The Dark Days. 1999-2000 Part 1: Our Nightmarish “Dream Team”.

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Now we come to the last season from the 90’s and the final term before the trophy-laden years of Martin O’Neill and his successors.

In other words, the end of the ‘Dark Days’ has almost come.

But as always seems to be the case with any thrilling narrative before things get better they tend to get a helluva lot worse.

This final season of one of the worst decades in the clubs history wasn’t just dark it was decidedly shambolic and ultimately farcical.

So let’s get to it.

John Barnes was appointed as ‘head coach’ of Celtic on June 10th 1999.

Along with him came club legend Kenny Dalglish as Director of Football.

Such a role was expected to go to departing manager Dr Jozef Venglos but that never materialised.

At the time it was seen as ‘The Dream Team’.

The young managerial prodigy in Barnes and the experienced master overseeing everything in Dalglish.

It was fresh and exciting.

Barnes was the first ever black manager to be appointed in the history of the Scottish top flight and one of only a handful in the history of British football.

Barnes had been a wonderful player.

An entertainer with incredible skills he had plied most of his career trade at Liverpool where he had spent ten seasons winning two League Championships, an FA Cup and a League Cup and scoring a pretty incredible 106 goals from the left wing in the process.

He had also earned 79 caps for England.

Management wise this was his first gig which inevitably was of some concern considering Rangers were in the ascendancy and the fact that the last time such an approach had been attempted it had ultimately failed under the only other rookie manager in the club’s history at that time, Liam Brady. There had been record-breaking spending and some nice football under Brady but the trophy cabinet had only gathered dust and we finished no higher than third in the league.

That ‘record-spending’ afforded to such an inexperienced boss ultimately precipitated near financial catastrophe at the club as the old board threw the dice and lost.

But this was different, Dalglish was there too.

His managerial credentials could compete with anybody.

As player/manager and then just manager of Liverpool he had won three League titles, as well as two FA Cups, followed by also winning the English second tier play-offs with Blackburn Rovers who he then ultimately led to an incredible Premiership title in 1994/1995.

Kenny had of course been a genuine legend as a player with the club, having turned out in a total of nine seasons after making his debut aged only 17.

Dalglish went on to play 322 times for Celtic scoring a breathtaking 167 goals in the process and lifted nine major honours before his big money departure to Liverpool in 1977.

This exciting double act was also bolstered by promises of a healthy budget that would be made available to them as well.

The guaranteer of this was new Chief Executive Allan MacDonald who had taken over the reigns at the club upon Fergus’s official departure in April of 1999.

MacDonald was a Celtic man through and through who held lofty ambitions for the club.

Having been British Aerospace’s managing director in the Far East his credentials in both the business world and as a man with Celtic’s interests at heart were undoubted. He wanted to change the clubs image with the fans which had become and to a certain extent always was somewhat distant and often tumultuous.

McCann was not a people person. He knew what was right for Celtic and would do what it took to achieve it always looking out for potential long-term financial implications. He saw Murray’s blueprint over at Ibrox and was abhorred by it. This was of course regularly misconstrued by the Murray sycophants in the mainstream media or ‘laptop loyal’ as they became known as a return to the biscuit tin mentality of yesteryear.

While Murray was portrayed as an ambitious captain of industry Fergus was painted out to be a modem day Scrooge who preferred to amass wealth gained from the supporters and was somehow adverse to investing it.

This was all, of course, complete nonsense as the passage of time has told us.

Fergus knew the financial limitations of playing in Scotland and until an alternative competition offered itself up then he demanded Celtic live within their means and did not jeopardise themselves as they had done before under his predecessors in the boardroom.

Allan MacDonald’s worldview to the economics of football was different.

Being primarily a fan who held several season tickets at Celtic Park his primary concern was our success on the park. And with Rangers having spent the guts of £40 million in the previous year and swept all before them domestically he was determined that the club would respond. By that of course I mean he was prepared to get the chequebook out. Fergus-like concerns over the pesky balance sheet could be addressed at a later date.

As his first order of business, he had already got Henrik Larsson singed up on a new contract making him the club’s highest ever paid player with then mammoth wages of £23,000 a week.

He’d also performed the rather brazen move of appointing a psychologist to analyse Hugh Dallas’s performance in the previous season’s disastrous title decider at Celtic Park.

Then had come the Barnes / Dalglish appointment.

But it was the signing of 27-year-old Israeli internationalist Berkovic from West Ham Utd in particular that made a real statement of intent as it cost £5.75 million breaking both Celtic’s and indeed Scottish football’s record transfer fee in the process.

He also sanctioned the new management teams signings of defender Olivier Tebily, Bulgarian midfielder Stilian Petrov, veteran Russian keeper Dmitri Kharine, Dutch winger Bobby Petta and the unforgettable French striker Stephane Bonnes who rumour has it can still be found training at Barrowfield, patiently waiting for his chance.

Heading out the door was the pairing of Simon Donnelly and Phil O’Donnell who both joined Sheffield Wednesday and during the course of the season, Craig Burley departed for a pretty hefty £3 million fee to Derby County.

It’s difficult to believe now but back then Burley was well liked by the Celtic support due to his efforts during the 1997/98 title-winning season with his many significant goals proving vital. Many were sad to see him go.

He has of course since taken a flamethrower to such sentiments due to his apathetic recollections of his time with the club as well as regularly dispersing inflammatory sound bites which indicate that his knowledge of the Scottish game could be written on the back of a matchbox.

So to the football itself then and Barnes clearly was determined to do things his way.

To underline this he deployed the rather unusual 4-2-2-2 formation apparently favoured by several South American sides. It was clear the idea was to outscore the opposition and with players like Larsson, Lubo Moravcik, Mark Viduka and now Berkovik at the club that was a somewhat understandable if not also completely naive approach. I seem to remember Ossie Ardiles deploying a similar approach down at Spurs in the mid 90’s with Sheringham, Anderton, Barmby, Klinsmann and Ilie Dumitrescu all thrown up front as part of the Argentinian’s five-pronged attack kamikaze football philosophy. It was fun while it lasted, which wasn’t long.

Initially, at least it worked.

On the opening day of the season, Celtic went up to Pittodrie and smashed them 5-0.

Larsson and Viduka both scored a double and emerging young striker Mark Burchill came on to grab a fifth.

The following week we then cuffed St.Johnstone 3-0 at home before going down to Wales midweek and annihilating Cwmbrân Town A.F.C. 6-0 in the away leg of the preliminary round of that season’s Cup Winners Cup. But then came the first road bump.

Celtic went up to Tannadice on the 15th of August and lost 2-1.

It was a disappointing loss and a reality check for most fans but kicked off a nine-game winning run for Barnes which included five games in the league, three in the Cup Winners Cup and a third round League Cup tie. Celtic scored 27 goals in that period and remarkably conceded only one.

Cwmbrân Town had been seen off 4-0 in the home leg for a 10-0 aggregate victory, Ayr United were buried 4-0 at Somerset Park in the League Cup, and the League victories included a 4-0 whipping of Hearts at home, a 2-0 win away at Easter Road against Hibs and then a 7-0 massacre of Aberdeen at Celtic Park. We had also bested Israel’s Hapoel Tel Aviv 3-0 on aggregate in the first round proper of the CWC with 2-0 and 1-0 wins respectively. Larsson scored all three goals in that tie.

It really was all wine and roses but then the next ‘road bump’ came and in fairness, it was more like an earthquake that had the potential to derail any managers season. It was, of course, the season and nearly career-ending injury suffered by the talismanic Henrik Larsson on the 21st of October in the Stade de Gerland, Lyon, France.

I remember going to the Strathclyde University Union that evening with friends to watch the second round clash.

With the run we were on expectations were understandably high amongst myself and my mates of experiencing the first ever significant European adventure to occur in our lifetime. At that point, we had of course never progressed past the second round stage of a European competition since 1980.

We actually played pretty well for ten mins but it all came crashing down in the twelfth when Henrik attempted an uncustomary challenge on Lyon player Serge Blanc and ended up suffering a pretty graphic compound fracture that looked like his leg had been broken like a twig.

Such was the sheer shock at such a horror injury happening to our most prized player that most people entered into a phase of immediate denial with some around me even claiming that it was actually the shin pad that had broken and that was protruding through his sock.

Of course, it wasn’t and Henrik was well and truly crocked.

Mark Burchill came on and actually rounded their keeper before being taken down which rather than result in a penalty and sending off instead incited the referee to book the 19-year-old striker for diving. A mystifying decision.

On the 63rd minute, Serge Blanc then entered the proceedings again and lashed a winner high into the net for the French side.

It really was one of those nights.

Celtic had played excellently, probably the best away European performance in my viewing lifetime but had gotten no luck at all. Indeed quite the opposite. As we departed Vertigo nightclub in the upper floors of the union where the big screen had been showing the game and into the dark Glasgow night outside we all had that sinking feeling. Not only was our European dream looking spent but our season potentially was in tatters.

So it proved to be.

News filtered through in the succeeding days that Henrik was out for the season at least.

Celtic then lost four of their next seven matches as our form in the wake of the Larsson injury completely nosedived.

Of the three matches, we won two of them were 2-1 wins away against St.Johnstone and Hearts. In both instances, goals right at the death were required to gain the three points. The other one we won was a 5-1 home hammering of Kilmarnock. Ian Wright the legendary Arsenal striker who had become a free agent had been drafted in to replace Henrik. He scored on his debut that day but it was a false dawn. Wright was 36 and fooling no one.

The four defeats included home and away losses to Motherwell – 1-0 at home and 3-2 away – as well as a predictable second leg loss to Lyon who beat us 1-0 at Celtic Park for a 2-0 aggregate victory. We also visited Ibrox and after going behind in nineteen mins came storming back to go 2-1 up thanks to two excellent goals from Berkovic who celebrated the second by running towards the Broomloan  end doing the then popular ‘Chicken Tonight’ celebration (basically you mimicked a chicken by folding your arms by your side and then flapping them like…….a chicken!) only to then get blown away 4-2 and give further confirmation that without Larsson we looked lost.

It was around this time summer singing Olivier Tebily earned his nickname of ‘Bombscare’.

Tebily had the uncanny knack of creating panic in the ranks when no danger seemed apparent.

Literally out of the most mundane passage of play Tebily could conjure up unrelenting excitement with a slack pass, ill-advised attempt to dribble in front of his own goal or clearance straight into the path of an onrushing opposition player. He really was something else.

Barnes did momentarily turn things around in December.

We won four straight starting with a 1-0 win at Dens Park against Dundee in the League Cup on the 1st, followed by a 4-0 hammering of Hibs, the latest slaughter of Aberdeen (6-0 at Pittodrie) and a 4-1 win at home to Dundee Utd. 15 goals in four matches with only one conceded was a return to the pre-Larsson injury form and had us right back in contention going into the second Old Firm game. Barnes picked up the Manager of the Month award for December and the expectation levels again peaked with Rangers first visit to Paradise that season.

Things got off to a great start as the place erupted when Viduka scored a wonderful strike to make it 1-0 after 18 mins. You got the sense that maybe we had truly turned a corner. This was the result Barnes needed. But then Billy Dodds equalised on 27 minutes and the game played out evenly to a draw.

The winter break then took place.

Celtic went off to Portugal and rumours began to abound of a big split in the camp between Barnes and his signings on one side and the rest of the squad on the other who were somewhat underwhelmed by his incoherent tactics as well as his apparently aloof man management approach.

When they returned they went to Rugby Park where we came away with a decidedly underwhelming 1-1 draw with Kilmarnock as Rangers began to pull away in the title race. That was followed by a home match with Hearts on the 5th of February.

I was at that game. I distinctly remember the rumblings amongst the crowd beforehand.

Barnes was no longer popular and his appointment was now firmly viewed as a disaster. Everyone was waiting for something to happen on the pitch that would instigate his departure. There was almost a sense of ‘hurry up and get Dalglish in’.

Celtic came out and played poorly but somehow found themselves 2-0 up thanks to goals from Lubo and Viduka and were cruising. But then the prematch pessimism proved correct as Celtic capitulated. Colin Cameron scored just after the half-hour mark and then on 55 minutes, Gary Naysmith equalised. At this point, the team was in disarray and defeat looked inevitable. Alan Stubbs obliged such expectations by barging down ex-Celt Darren Jackson in the box and Colin Cameron scored again this time from the resulting penalty on 83 minutes. Boos subsequently rained around the stadium. Eyal Berkovik summed up his own personal commitment to the cause and the general malaise at the club by stating in a post-match interview that Celtic had ‘very little hope’ of being able to now mount a title challenge to Rangers.

Bear in mind there was still 16 games left and 48 points to play for at this stage.

Barnes days looked numbered.

If there were any doubts about his eventual fate then he erased them in style three days later by leading Celtic to arguably the most embarrassing defeat in the clubs history.

This was, of course, the night of the famous, well infamous from our perspective ‘Super Caley Goes Ballistic Celtic are Atrocious’ headline in the Sun newspaper the following day

Second tier Caley Thistle rolled into town on a cold, dark winters Tuesday night under the stewardship of hard drinking manager Stevie ‘Pele’ Patterson and didn’t just put a final nail into the coffin of the ill-fated Barnes reign but rather took a bazooka to the whole thing.

The game had been rescheduled due to issues with the roof after high winds and despite Celtic’s form woes was considered to be a routine third-round Scottish Cup tie.

It proved to be anything but.

Barry Wilson gave Caley a shock lead on 16 minutes. Mark Burchill though replied down at the other end less than a minute later and normal service was expected to resume. Moravcik, however, scored an uncustomary own goal and somehow we found ourselves 2-1 down at halftime. The whistles and boos were deafening amongst the depleted midweek cup game crowd as the players exited the pitch. Little did anyone know that inside the home dressing room chaos was about to ensue.

Celtic assistant Eric Black lambasted the team for a lack of effort.

In particular, he singled out Mark Viduka in order to get a reaction.

He got one alright.

Viduka had to be restrained from attacking him and then threw his boots in the bin refusing to come out for the second half.

Ian Wright later stated that in all of his years in football he had never seen anything like it.

Goalkeeper Jonathan Gould then pointed out the obvious to everyone that Eyal Berkovic had shown no effort at all.

Various other arguments ensued and according to Lubo John Barnes sat there helplessly looking on as a bewildered spectator.

Amazingly Olivier Tebily wasn’t responsible for any of this.

He was away on international duty with the Ivory Coast and had actually been taken hostage along with his teammates.

I kid you not.

Ian Wright gave his input into the proceedings by reacting to it all by bursting into a fit of laughter.

Again another insight into the mentality of some of the players at the club during this period.

Wright was there for a payday and to bathe in some short-lived adulation one last time before finally calling it a day. I wonder if his laughter was a reaction to the events unfolding in front of him or that no one had yet copped onto the fact he was getting paid a fortune every week to do precisely sod all. Either way, Caley came out in the second half and scored a third through Paul Sheerin to seal a 3-1 victory and Barnes got his P45 in the fallout.

Of the game Barnes stated: “It was just an accident waiting to happen.”

I guess that statement pretty much summed up his appointment by the club.

Assistant coaches Eric Black and Terry McDermott followed him out the door.

In the following days, Kenny Dalglish was inevitably announced as the new interim manager.

It was time for King Kenny to clean up his prodigy’s mess.

Surely with his wealth of experience things couldn’t get any worse. Surely?

As luck would have it thanks to press conferences at Bairds Bar and the protracted signing of a Brazilian with an unfortunate name farce was about to be taken to a whole new level.

Paul Cassidy proves once again that he has an iron constitution … how else could he sit through memories like this? 

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