 37 total league outings in the Hoops, the fact is he never delivered on the big stage and in particular against Rangers.

As for Di Canio he was undoubtedly the most talented of the three.

A fantastic if controversial footballer and born entertainer on the pitch he ran himself into the ground for Celtic that season scoring 15 goals in 37 appearances and setting up countless others. Unfortunately, he was also working his ticket off it for a move down south that summer. He also got his wish, moving to Sheffield Wednesday for £4.5 million, easily the biggest fee we’d ever received for a player at the time. He was never far from controversy down there either.

The football on the whole under Tommy Burns had been immensely entraining but with only one trophy in three years it had not proved successful.

Expectations had been revived but sadly not met.

The following season was going to be a huge one.

The fight to stop them getting the unthinkable 10.

A more pragmatic approach was required. Fergus would deliver it at all levels of the club via the appointments of a BBC commentator, an unknown Dutch coach and a club legend. We also signed a guy with dreadlocks who turned out to be pretty good.

But that my friends is another story.

After a long spell in the dark, Paul Cassidy is glad to see some light at the end of the tunnel …

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