Saturday, 20 June 2015

A gift from God

A gift from God

The summer of 1965 was a hopeful one for Celtic fans. The team, under the guidance of new boss Jock Stein had just won the Scottish cup to end a 7 year spell in the club’s history which was frankly torturous for the fans. Stein had brought stability, modern tactical methods and was instilling confidence and self-belief in a group of talented but essentially under achieving players. They were far from the finished article in 1965 and still given to swings in form which exasperated their long suffering support but the whole club had been rejuvenated and there was a sense that the team was on the verge of a breakthrough domestically. The title hadn’t been won since 1954 but most supporters couldn’t wait for the new season to get underway. Few of them would have guessed then the heights Stein’s Celtic would reach in the next few years.

More than thousand miles away from Celtic Park in that same summer of 1965 a baby boy was being born in the small city on Nitra in what was then Czechoslovakia. His parents called him Lubomir but Celtic fans of the modern era knew him simply as Lubo. Nitra is a picturesque small city in western Slovakia famous for its castle, universities and seminaries. It isn’t a hotbed of football although FC Nitra has a compact little stadium and play in the top league in Slovakia. Lubo grew up with an interest in football and was coached locally by FC Nitra who soon realised that the youngster was blessed with skill above the average. He was two footed and possessed an accurate and powerful shot. His ability to turn defenders and deliver pinpoint crosses meant he was able to play in a variety of attacking roles. He was, in Scottish terms, an old fashioned inside forward blessed with great skill and balance. Lubo played for FC Nitra with distinction and was a regular in the national side by the age of 22. As is often the way in smaller footballing nations, good players are tempted abroad by the money on offer and the chance to test their skills in a more challenging environment.

He left for France and joined St Etienne and had 6 good seasons with them before moving on to Bastia. As he reached his early 30s he could have been happy with a good career and his reputation as a decent player. German club Duisburg signed him in 1998 but a major row with the coach after just a handful of games saw him banished to the reserves. It looked like his career might be about to wind down in the J League in Japan when he received a call from his old friend and coach from the Czech national side, Dr Josef Venglos. ‘How do you fancy coming to play for Celtic Lubo?’

He didn’t need to be asked twice. He arrived in Glasgow in October 1998 to join a talented but struggling Celtic side. The Scottish media greeted his arrival with some scorn. Hugh Keevins wrote in the Daily Record…

"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!"

Keevins’ ignorance of Moravcik’s ability says much about the laziness and lack of football knowledge among the Scottish Tabloid press pack. Dr Venglos himself had been greeted with headlines such as ‘Celtic sign a blank Czech’ Jim Traynor wrote of Moravcik’s arrival at Celtic Park with his usual embarrassing lack of knowledge about football and footballers beyond these shores…

"If anything the signing of Lubomir Moravcik at a cut price has merely caused them further embarrassment."

Lubo made his debut against Dundee at Celtic Park on 7th November 1998. Jock Brown had left the club amid much acrimony that day and the Celtic support showed up in huge numbers buoyed by the signing of Mark Viduka who was not yet registered to play. New boy Moravcik was and his display that day won over the Celtic supporters in the 58,000 crowd. Larsson scored a hat trick that afternoon but many supporters left the ground talking about the little Slovak with the big talent. Scotland on Sunday the following morning reported with refreshing accuracy…

‘’That Dundee could not limit the damage was in part the result of a delightful debut from 33-year-old Moravcik, the kind of continental midfield orchestrator who doesn't so much hit passes as lovingly craft them. It was the rare vision of the Slovak that pushed the contest beyond the visitors once more with a wave of the wand that doubles up for his foot to send Burchill clear for a slamming finish in the 27th minute.’’

After the 6-1 demolition of Dundee, the fans were soon brought back to earth with a bump as the team, aided by some crazy defending and bizarre refereeing crashed 1-2 at St Johnstone. The defence was soon bolstered by the arrival of Johan Mjallby who was set for his debut against all conquering Rangers who arrived at Celtic Park in late November 1998 well clear at the top of the SPL. Mr Keevins gifted us with yet more of his appalling punditry by stating with the confidence of a fool…

"Josef Venglos will live to regret his decision to play this unknown Slovakian ahead of Mark Burchill in such a vital Old Firm Game."

What happened on that cold November afternoon at Celtic Park in 1998 will live long in the memory of the Celtic fans who witnessed it. Celtic clicked from the start and flew at Rangers as if determined to prove that their poor league position didn’t make them a poor team. Moravcik sprayed passes left and right, pulling the Rangers defence all over the place. In 11 minutes Celtic broke up the North Stand side and a cross towards Larrsson on the 18 yard line looked as if it wouldn’t cause Rangers any trouble. Larsson with supreme awareness allowed the ball to pass between his legs which totally confused the Rangers defence. Moravcik arriving behind him met the ball with that wand of a left foot and the ball flashed into the Rangers net. Celtic Park erupted. A new Celtic star was born on that chilly day at Celtic Park. Celtic then proceeded to rip Rangers apart and the men in blue left the East End of Glasgow after a 5-1 hammering. Moravcik had pulled all the strings as Celtic destroyed their ancient rivals.

Even in the aftermath of Celtic’s biggest win against Rangers in decades the media still put their big foot in it. One hapless reporter said to Moravcik…

‘How does it feel going from zero to hero?’

The little Slovak, speaking through an interpreter gave him a withering look and replied…

‘You tell him I was never a zero!’

Lubo went on to win 2 SPL titles, 1 Scottish cup and 2 league cups during his short spell with Celtic. His display at Ibrox in that intoxicating 2000-01 season when Celtic won the treble was magical. I can still see him in the spring sunshine turning Rickson inside out before slamming the ball home in a memorable 3-0 victory. He said recently that Celtic gave him not only the first medals of his career but also the chance to show his skills in the Champions League. On one of those great Celtic Park nights, Juventus arrived with superstars like Trezeguet, Nedved and Del Piero in their side but the match, won 4-3 by Celtic was controlled by the little Slovakian magician. He showed that he could not only play at the top level, but be the star of the show. Pavel Nedved said afterwards…

"I was fortunate to play at Celtic Park in the same game as Lubo, but not fortunate with the way he played against us!"

As He was substituted late in the game, 60,000 fans were on their feet giving him the sort of ovation the knowledgeable Celtic supporters reserve for top players. Lubo was clearly moved by this and stated recently with typical modesty…

“The most memorable occasion was when I played against Juventus in the Champions League. We won 4-3. Martin O’Neill gave me my first start in that tournament. I made the most of the moment. I was subbed near the end and I will never forget the standing ovation I received from the Celtic supporters. I am very lucky.’’

 Lubomir Moravcik is remembered fondly by the Celtic support as an excellent footballer who brought artistry and craft to the games in which he played. Celtic supporters admire a player with such ability and Lubo joins a long list of such players in the club’s illustrious history. He said in a recent interview…

‘’They said I was a gift from God but it was the opposite, Celtic was a gift from God for me.’’

As long as Celtic exists we will remember and celebrate the many fine players who have worn the Hoops over the years. When we talk of the best we’ve seen, Lubo’s name is sure to mentioned. He was quite simply an excellent footballer and I for one am glad I got to see him play. My one regret is that we didn’t sign him as a young man and watch him blossom at Celtic Park for a decade.

Lubo Moravcik. Celtic legend.

Thank you and Happy Birthday Wee man.

Hail Hail

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