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The Dark Days: 1990-91. Down And Up … And Down Again.

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In my last article for the blog I looked at the beginning of the dark days.

The 1989-1990 season was the first indisputable truth that we were now well and truly in the shadows of Rangers.

League wise it was the equal lowest finish for Celtic since before the Jock Stein era way back in season 1964-65. Cup wise we had almost found salvation with a third consecutive Scottish Cup win but had been denied by Aberdeen via the first ever penalty shoot-out decider in the national cup final’s history.

Europe had ended early though this had been par for the course for Celtic for a decade and it was probably just as well that we hadn’t qualified for a European campaign for the first time in nearly 30 years via the previous seasons underwhelming exploits.

So on we rolled to 1990-1991 and this is the first season where I can recall pretty much all of our home games as a season ticket holder. By the way don’t worry. This isn’t going to be a season by season review but this one deserves to be given individual analysis so tantamount was it to shaping our future.

Billy McNeill was still in charge and he had bolstered the squad by adding the then (not now) legendary figure amongst the Hoops fans of returning hero Charlie Nicholas from Aberdeen where he had of course helped deny us in the previous May’s cup final.

Hopes were high for ‘Champagne Charlie’.

Especially considering we had only averaged one goal a game in the previous term. We also added some genuine quality with the acquisition of Hibs star midfielder John Collins who became the clubs first £1 million player. This was an unusually ambitious signing by the club for that time and smashed the previous club record fee of £750,000 paid to West Ham for Frank McAvennie in 1987.

Added to that there was Martin Hayes who arrived from Arsenal for over £600K.

He would appear 10 times for Celtic over the course of the next 3 years.

He never scored and became such a forgotten man that one urban myth abounds of a time he fell asleep in his car whilst waiting for the rest of the first team to to arrive at Barrowfield for training and by the time he woke up it was already finished. Upon realising this and rushing to apologize to then manager Liam Brady (don’t worry we’ll get back to him) he was informed that nobody had even noticed.

I’ve also heard another one about how he was locked in his car by team mates at the old training ground one winter’s morning as a practical joke and wrote an S.O.S request on the steamed up windows which wasn’t answered until several hours later. The chances are both are probably deviations of the real story.

But ultimately…..who cares? That was his impact on the team.

Yet in the beginning there was genuine hope that season.

Collins was an excellent player and the board had really pushed the boat out in securing him. Nicholas was seen as the prodigal son returning. Funny how things change.

He’d struggle to muster an autograph request outside the ground now.

It couldn’t have got off to a worse start.

We were well beaten 2-0 at Fir Park on the opening day by a pretty decent Motherwell team that had Davie Cooper and a young Phil O’Donnell in their ranks and Tommy McLean at the helm. At full time Cesar and McLean clashed whilst going up the tunnel in what proved to be the best thing on the match highlights on Sportscene that night. It marked the beginning of what was to be a long season and yes, Sportscene used to be on on Saturday nights.

Things didn’t get much better on match day 2. We were thumped 3-0 at home to an Aberdeen team that was more or less the same to a man as the one that had beaten us in the Cup Final – minus Nicholas of course – in front of 45,000 fans who’s despair was easy to imagine.

Mason, Connor and Gillhaus all did the damage within a crazy 14 mins spell in the second half where we completely capitulated. This game is very much etched into my memory. Back then Aberdeen would bring a huge support down to Glasgow, almost as big as their average home support now. They would have the whole Rangers end of the stadium something usually only reserved for Rangers themselves.

Aberdeen threw down the gauntlet for what was to be a very serious title challenge that day.

Celtic on the other hand clearly signaled they were going to be way off such a feat. Most of the Celtic fans left early as the game played out like a training session over the final 25 mins.

As I departed 5 mins from the end with my father from our seats at the front of the main stand we briefly turned at the top of the stairs leading to the exit and looked across a sea of empty seats and the remaining crestfallen faces. I asked my father what was wrong with everyone.

He responded: “Their hearts are in the wrong places son.”

Celtic actually went on a 7 game unbeaten league run thereafter which included a credible 1-1 draw in the sun against Rangers at Ibrox with Derek Whyte popping up to head an opener that was later cancelled out. We also cruised into the semi finals of the League Cup where we met Jim McLean’s Dundee Utd, who were a serious outfit back then. This was my second visit to Hampden and this time it was in the terraces facing the old main stand. I was terrified. A 9 year old boy surrounded by what seemed to be legions of towering men.

Unlike my last visit though we won.

I can still see Gerry Creaney rising up like a salmon to score with a header now.

Paul McStay blasted home the second and a final against Rangers was secured.

That took place a month later in late October in front of 62,000 at a packed Hampden. The League Cup (or Skol Cup as it was then) Final like everything else it seems took place much earlier in the season back in the day.

In the days before the game The Daily Record claimed that the Celtic Supporters Association had allegedly paid a private investigator to keep an eye on the final’s referee Jim McCluskey in the lead up to the match after it was revealed he’d paid a £25 fine the previous summer for being found “drunk and incapable” in Kilmarnock town centre in the early hours of the morning shortly after attending the annual Orange Order parade.

McCluskey denied he was openly sectarian.

Anyway it looked like it was going to be a wonderful day when Paul Elliot went from what appeared to be tying his shoe laces to throwing his head towards a misplaced Wdowczyk shot and heading the ball past the despairing Chris Woods (yes Rangers had a goalkeeper before Andy Goram.).

However Mark Walters equalised 15 mins later and then with the stadium enveloped in Autumn early evening darkness Richard Gough hit an extra time winner.

The Rangers end of the stadium went bananas.

Unfortunately that was a theme for the majority of the 90’s when Old Firm matches came about. The whistle went and we slipped into the night. Gutted.

Of course little did we knew it could actually get a lot worse but it didn’t seem like it could that particular Sunday as we returned home.

But it would be nearly 5 years before we returned to Hampden again for a final.

For the rest of the season Celtic played catch-up as Rangers and Aberdeen battled it out neck and neck at the top of the table. One of the most memorable games was a 1-0 home victory over Aberdeen courtesy of a last minute Paul Elliot winner.

I’d like to repeat a point from the previous article.

That being: Paul Elliot … what a player!

Nowadays of course we expect to cuff the Dons home and away. But back then having been on the receiving end of two back to back 3-0 defeats in the league to them that season a victory was seen as significant no matter how it was achieved.

In the end we finished a distant third beating 4th placed Dundee Utd by the skin of our teeth on goal difference. With no European distractions the League form had at least picked up on the previous term and despite the disappointment of being pipped in the League Cup final the club had progressed to the semi’s of the Scottish Cup. In fact the quarter final and the subsequent weekend’s fixture that followed it proved to be not only the highlight of that season but probably the club’s best week full stop until Fergus McCann arrived at the 25th hour to bail us out of receivership three years later.

The quarter final in question took place at a packed Celtic Park on March 17th 1991. That date usually has a lot if significance for many Celtic supporters but this was no ordinary St. Patrick’s Day.

No this was … The St. Patrick’s Day Massacre.

Going in Celtic had failed to beat Rangers on 4 previous occasions that season including the aforementioned League Cup Final nearly 5 months before.

In order to maintain any hope of silverware Celtic just had to win.

The crowd was amped and it was an incredible atmosphere even for an Old Firm game.

The crammed Rangers end were in gloating mood on a dull, grey Sunday afternoon but could seldom be heard over the jungle who belted out “The Merry Ploughboy” and “Happy Birthday St. Patrick” like their lives depended on it.

And it got off to the best possible start as Gerry Creaney, who in moments back in those years looked like a future star in the making, crashed in the opener after 6 mins. Half an hour later we were in dreamland as Wdowczyk (Shuggie) blasted a free kick that deflected off of Graeme Souness’s marque signing ‘The Missing Link’ aka Terry Hurlock and it looped over Chris Woods into the net.

Rangers never recovered and only very brief bouts of actual football broke out over the rest of the game. You may wonder if not familiar with the match in question where the ‘Massacre’ tag comes from.

After all 2-0 hardly constitutes a massacre.

Well it had more to do with the 4 red cards that got flashed in the second half.

The first was for Celtic with Peter Grant seeing red for sheer stupidity. Already on a yellow Grant decided to charge down a Rangers direct free kick on the edge of the box about 5 mins before it had even been struck.

The three Rangers players all walked due to thuggery.

Hurlock who had been getting a taste of his own medicine that day from everyone in green and white hoops didn’t like it and lashed out. Hurlock really did come to embody everything about Souness’s Rangers. With superior funds at his disposal and the ability to buy skilled players like Ray Wilkins and Walters the moustached one as he was then would still bring in hammer throwers like Hurlock.

Terry was lost with a ball at his feet but in his element when delivering a groin high challenge. I seem to remember ‘Not the View’ the legendary Celtic fanzine doing a comic strip set in Souness’s house. The house was bare and decrepit and Souness would sit on a solitary wooden chair with his Admiral Rangers tracksuit on refusing to put on the central heating. In the corner he’d have Hurlock locked in a cage.

Walters also picked up an uncharacteristic red card and Hateley walked for lashing out. All this took place live on the BBC on a Sunday afternoon.

Dougie Donnelly tried vainly to provide half and full-time analysis but was generally drowned out by the noise.

And that was followed a week later as we did them again.

Having won only one in the previous eight before the following weekend Celtic made it two wins over Rangers in six days by trouncing them 3-0 in the league at Celtic Park the following Saturday. Even Anton Rogan got on the score sheet. It was Celtic’s first Old Firm league win since November 1988 and briefly maintained faint hopes of a late title challenge as we went unbeaten in 9 league games and made it 6 consecutive league wins.

Alas rather than spur Celtic on it seemed to have the opposite effect.

Going into the business end of the season and still clearly basking in the glory of those 6 days in March, Celtic’s form just completely nosedived. They lost 3 league games on the spin and in amongst those they also lost the Scottish cup semi-final via a replay defeat to eventual winners Motherwell.

At a wet and windy Hampden on a Tuesday evening Celtic were ahead twice in the first 21 mins but subsequently downed tools and shipped 3 goals in the second half.

I watched the game on a big TV at a family friend’s house over in the southside of Glasgow. Back then you traversed the length and breadth of the land to go to people’s houses who had Sky TV.

Tommy Coyne had a chance to kill the game off at 2-1 and missed. Packie Bonner made an excellent save from Motherwell’s John Philliben and then proceeded to be all at sea for Motherwell’s 3 goals.

As the whistle went the din of boos was audible.

The Bhoys had blown it.

The season was over bar the shouting.

Celtic won the last 4 league matches of the campaign to secure 3rd spot and a return to European football. Meanwhile as if to add insult to injury Aberdeen snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by losing 2-0 at Ibrox to Rangers on the final day when all they needed was a draw to secure the League Championship.

In the final analysis the 1990-1991 campaign had been an improvement on the previous one though was still way off what would be considered acceptable for Celtic.

Two seasons without a trophy meant the almost unthinkable happened and Billy McNeill, Cesar, lost his job.

A dark day indeed when the club’s greatest ever captain who played a record 822* games for the club in which he won 23 trophies including of course the European Cup and who also managed us to 8 trophies which included the historic centenary season double, is shown the door.

Feelings amongst the fans was mixed.

As much as Cesar was revered Celtic had finished empty handed for two consecutive seasons for the first time since the early sixties.

The mood soon picked up though when it was announced that the new manager was going to be legendary ex-Repulblic of Ireland internationalist, Arsenal and Juventus star Liam Brady who would be furnished with millions of pounds to buy a new team.

He was going to be our Graeme Souness.

A thinking out of the box appointment with no previous ties to the club and lofty ambitions.

And chief executive Terry Cassidy was going to unveil plans for a new stadium any day now. The Celtic View was upbeat. It was almost like a dream.

Little did we know, things were going to get a hell of a lot worse than we could ever imagined as that dream slowly turned into a nightmare.

Yes next time out we’ll be reliving that disastrous night in Neuchatel Xamax as well as the Tony Cascarino experience.

*Some records show 789 games as Billy ‘s total for Celtic. Either way it was a lot.

Paul Cassidy needs a right good drink after recounting the darkness of that fateful year …

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1 comment
  • Pat Morrissey says:

    Reading this is going to send me into trauma counselling. I remember screaming at Chris Morris in the 1990 League Cup final to tackle Gough! But he didnae – it was a horrible, gloomy, wet and miserable day . And the monster that was Terry Hurlock – did he not return to lifting bins after Rangers? And I was at the St Patrick’s Day Massacre – images of the Maestro telling everyone to calm down. I think Aberdeen had a rookie goalie in that 2-0 game and Hately kicked and elbowed him about five times in the first ten minutes. Mibbe start with a health warning for the next one Paul.

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