The Dark Days Revisited: 1994-1995, The Arrival Of Tommy And Whole New Beginnings.

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After the 5 trophy-less years that had preceded it, it seems a tad harsh and in some ways totally inaccurate to refer to season 1994-1995 as in any way part of the ‘Dark Day’s’ but the truth is that this particular season was full of them.

Tommy Burns took over the manager’s seat in July 1994, joined by Billy Stark. This of course seemed like a master stroke by new owner and club chief executive Fergus McCann. Tommy had been an extremely popular player and had enjoyed success in his somewhat brief stint as player-manager of Kilmarnock.

If you think Kilmarnock are in the doldrums now you should have seen them back then.

Having been relegated to the bottom tear of Scottish football in season 1988-89 the once mighty Ayrshire side hadn’t tasted top flight football since 1983. They had gradually worked their way back into the second tier but season on season any attempts to go any higher had ended in failure. Tommy Burns though brought a swashbuckling style, rather like his own, into their play when he arrived in 1992 and got them promoted back to the top flight for the first time in 10 years after a second placed finish in his maiden season.

In their first season back they finished 8th from 12 in the Premier League.

They also reached the Scottish cup semi-final and were only beaten after a replay by a 2-1 scoreline against Rangers.

This had led to a swelling of attendances at Rugby Park the likes of which hadn’t been seen in decades and they were regularly getting crowds exceeding ten thousand at the time. Of course that’s almost unthinkable for Kilmarnock nowadays. Ultimately it led to their current 18,000 seater-stadium being constructed which it’s safe to say has proved to be something of a white elephant.

Unfortunately Tommy’s arrival at Celtic didn’t exactly run smoothly.

Kilmarnock accused McCann of tapping up their manager and in the end a record £100,000 fine was applied and so began Fergus’s ultimately successful war with SFA despot Jim Farry. The details of that can be told another day.

This was of course Fergus McCann’s first full season in control.

To say the least Fergus didn’t mess around.

The renovation of Celtic Park began almost immediately.

There was no two years sitting around announcing plans, giving sketchy details of dubious funding sources and then nothing of any substance occurring as had been the case with the mythical Cambuslang project under the old board. No, instead Fergus was straight down to business. He had employed a stadium architect almost immediately after taking control having made it clear throughout his ultimately successful takeover that he saw the club’s future at it’s spiritual east end home.

All terraces were demolished and the new enormous North Stand holding 24,000 began construction.

I remember my father sporadically taking me over to view the new stand as it rose up over the east end of Glasgow skyline.

What a sght it was to behold.

It almost didn’t feel real that this modern stadium was rising out of the ashes of the dilapidated Jungle; it felt like we were watching the birth of a whole new club.

I guess awe inspiring is how I’d describe it.

I mean this was progress. Real significant progress. That didn’t happen at Celtic.

But this WAS happening.

As a result of the level of redevelopment that was taking place a move elsewhere for the season was required.

A move to Ibrox stadium wasn’t on the cards. David Murray would probably have loved the idea as it would have literally given him the opportunity to lord it over us for a a whole season but neither set of fans would have allowed it.

So that left Hampden Park as the only feasible option.

Hampden itself wasn’t much to look at back then. The main stand couldn’t pass anything like a health and safety check and looked like a condemned shed so the fans were only able to take up the rest of the ground which had become all seated.

The capacity of the national stadium was only around 36,000 as a result.

A myth has been created by some that the SFA did Celtic some big favour by letting us stay there.

The reality is that it was anything but.

Originally Fergus wanted to demolish the Rangers End of Celtic Park, and begin construction there with the then already seated old Jungle and main stand providing around 16,00 seats with 10,000 being the required minimum . Added to that standing was still allowed temporarily so the Celtic End terrace could also still be used meaning capacity would have been well in excess of 20,000.

But Jim Farry of course was never going to allow that and the application to stay on at Celtic Park whilst redevelopment took place was kicked out on safety grounds.

Just to drive the point home, Farry was quoted as saying:

“If you don’t move to Hampden the only team you’ll be playing next season is the Harlem Globetrotters…”

For the honour of playing at the national stadium Celtic had to fork out £500,000 for the season’s rent and all kiosk, catering and hospitality income went straight into the SFA’s coffers.

Thanks for that Jim.

This didn’t stop conspiracy theories by the blue half of Glasgow starting and said myth of some form of SFA favouritism beginning. Indeed Derek Johnstone was known to make regular quips about it on the nightly Clyde Superscoreboard phone-in.

Derek it turned out had a rather short memory forgetting that Rangers had also had use of the stadium during the Ibrox redevelopment years in the late 70’s.

One memorable phone-in interaction played out like this:

Celtic Fan: “Derek, Rangers played Celtic at Hampden when Ibrox was being rebuilt.”

Derek Johnstone: “Did they?”

Celtic Fan: “Aye, Derek . You played in both games…”

Well Hampden it was for the season.

I was housed with my dad in the corner beside the traditional Rangers Enclosure.

Needless to say the product wasn’t that great on the pitch.

What with all the changes in the boardroom and the management hot-seat, very little took place in the transfer department.

As a result to begin the season Tommy pretty much had to go with what he had ie: the team that Lou Macari built. Oh and what a team it was I can tell you. The league highlights can more ore less be written on the back of a matchbox. To give a quick rundown of the league form, we finished 4th, only 3 points behind runners-up Motherwell and 2 points behind Hibernian. That was 18 points behind Rangers who ran away with it that season as they secured 7 in a row.

To begin with we went an impressive 8 unbeaten (4wins, 4 draws) before suffering three back to back defeats including home defeats to Falkirk (2-0) and Rangers (3-1).

There then was what on the surface looks like an incredible 12 game unbeaten run from November through to the beginning of February but the only incredible thing about it was that it featured only 2 wins and 10 draws. This included a 1-1 draw at Ibrox against Rangers where Paul Byrne, the spiritual successor to Paddy McCourt, equalised with an absolute world class finish in front of the Celtic support in a live Sky Sports screened game.

Bryne was a mercurial talent who could do something special in a game.

But he spent too much time in the bookies and pubs to ever really fulfil his potential and that goal at Ibrox would be the highlight of his career.

Four defeats out of ten with only three wins followed.

Celtic then won two and drew one of the final three.

That game was a 1-1 draw with Hibs

In total we ended up with 18 draws in 36 games, only 11 wins and 7 defeats. Only 39 were goals were scored, for an average of just over 1 a game. Pretty grim. Certainly not the football you would associate with the late, great Tommy Burns but you can only work with what you’ve got.

Despite all of this we actually did really well in the Old Firm matches.

Part of the 8 game unbeaten run to open the season included a 2-0 win at Ibrox on a sun kissed day, on the 27th of August 1994. John Collins scored a beautiful free kick on the stroke of half time curling it round the wall and into the top left hand corner with his Adidas Predators and giving Goram no chance. Two minutes into he second half we were in dreamland as Paul McStay smashed a right foot pile-driver in off the post in front of the Broomloan and that was all she wrote.

It was the first time Celtic had worn numbers on the back of their jersey’s in a domestic match.

It was also the Celtic supports first game back at Ibrox having been banned for the previous encounter due to ripping out seats in the wake of Brian O’Neal’s last minute headed goal at the end the 2-1 game in the previous term.

The game Celtic were banned for actually ended 1-1 in front of a partisan crowd.

John Collins scored a free kick that day too, once again bending it round the wall with his Predators.

You’d have thought Goram would have learned.

Collins literally silenced Ibrox that day.

Well apart from my old boxing trainer Charlie Kerr who couldn’t resist going along and sitting in the OAP section.

When the ball hit the net he briefly celebrated before assuming the boxing stance awaiting the inevitable abuse.

He was ejected for life soon after. His reaction was, ‘Good. I’m glad!’

Anyway back to the season at hand.

I’ve already mentioned the 1-1 draw at Ibrox where Byrne scored.

The final Old Firm meeting was a cracker.

Easily the best game all season at Hampden.

Rangers came calling to gloat over a seventh straight league title however it ended 3-0 to Celtic, so that pretty much blew up their faces.

Van Hoojidonk smashed in the opener, Craig Moore finished beautifully into his own net with no Celtic player anywhere near him and then Rudi Vata  lashed a long range free kick, beating the hapless Billy Thompson at his near post.

All the goals came in the second half.

It really was party time.

That was the only time we hit more than 2 goals in a league game that season.

Another reminder of how grim the overall playing picture was back then especially compared to now.

It’s also a reminder that through those dark years we would quite often pull off great results in the Old Firm fixtures even through we were literally miles behind Rangers in terms of budgets and personnel.

Talking of personnel, Pat McGinley ended up as the club’s top goalscorer with 12 in the league.

Meanwhile ex- Celtic striker Tommy Coyne finished top goalscorer in the league itself with 16 goals.

It always was a bit of a mystery to me why we let Coyne go. His goal scoring record was phenomenal throughout his whole career. His inability to score in many Old Firm games always seemed to affect his status amongst Celtic fans.

Signings wise we made three over the course of the season.

Fergus wasn’t used to the free spending world of football transfers and due diligence and value for money were always required.

As a result there was no raft of new players in the close-season

That resulted in the following transactions:

Phil O’Donnell, £1.75m from Motherwell, Sep 1994
Tosh McKinlay, £350,000 from Hearts, Nov 1994
Pierre Van Hooijdonk , £1.2m from NAC Breda, Jan 1995

Firstly to Phil, God rest his soul.

Phil O’Donnell was the club record signing from Motherwell exceeding the fee paid for Stuart Slater in 1992. He scored two goals on his debut against Partick Thistle at Firhill a few days later becoming the first ever Celtic debutante to hit a double in his first game.

Phil was a powerful, direct attacking midfielder who had been an integral part of Motherwell’s 1991 Scottish cup winning team and was still only 22.

I can remember listening to that debut on the radio in the house.

The signing and that display brought much needed on field excitement and showed real ambition, a word that hadn’t been associated with the club for many years.

Tosh McKinlay was an attacking left back who possessed a fantastic left foot.

Not the greatest in defence Tosh is still one of the best crossers of the ball in a Celtic shirt that I’ve ever seen from open play.

Now to Pierre Van Hooijdonk.

When Pierre arrived we knew little about him. He’d hit an incredible 81 goals in 115 league games for NEC Breda so we were expecting a goal machine. He was also 6’4. Celtic had never had a big target man up-front before.

Apparently though despite his size, the Dutchman could also play.

If there were any doubts, on his debut he scored a worldy against Hearts in a mid-week game at Hampden on January 11th. The signing and goal gave some rare post-festive January cheer. The match ended 1-1 but the goal alone was a sure sign that the big man was going to be a clear upgrade on Willie Falconer and Andy Walker. I was in the stadium that night. The goal had a wow factor to it I hadn’t seen from a Celtic striker since…..well never really.

Now the league stuff is out of the way we can move onto something much better.

But first something much worse.

Yes it was our run in the 1994-1995 Scottish League Cup.

A tough run began with us run winning 1-0 away at Ayr Utd, and then continued with a 2-1 win away at Dundee.

A home quarter final 1-0 win against Dundee Utd followed and then the hard bit and where we usually failed with a semi-final at Ibrox against Aberdeen. We somehow pulled it off though with the only goal coming in extra time via a Brian O’Neil header.

So that was the hard bit done.

All we had to do now was beat the surprise finalists from the 1st Division, Raith Rovers.

Plucky underdogs Raith weren’t given much of a chance but installing Celtic as favourites back then would usually lead to disaster.

We went behind after 19 mins to a Stevie Crawford goal before Andy Walker equalised just after the half hour mark. Charlie Nicholas scored on 84 mins and the trophy was secured………or so we thought. Alas ex-Rangers man Gordon Dalziel equalised within 2 mins.

The Celtic fans weren’t happy.

Surely we weren’t going to blow this.

But it went to penalties and there it can be anyone’s.

It wasn’t to be ours.

Beaten 6-5 on penalty kicks with Paul McStay of all people cast as the villain that day with his being the kick that that was saved.

I can still remember the footage on the news that night of Cardinal Thomas Winning listening to it on the radio over in Rome.

‘Oh Paul!’ were his words as his head sunk into his hands.

That was a pretty nice way of putting it.

To make matters worse it was at Ibrox Stadium too.

Despite that though things were motoring forward off of the pitch at an unprecedented pace.

Fergus McCann launched Celtic onto the stock exchange in early 1995 and it was the most successful share issue ever by a football club.

10,500 fans bought shares which raised £9 million and contributed towards the overall raising of £21 million from the oversubscribed share issue which included a £4 million share purchase by current majority shareholder Dermot Desmond.

As a result of this it left 40% of the issued share capital in the hands of the Celtic support and reinforced McCann’s vision that the ordinary fans would effectively get the opportunity to have major ownership of the club. Old board member Tom Grant was kept on for a while but ultimately disappeared before the year was out.

I still remember footage of Grant showing Fergus around Celtic Park while the bulldozers were moving into demolish the old stands.

It genuinely looked like Fergus was simply tolerating Grant who despite being a nice guy literally brought nothing to the party.

Years later it would be revealed by McCann that when he first took office in the main stand he understandably wanted to take a look around. While doing so he came across a storage room where he discovered several prehistoric PC’s, keyboards and monitors.  McCann asked Grant who they belonged to and what they were doing there. Grant explained he’d purchased them on the club’s behalf as an investment. Fergus then enquired to what end. Grant went onto explain there had been an abandoned plan to ‘computerise’ Celtic Park and that subsequent attempts to sell the PC’s on for profit had proved unfortuitous so they had been stored in case they may have become either useful or resalable in the future.

If McCann had any doubts as to the extent of the ineptly mismanaged shit show he was inheriting then that incident surely banished them.

Veteran board rebel Jimmy Farrell also left, probably quite happily as he was already into his 70’s and had been at odds with the old board and in particular Michael Kelly for many, many years.

The likeable but perennially out of his depth ‘cuddly uncle’ character that was Kevin Kelly was also kept on for a short period, having like Grant sided with the rebels at the end of the takeover whilst Michael Kelly and Chris White had selfishly held onto power, looking for a large pay-off.

New Celtic board members included Dominic Keane , Michael McDonald , John Keane and Willie Haughey.

All were local, died in the wool Celtic supporters and even better all either were or were tied to wealthy individuals.

Michael McDonald was effectively Gerald Weisfeld’s presence on the board. Multi-millionaire retail king Weisfeld had made a late play to be the all conquering saviour of Celtic himself but McCann had sensed that the whole venture had little to do with personal sentiment and more to do with self-gratification on Weisfeld’s part. I, even as a young lad along with many others had got the same impression when seeing and hearing him at one of the Celt’s For Change meetings mentioned in the previous article.

Weisfeld seemed a completely overwhelmed by it all.

Whilst his business credentials were never in doubt, his affiliation to Celtic was.

McCann had attended a meeting with him set-up by Brian Dempsey weeks before he took control. The idea was to see if both could pool their resources. However it lasted merely minutes after Fergus heard Gerald’s business plan , or lack of, and wished him well before gathering his papers and exiting, leaving Dempsey somewhat stunned in the process.

Indeed Weisfeld’s involvement was probably at the behest of his stepson, the aforementioned Michael McDonald who was a genuinely passionate Celtic supporter as well as being a managing director within his stepfather’s business portfolio.

Taking McDonald onto the board should any future investment by Weisfeld be possible was a wise move.

Michael McDonald remains a non-executive director of Celtic to this day.

David Low, who had helped bring about change and Fergus McCann to power, disappeared into the background and ultimately out of sight. Brian Dempsey was never given a role. This was somewhat surprising at the time but in hindsight is understandable as Fergus , who had made the significant personal financial investment that had saved the club was never going to sit back and allow Dempsey to be a figure head which was exactly what Dempsey’s plan undoubtedly was.

Over time more details would come out which included that Dempsey aligned to the likes of Haughey and Weisfeld had preferred to forgo immediate stadium redevelopment, and instead install seating in the terraces as had already been done with the jungle whilst significant funds were being poured into the team.

Meanwhile possible alternatives to remaining at Celtic Park would be discussed.

Of course this was totally contrary to Fergus’s vision of all on-field affairs being secondary to securing the club’s off-field infrastructure and sustainability. The fact Demspey has previously tried to convince the old board to relocate the ground to land he planned to purchase at Robyston in the north of the city must have also sent alarm bells ringing for Fergus. In the end their relationship was somewhat unamicable and only a marriage of convenience  during the ousting of the old guard.

Sometimes being the enemy of your enemy doesn’t make you a friend.

Now to the good bit.

That being silverware of course.

It’s difficult to put into words just how success starved Celtic were at this point.

Having collected over 30 major trophies in 23 years previous to 1989, to go 6 years without anything was as unthinkable as it was painful. Well for the more seasoned supporter of the time it was. I on the other hand had only ever really known disappointment, failure and mediocrity.

The League Cup final blow had only served to underline this.

But the Scottish Cup offered a platform for Celtic to alleviate this.

We were still the the most successful team in it’s history despite our 6 year baron run in all competitions.

We cruised through the first two rounds against St.Mirren (2-0) and Meadowbank Thistle (3-0), before a tight 1-0 home win against Kilmarnock in the quarter final. The nerves for that game were incredible. Played on a Friday evening in front of a thirty thousand plus crowd expectation levels for the tournament had been raised after Rangers surprise elimination in the previous round to Hearts. Celtic dominated most of the first half on a cold windy night in early March. A delay had to be endured when the floodlights stopped working midway through the first period. When they came back on it seemed like we’d never score.

But the goal came just before half time courtesy of a John Collins penalty after Paul McStay threaded a magnificent midfield pass releasing winger Brian McLaughlin through on goal before he was upended by the last man.

McLaughlin is a player often forgotten from that era. Talented and at times exciting to watch his diminutive size and dribbling skills led to inevitable comparisons to the great Jimmy Johnstone. Unfortunately the weight of expectation proved too much for Brian and his career petered out a few years later.

But that night his winning of a penalty was vital.

Collins converted and onto the semi-finals we went.

There we recorded a 0-0 draw against Hibs where the nerves were even more unbearable. Hibs were having a good season and ended up finishing ahead of us in the league. Unlike nowadays it wasn’t a tie we felt we had any entitlement to win. The replay came merely days later and proved a far more enjoyable affair. Willie Falconer turned and shot to score a fine opener in the first half followed up by John Collins on the stroke of half-time, curling in a customary peach at Ibrox from the edge of the box except this time from open play.

Keith Wright got Hibs back into it in the second half before Phil O’Donnell headed in a killer third to secure a second cup final appearance of the season and a shot at redemption after the horrific result against Raith Rovers at Ibrox earlier in the season.

I watched that game in my father’s friend Charlie’s house in the south side. The same location and on the same big TV where I’d watched us capitulate against Motherwell 4 years previously in a midweek replay. It was fitting that an ex-Motherwell player was the one who secured our passage to the final.

To say the least the mood amongst myself and my father as we descended the tenement steps to the car parked outside was far more jovial than it had been the previous time we’d been over to take advantage of Charlie’s Sky Sports subscription.

Then to the final.

Back to Hampden.

Effectively we’d been playing away all season and the national stadium had brought us little if any joy. But for some reason that day it felt different. There was almost an air of inevitability about it. I was sitting up at the Celtic End behind the goal that afternoon. The weather was average but the atmosphere was electric. The game proved to be somewhere in between. A poor spectacle for the neutral no doubt but when Pierre Van Hooijdonk rose majestically to head us in front from an excellent Tosh McKinlay delivery after only 9 minutes it felt pretty exuberant.

Everyone went wild.

I ended up about two rows in front of where my seat was and with people on top of me who had been sitting around four rows behind me to begin with. It was one of those celebrations where everyone looses control to such an extent that it’s pretty scary whilst being completely exhilarating at the same time. I’d never really experienced anything like it supporting Celtic before. This is what we’d been missing out on for so long.

Even then it’s not comparable as Celtic had seldom been so desperate to win a trophy before.

Indeed you might have had to go back to Lisbon in 67′ for comparison.

That really is how much it meant to go ahead in that game.

The rest of the match was a turgid affair.

Airdrie were to say the least ‘physical’. Dirty was probably a more accurate way of putting it. Indeed a few seasons previously they had recorded in excess of 100 yellow cards and nearly went into double figures for reds. Their mainstays Jimmy Sandison, Kenny Black and Sandy Stewart were no shrinking violets.

Such a game against that type of team required someone to step up and get stuck in. That man was Peter Grant.

Throughout most of his Celtic career, Grant had been much maligned. Whilst there was no doubting his commitment to the cause and devotion to the club, Grant’s footballing limitations often led to him being a target for the boo boys in the stands. Indeed his lifelong support for Celtic caused the vitriol against him to be even more personal. I myself had even taken part in it. Yet despite all of that Peter ran himself into the ground that afternoon.

Injured early on he played through the pain barrier, chased every lost cause and closed down every Airdrie play.

He basically gave the hammer throwers of Airdrie a taste of their own medicine.

Pierre scored the goal but for me it was Peter Grant who almost single-handedly dragged us to victory that afternoon.

By the time of the final whistle he was hobbling around the pitch. After it went he collapsed in a heap to the ground having already smashed through the pain barrier long before it. Unsurprisingly he was awarded the man of the match.

The game ended 1-0.

Paul McStay went up to lift the cup.

The feeling of elation was pretty tangible. In fact by the end everyone was pretty emotionally exhausted but delighted at the same time. Even the Duchess of Kent got a cheer. Well, down at our end at least she did. Rangers had dominated the landscape of Scottish football for seven long years but this was our day.

Now there were better times ahead.

A new board, a new stadium, a trophy in the silverware cabinet, millions in the bank and promises of top class players to arrive.

The next challenge was to go onto win the league and stop Rangers relentless charge to equalling 9-in-a-row.

What could possibly go wrong?

It turns out quite a few things.

But we’ll get to those next time.

Paul Cassidy is pretty relieved to be getting to the more positive stuff … eventually.

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  • Geoff says:

    ffs is this just chapters from 10 Days that Shook Celtic and other books?
    This is nonsense

  • Paddybhoy67 says:

    My worst Celtic game ever was 1994-1995 Scottish League Cup. It was my 10 year old son’s second cup final. The ball boys all had Rangers shirts on under their tops, the “security” staff were cro-magnons and the catering people looked as if they wanted to spit in your Bovril (they probably did). You could smell the nerves from the Celtic squad and even at 2-1 it was excruciating. We were right behind the goal when Dalziel scored – bloody nightmare. And the Maestro missing the penalty … Anyway, better days ahead, eh?

  • Kevan McKeown says:

    A wee correction here. In the 2 games Collins scored identical free kicks, Goran wasn’t in goals for both games. 2nd game was a different keeper.

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