Never easy but always worthwhile
It was the spring of 2003 and for Celtic fans all things seemed possible. The team’s success in Europe had seen people sit up and take notice of Martin O’Neil’s team. Teams of real quality were sent tumbling out of Europe by a Celtic team playing with vigour and style. Blackburn Rovers, Celta Vigo, Stuttgart and Liverpool had been dispatched by a Celtic side which seemed to fear no one. The disappointment of losing the League Cup Final when a Hartson penalty miss and another ‘honest mistake’ cost Celtic the game was put behind the team as they faced up to Boavista Oporto. The stodgy, defensive Portuguese made no friends at Celtic Park with a display of play acting and time wasting. Nerves seemed to get to Celtic who missed a penalty and scored an own goal as tense game ended 1-1. The return game in Portugal was seen as a very difficult one for Celtic to win given the events at Celtic Park.
Celtic set off for Portugal on the back of a 1-2 defeat at Tynecastle in which the team looked tired. Perhaps the fixture congestion and tension of a tight league run in and European demands were taking their toll. 3000 Celtic fans were present in the small Boavista stadium with hundreds of thousands watching on TV screens around the world. This game was possibly the most important Celtic match since the European Cup Final of 1970. Celtic were within touching distance of a European final for the first time in 33 years. The task facing them was daunting as Boavista were a tidy but essentially negative team. They didn’t need to score at home and this would make any chance Celtic had of scoring the away goal they required all the more difficult.
The streets of Glasgow were eerily quiet on that bright April night in 2003 as most of the country settled in front of their TV sets to watch the drama unfold. . The game got underway and in homes and Bars all over the world Celtic fans were put through an emotional mixer as Boavista settled into their defensive shell. The play acting and time wasting resumed and as the first half wore on it appeared to many that Celtic were not playing with the energy and zest they had exhibited throughout their impressive European run. . The Portuguese side did try to counter attack Celtic but not requiring a goal meant they seldom pushed many players forward. Half time arrived with nails bitten and nerves frayed among Celtic fans all over the world.
The second half saw more urgency from Celtic but the constant breaks in play as the Portuguese fell over at the slightest contact disrupted their flow. Some Celtic fans have told me they were feeling tremendous stress and frustration as the game reached those dramatic final stages. Just one goal would put Celtic into a European final and re-establish their reputation as a credible European team again after decades in the wilderness…and then in happened.
Those of you who watched that game will still recall the explosion of pent up emotion which occurred in the 83rd minute. Larsson played a pass towards John Hartson on the edge of the Boavista box. Defender Filipe Anunciacao saw the danger and slid in to intercept the pass. To his horror the ball rebounded back towards Larsson who got away one of his less impressive shots of a season which saw him hit over 40 goals. As we watch open mouthed the ball spun up and over the despairing hands of Goalkeeper Riccardo and into the net. I could hear the roars of joy and relief from houses around mine as Celtic fans shouted their heads off. My own crowded living room was a scene of joyous chaos as we realised that Celtic were close, so close. We then had to endure a further ten minutes of play as Boavista finally realised that their time wasting was now working against them. A friend said to me later that it was all too much for him at that point and he left the house and paced the garden waiting on the final whistle. He missed the only scary moment when Agathe tackled a Boavista attacker in the box who proceeded to fall as if he had been shot. The Russian referee had obviously seen enough of their play acting and was unimpressed. He waved play on as we breathed a sigh of relief. Those last few seconds ticked away as we urged the Referee to end it and put us out of our misery. Then he blew for time and the dam broke, a flood of joy, emotion and pride poured over Celtic supporters all over the world. They had done it! They had finally reached another European Final and the players embraced with as much joy as any fan as what they had achieved sunk in.
That match in Portugal 12 years ago this month was perhaps the most tense football game I have ever witnessed. Celtic fans don’t just invest their time and money in the club, they invest their emotions and that match was absolute torture until the Referee blew his whistle to end it. It set up the legendary trip to Seville with all its bitter-sweet memories and Celtic fans displayed again that warmth and sportsmanship which marks them out.
Celtic achievements in that 2002-03 season are not recorded in the history books as significant. They gave so much at home and abroad and ended up empty handed. The League cup was lost after a linesman flagged a good John Hartson goal offside. The League was lost by a single goal on that gut wrenching final day at Rugby Park. However Celtic fans entered the summer of 2003 in buoyant mood as they knew that the team had been so close and given so much. Martin O’Neil promised to win their title back in 2004 and he did. A goalless start at Dunfermline was followed by an astonishing run of 25 consecutive victories in the SPL which saw them blast all opposition away.
But that sultry night in Porto remains for me one of those iconic moments as a Celtic fan when the team saw the prize before them and simply refused to give up. The fans who went through an emotional roller coaster that evening were finally rewarded when Larsson broke the Portuguese with his timely goal. As Fergus McCann once said…
‘It’s never easy being a Celt but it’s always worthwhile.’