I haven’t included the previous season in this series, the Year We Stopped The Ten.
It breaks the chronological order but how possibly could I include a season where we won our first league championship in exactly a decade and in the process of doing so prevented Rangers eclipsing our 9 and winning 10 in a row?
Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of that triumph and I’m sure plenty will be written about it nearer the time.
So I’ll hold off on that for now; it certainly doesn’t deserve to be filed under ‘Dark Days.’
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the season that followed it.
We had the league championship trophy on show inside the boardroom but otherwise, relative chaos ensued around Celtic Park.
Not long after securing the title for us and weaving his way into Celtic folklore in the process Wim Jansen departed alongside assistant Murdo MacLeod.
The reasons for that are many.
At the time the narrative was decidedly slanted in favour of the Dutchman.
Both Fergus McCann and in particular the Director of Football Jock Brown were painted as the bad guys. In subsequent years though it’s become clear that Wim was not quite the victim that some had painted him. Anyway, all of the season 97-98’s fallout can be discussed another day.
It’s on to the season at hand.
Firstly we had to appoint a new manager.
We did that and it was none other than the little known Dr. Jozef Venglos.
Dr. Jo had actually managed in the UK before taking over at Aston Villa in 1990 for one season. Villa finished 17th and despite his lack of popularity amongst the fans by all accounts, the club owner Doug Ellis wanted him to stay but Venglos decided to walk.
His methods had not been popular amongst players at the West Midlands club.
Basically, the good doctor was way ahead of his time.
He demanded the players behave professionally in every aspect of their lives and implemented a strict diet regime, along with curfews, intense cardio workouts and insisted they curtail their drinking. It went down like a joke in a mortuary with the grizzled old English pros amongst the ranks and Venglos spent the season facing near perennial resistance.
No surprise then he declined a second term.
Nowadays, every single one of those ideas is custom and practice at the top clubs.
Like I said, he was way ahead of his time.
Outside of that, he had probably the most extensive coaching resume of any manager before or since in the Celtic Park hot-seat.
Having began his coaching career in Australia after retiring from playing the game in his native Czechoslovakia he then went onto have spells managing back home with ŠK Slovan Bratislava where he won back to back league titles, before managing the Czechoslovakian national side for 4 years guiding them to 3rd place in the 1980 European championships and then to qualification for the 1982 World Cup in Spain where they exited at the group stages.
He then spent individual seasons managing Sporting Lisbon, the Malaysian nation side, back to the Czechoslovakia national team again whom he led to the quarter finals of Italia 90′ this time, before Villa, two years in charge at Fenerbahçe, another two years with the newly independent Slovakian national side and then a short spell presiding over Oman.
So pretty much a footballing nomad who had traversed the globe.
The appointment was somewhat underwhelming and perhaps slightly ill advised as a big name appointment would likely have calmed the then ongoing furore over Wim Jansen’s departure.
Dr. Jo was a pretty gentle soul.
He presented a calm, relaxed and almost serene figure whom the press had as much luck getting a rise out of as they would blood out of a stone.
Indeed it’s difficult to remember any of his press conferences.
Quiet and unassuming his demeanour left most of the Celtic support rather perplexed. His assistant was ex Aberdeen player Eric Black which itself also came a little left of field considering that Black had had no previous association with the club.
Like the club owner Fergus McCann, Venglos was very diligent in the transfer market. So diligent in fact that no significant signings were made that summer. We eventually did spend £1.5 million on Norwegian international defender Vidar Riseth from LASK Linz in September.
Not exactly a game changer.
Meanwhile across the city ‘The Mint’ David Murray had his cheque book out.
Still reeling from his failure to secure ten-in-a-row, and his sides season on season embarrassments in European competition, Sir David responded in the only way he knew how by significantly extending the club’s overdrafts and ‘flashing the cash’ all be it, it was other people’s money he was ultimately spending.
This was, of course, the season of the famous Jim Traynor ‘succulent lamb’ interview with Murray that was conducted in November of 1998 at some fine dining establishment somewhere in Glasgow.
Having just furnished the new Rangers manager Dick Advocaat with the best part of £40 million to completely rebuild the first team at Ibrox it was clear he meant business and Traynor was at pains to point this out as he gazed longingly across the table at Murray whilst consuming, as he put it ‘the finest of reds’ and mouthfuls of ‘the most succulent lamb’.
It really was nauseating journalism and proved beyond doubt if any was needed that Murray had Traynor and the vast majority of his fellow press men eating out of the palm of his hand. He also stated in a separate interview around this time that for every fiver Celtic spent, he would spend a tenner.
This strategy would, of course, lead his club to catastrophe but no one at that time within Scottish football journalism had the cojones to point out the inevitable pitfalls of spending money that far exceeded your income.
As glorious as it is to look back on such ill advised hubris the reality was that at the time Rangers were assembling a squad full of top calibre players.
The majority of players upon whom their 9-in-a-row success was built around were discarded that summer by ‘The Little General’ as Advocaat liked to call himself. These included the likes of McCoist, Goram, McCall, Gough, McLaren, Durrant and even Brian Laudrup.
In their place, £36 million was spent to bring in the likes of Arthur Numan, Andrei Kanchelskis, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Claudio Reyna, Colin Hendry, Stefan Klos, Neil McCann, Gabriel Amato and Rod Wallace. There was no doubting they had built a formidable team and that we had to respond.
I actually remember getting on the train one evening coming home from a shift as a winter temp at Burtons Menswear in mid-November and sitting beside a few of the stock room boys who were going in the same direction and were also Ibrox season ticket holders.
They rattled off two quality players for every position with contented smiles on their faces whilst I sat there wondering if my team was ever going to open the purse strings.
“Not trying to rub it in big man.” they laughed. Funny how things change.
Anyway to the actual football itself.
Things started off brightly on the park at least as we hammered Dunfermline 5-0 on flag day.
Sadly Fergus McCann was booed.
Looking back it’s one of the most cringe worthy and embarrassing displays ever by a Celtic support but then everyone has a degree in hindsight. At this stage, the support was very much on the side of the departed Wim Jansen and dead set against Fergus and his right-hand man Jock Brown.
As myself and my father approached the stadium that day I can still recall a rather heavy set individual walking in front of our path with a somewhat elaborately emblazoned message printed across the back of his Celtic home jersey that read “Wim Jansen Celtic Legend Fergus McCann Out Now.”
No doubt that shirt is gathering dust in a box somewhere in a darkened loft or dingy basement where it should be.
The joy on the pitch was short lived as we then suffered a 3-2 defeat at Pittodrie against Aberdeen.
Three days later we were beaten 1-0 at Airdrie in the 3rd round of the League Cup.
So safe to say even on the park things weren’t going particularly well either.
We bounced back briefly with a 2-1 home win against Dundee Utd before going a horrible five matches without a win in the league, losing one and drawing four including a 0-0 game at Ibrox and a 1-0 home defeat against St.Johnstone.
That was followed by winning away at Motherwell (2-1), drawing 2-2 away to Dunfermline and beating Aberdeen at home (2-0) before losing 2-0 away to Kilmarnock.
Our sojourn into Europe had proved to be the standard disaster.
Having struggled past Irish Champions St. Pat’s Athletic 2-0 on aggregate after an embarrassing 0-0 draw in the home leg we then faced Croatian Champions Dinamo (then Croatia) Zagreb. We got a fair amount of encouragement when we beat them 1-0 at Celtic Park thanks to a solitary Darren Jackson strike, however the star of that match was the Croatian internationalist midfield talisman Robert Prosinecki who ran the show with a display of midfield mastery rarely seen at Celtic Park.
A class act.
Zagreb pretty easily cuffed us 3-0 on their patch in the second leg with the aforementioned Prosinecki scoring twice.
We dropped into the UEFA cup and made it past Portugal’s Vitória de Guimarães 4-2 on aggregate at the first round stage before succumbing to Switzerland’s FC Zürich. After a 1-1 draw at Celtic Park where captain Tom Boyd got himself sent off at half time, we lost a goal fest in the away leg.
After going a goal down six minutes into the second half we equalised through Phil O’Donnell a mere two mins later only to then go behind again only two minutes after that. Six minutes later it was 3-1 and the tie looked dead until Henrik Larsson struck on 72 minutes and we were dreaming of snatching another and going through on away goals…..for all of about three mins when the wonderfully named Sant’Anna struck and eliminated us on the 75th-minute mark.
The form was all over the place and the fans were crying out for signings.
We had signed an unknown 33-year-old Slovakian midfielder for £380,000 in October.
Based on the minuscule fee and the fact no one had ever heard of him the presumption was that he must be rubbish.
The press lambasted the singing as a return to the biscuit tin mentality of yesteryear.
His name, of course, was Lubomir Moravcik.
“If anything the signing of Lubomir Moravcik at a cut price has merely caused them further embarrassment.” said Jim Traynor.
“I don’t know what I find more laughable; 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!” pronounced Hugh Keevins.
Lubo made his debut in the 6-1 annihilation of Dundee.
At one point in the game, he let the ball drop from the air and killed it with his backside.
In another instance, he placed an inch perfect cross into the box for Tommy Johnson to score using the outside of his foot.
It was only one game but he looked, well, absolutely class to be honest.
His best though was still to come.
Next time out we lost for the second time that season to St.Johnstone this time by 2-1 at McDiarmid Park.
That would be followed by another Old Firm encounter and one we were all dreading on the 21st of November 1998.
Lubo was to be played up front with Henrik and ahead of up and coming young striker Mark Burchill.
Many in the press scoffed.
“Josef Venglos will live to regret his decision to play this unknown Slovakian ahead of Mark Burchill in such a vital Old Firm Game.” laughed Derek Johnstone on Radio Clyde before the game.
Oh, how wrong they were.
Celtic routed Rangers 5-1, our biggest margin of victory in the encounter since winning 4-0 in the 1969 Scottish Cup final.
It was also our biggest scoreline against them in 32 years equalling the 5-1 hammering of our city rivals in the league back in 1966.
Lubomir Moravcik scored two, one a sublime left foot finish from the edge of the box into the bottom left corner and the other a fabulous header to make it 2-0.
Henrik Larsson refused to be outdone and also scored two before Mark Burchill came on late as a sub and made it five.
If it had been a boxing match then the referee would have stopped it.
Quite simply it had been probably the greatest Old Firm debut ever seen and left many in the press with egg on their faces. It’s also notable as being one of the last ever Old Firm matches to be played at 3 pm on a Saturday something that just would not happen nowadays.
Tragically I never got to see it live.
I was working at Burton’s down at the St. Enoch centre.
The security card Peter kept on popping in telling us the scoreline updates but I didn’t believe him. Peter was a bit mentally unstable you see as well as being a Rangers man. I couldn’t take the uncertainty anymore and briefly left the confines of the store, breaking all the rules and risking my £3.80 an hour part time temporary job in the process, and walked over to peer into through the window of Dixons.
The Teletext showed 5-1 to Celtic.
It was true.
Peter for once hadn’t been lying.
My disappointment at missing it all soon gave way to the excited expectation of seeing all the goals that night on Sportscene.
It was safe to say that that particular episode would be getting recorded.
The result didn’t just have historical importance but also began a sequence of losing only once in 17 league matches as well as winning through four rounds of the Scottish Cup as our season finally exploded into life. This included 13 wins and 3 draws on league duty with the only defeat being a 2-1 loss at Tynecastle to Hearts in early December.
After the Hearts defeat, we went 18 domestic games in all competitions without a loss which saw us reach the Scottish Cup final and remain in contention for the title. We scored an absolutely incredible 56 goals in those 18 games.
Some of the hammerings dished out included at home to Dunfermline (5-0), away to Dunfermline in the cup (4-0), away and at home to Dundee (3-0 & 5-0), at home to St.Johnstone (5-0), away to Motherwell (7-1), home and away to Hearts (3-0 & 4-2) and away to Aberdeen (5-1).
We also drew 2-2 with Rangers in the New Year’s Derby at Ibrox.
The football was incredible.
Larsson and Lubo were on fire.
Sadly though Moravcik got injured during the 7-1 massacre of Motherwell in late February.
We had finally opened the purse strings by then though and signed two quality additions in Johan Mjallby for £1.5m from AIK Solna in November and £3 million on striker Mark Viduka from Croatia Zagreb in December.
Viduka had actually played against us for Zagreb earlier in the season with his performances catching the eye.
Mjallby took his time to find his feet having a bit of a howler in the 2-1 defeat at Hearts.
On the other hand, though Viduka had taken no time at all to find the next flight home citing stress as the reason.
Celtic attempted to cancel the signing but it was eventually resolved with Viduka returning in January and making his debut in a reserve game in February. That wouldn’t be the last time Viduka went AWOL in a Celtic shirt but that story is probably better left for the Barnes / Dalglish season.
On the field disaster struck as we lost for the 3rd time in the season to our new bogey team St.Johnstone by a goal to nil at McDiarmid Park and then came probably our darkest hour since Fergus McCann came to the club with a 3-0 home defeat to Rangers which saw us relinquish the League Championship for the first time to our greatest rivals at Celtic Park.
The 3-0 win saw them go 10 points clear with 3 games remaining.
I remember that one well. Who wouldn’t?!
Going in our squad had been wracked with injuries. Craig Burley, Jackie McNamara, Marc Rieper, Lubo Morvacik, Tosh McKinlay, Reggi Blinker, Jonathan Gould, Phil O’Donnell, Tom Boyd and Johan Mjallby were on the sidelines that day.
We’d never known an injury crisis like it and it came at the worst possible time.
It got so desperate we had to call in Scott Marshall on an emergency loan from Southampton.
Marshall looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights and had a disaster.
French defender Stephane Mahe, a signing from the previous season, let the occasion get to him, got swept up in the atmosphere, completely lost the plot and was sent off within 31 minutes for persistent fouling.
It started off terribly with Neil McCann putting Rangers ahead after only 9 minutes. Tony Vidmar provided Rangers with a second before half time via a dubious penalty and with Celtic pushing forward desperately in the second half McCann broke away and rounded Kerr to make it three and seal it for our bitter rivals.
Rod Wallace for Rangers and Riseth for Celtic walked in the dying embers for separate incidents.
It had been a brutal day.
Not helped by a 6.05pm early Sunday evening start time for the benefit of the Sky TV cameras which saw the whole stadium more or less blootered with the drink by kick off.
Coins rained onto the pitch almost relentlessly, fans fell from the stand, referee Hugh Dallas ended up with blood flowing from a head wound via one of the coins and the atmosphere even for an Old Firm game was decidedly poisonous.
I distinctively remember at one point in the first half thinking the home support might charge the Rangers away end in an attempt to get the match abandoned as any chance of saving the title on the pitch walked with Mahe. It was utter chaos.
Thankfully as the booze wore off so did the indignation and by the time McCann scored the third most Celtic fans had long since surrendered any faint hopes of a miracle.
Not long after I entered the Gallowgate with my dad, a family friend from Donegal and his son who was about my age. We decided the Welcome Inn (long since demolished) was too busy so retreated to a taxi rank in an effort to go over to the southside and drown our sorrows there.
Whilst waiting at the deserted rank a double decker corporation bus pulled in front of us up jam packed with Rangers supporters. The windows were steamed up and they were for want of a better word going ‘bananas’ as they opened the fire exit window at the back and mocked us with the standard triumphant sectarian abuse.
We were in shock at the sheer brass balls they had to pay the driver off to take them down there where they sat at the lights for what seemed like forever.
We stood and took it.
The patrons of the Caltonian bar though were not in such charitable moods and soon exited the bar en masse and descended upon the bus determined to cause it and it’s passengers as much damage as possible. The bus then took off like a bat out of hell when the light turned green and as we watched it disappear into the distance down Argyll Street it seemed like everyone lining their path had thrown some form of missile at it.
God knows what the driver told his bosses when he took it back to the terminus that night.
It looked like it had been driven through downtown Beirut at the end of a ceasefire.
For what it’s worth we won the final 3 matches of the season away to Dunfermline (2-1), at home to Aberdeen (3-2) and away to Dundee Utd (2-1).
From 36 games, Celtic won 21, drew 8 and lost 7. We scored 84 (6 more than Rangers) and ended up with a goal difference of +49 (2 better off than Rangers) with a points total of 71 which saw us finish 6 points behind them in second.
We finished 3 points less well off than the previous season, scored 20 more and had a goal difference that was 9 better.
The Scottish Cup final was our last hope.
A chance to win some silverware and prevent Rangers from completing a treble on the day a finally fully refurbished Hampden was to open.
En route we had swept aside Airdrie, Dunfermline, Morton and Dundee Utd scoring 12 goals and conceding only 1 in the process. Jonathan Gould, Tom Boyd, Johan Mjallby, Regi Blinker and Lubo Moravcik all returned to the first team from injury for the game. As a result, optimism was high.
Alas, it was not meant to be.
We meekly lost the game 1-0 with the Rod Wallace scoring the only goal of a disappointing encounter three minutes into the second half.
That was it for Doctor Jo.
He was expected to take up a director of football role with the club, replacing the departing Jock Brown in the process but it never came to pass.
He showed at times great tactical awareness, an eye for a player and the team played some wonderful free flowing football under his guidance.
But he suffered from a terrible list of injuries which ravaged the team as well as painful under investment in the squad with the money that was spent coming far too late into the season.
In total his transfer outlay was a paltry £6.4 million that season with all but one of his five signings making their debut in November or later.
In the previous season, nine players had come in, six in pre-season, one in September, one in November and another in December with the total spent coming to £10.2 million. Not only was it nearly £4 million less than the previous season but £30 million less than Rangers.
How could he really have hoped to compete?
Fergus McCann had completed his 5 years and departed as he always said he would.
There weren’t many tears for Fergus.
Sadly the despair at seeing Rangers win the treble clouded out the fact he’d saved us from insolvency, had built a world class 60,000 seat arena and had seen us lift silverware for the first time in 6 years as well as preventing 10 in a row.
There’s no point in going into the finer details of Fergus’s reign here.
His legacy had been alluded to over this series of articles.
His departure also came at a time when an apparent consortium led by both celebrity Celtic fan Jim Kerr and former player Kenny Dalglish were trying to purchase a major stake in the club. Fergus was resistant to it. The fans wanted Kerr in as he was promising to spend major money and to bring in world class players. McCann though didn’t like their business plan which he claimed was not based on personal financial investment but instead was to follow the David Murray blueprint by obtaining enormous overdrafts from the banks on which the expenditure would be based. In any event, they had their chance to put their money where their mouth was when Fergus put his 51% majority shareholding up for sale in the summer of 99′.
Dermot Desmond did and in the process somewhat exposed Kerr et al as being, rather like Brian Dempsey before them as all talk and no actual cash.
Fergus handed over the reigns over to new Chief Executive Allan MacDonald.
Under his stewardship, we would finally spend some money.
Lots of it in fact.
The only problem was we just didn’t spend it wisely.
Something to look forward to, right?