Saturday, 8 June 2013

 It isn't over till it's over....

Season 2007-08 had been a strange one. Celtic had started well and were top of the league from August to Christmas but the death of Phil O’Donnell led to fixtures, including the New Year’s game at home to Rangers, being postponed and Rangers took advantage to go ahead in the league. The game at Ibrox in March 2008 was an evenly contested affair but when Kevin Thompson grabbed a winner for Rangers most pundits were certain the league was over. April arrived and Strachan got his team motoring again. Rangers were still in Europe and well ahead in the SPL but two crucial Old Firm games were scheduled for that fateful April. Both were at Celtic Park and both required nothing less than Celtic victories to keep their flickering title hopes alive.

Few felt Celtic could pull back the deficit but there was in that warm spring of 2008 a quiet determination at Celtic Park to set the record straight. Celtic had already lost twice at Ibrox and there was no denying that fact. However Daniel Cousin’s crude assault on Stephen McManus in one of those games stuck in the throat. His ‘clash of heads’ as the TV commentators called it saw McManus stretchered off with concussion, although many Celtic fans felt Cousin had deliberately battered the Celtic stopper. The media thought Cousin was too much of a handful for the Celtic defence and few expected Celtic to win both the upcoming Old Firm clashes. A capacity crowd rolled up to Celtic Park on 16 April 2008 and the noise which greeted the teams as they appeared was incredible. It was now or never for Celtic.

Celtic took the game to Rangers from the outset and McDonald and McGeady were stretching their defence. Despite their dominance, an early Celtic goal wasn’t forthcoming. However in 20 minutes Shunsuke Nakamura produced one of those magical moments he is still fondly remembered for at Parkhead. He raced towards the Rangers goal and struck a shot from fully 35 yards which swerved and twisted in the air before burying itself in the Rangers net. The view I had from the Celtic end of that goal, scored as it was at the opposite end, was incredible. The ball swerved right and McGregor dived to meet it before it changed direction in the air to swerve left. McGregor had no chance as it slammed into the net. Celtic park exploded as 53,000 home fans sensed that they could get back in the title race. The remainder of the first half was played out with Celtic looking comfortable and in control. The mood was good among the home support as the second half began. However, as often happens in such games, the team under the cosh scored. The unpopular Nacho Novo, a player not nearly as good as he thought he was, equalised midway through the second half.  To their credit Celtic rolled up their sleeves and laid siege to the Rangers goal. A draw was no use, it was win or bust. During one frenetic spell of Celtic attacking, a net bound shot from the very effective Nakamura was punched over the bar by Carlos Cuellar who was rightly sent off. Scott McDonald took the resultant penalty but his low shot was saved by McGregor as the despairing Hoops fans looked on in horror. Maybe is wasn't to be their season after all.

Despite constant pressure it was beginning to look as if the game was heading for a draw which would suit the visitors more than Celtic. Deep into injury Gary Caldwell pushed into midfield a fired a crisp ball deep into the Rangers box. Scott McDonald rose at the back post wisely nodded it back across goal as the angle was too tight to score himself. Jan Venegoor of Hesselink gambled on McDonald winning the header and raced towards the back post area. The clock read 93 minutes as a frantic Celtic support looked on knowing that this was the last throw of the dice. Big Jan launched himself full out to meet McDonald’s headed pass and the ball flashed past the startled Rangers goalkeeper and nestled in the net. Celtic Park erupted, they had done it. Celtic had scored a vital and dramatic winning goal in the dying seconds of injury time to reawaken their title hopes.
That victory seemed to lift Celtic to new heights as they began to string victories together and close the gap on Rangers further. They defeated Rangers again at Celtic Park by 3-2 in a bruising game and entered the home straight in pole position. There was much whingeing from Ibrox way about fixture congestion but Celtic fans rightly pointed out that their run to Seville included playing at Ibrox on a Sunday lunchtime after a Thursday night semi final in Portugal against Boavista. They travelled to Tanadice to play Dundee United on a tense and sultry Wednesday night in May while Rangers travelled to Aberdeen. This was to be judgement day for Celtic and their title dream. Celtic needed to avoid defeat to ensure they would be Champions. The Celtic family had lost one of its finest members during that period when Tommy Burns passed away. The team and a huge support headed for Tayside determined to secure the title as a tribute to a great Celt. Despite dominating the game, a goal proved elusive as fans listened for news from Pittodrie. In the second half Jan Venegoor of Hesselink met a corner fron the left and powered it home, All the fears and doubts were exorcised as a roar of relief and pride greeted that goal. As if sensing the game was up, Rangers wilted to a 2-0 defeat at Aberdeen and Celtic had clinched an unlikely but utterly deserved Championship.

There are key moments in every season which mark turning points in the struggle for the title. Few who saw Jan Venegoor of Hesselink’s last gasp winner in the 16 April Old Firm game will ever forget the sheer drama of that moment. Just as it looked as if it was slipping away from Celtic they found an extra ounce of energy to snatch an incredible last gasp victory. Everyone at Celtic Park, players, fans and backroom staff were energised by that victory. That goal gave them and the fans belief that they could win that title. It was a long shot but they stuck at it and proved worthy champions. Those who said it was too much of a deficit to claw back as Celtic entered the last few games of the season seven points behind having played more games should remember the old saying, 'It isn't over till it's over,' The title Celtic won that year demonstrated again what this remarkable club can achieve when the team and fans are united by a common aim. It was victory against the odds and the players and fans achieved it together.

Tommy Burns would have been proud of them all.

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