Dr Who and the unknown Slovakian
May 1998 was a time of tension for Celtic supporters as the club stumbled over the line to claim their first title in ten long and bitter years. After Harold Brattbakk had slammed home the clinching goal against St Johnstone in the last game of the season there was an explosion of joy. All the pent up disappointment and frustration gave way to a wave of euphoria which had Celts the world over smiling for days. Of course, Celtic being Celtic the joy was soon replaced with concern as Manager Win Jansen exercised the get out clause in his contract and walked away. His much publicised breakdown in relationship with Jock Brown was generally reported as the reason. Celtic supporters then endured a long summer of speculation about who would take over the management of the team. Many of the players jetted off to the World Cup in France unsure of who would be leading them in defence of their title in season 1998-99.
When Fergus McCann announced in July 1998 that Dr Jozef Venglos was to be the new Celtic Manager we saw the gutter press in Scotland at their ignorant, disrespectful best. The Daily Record led the way with the infamous ‘Celtic sign a blank Czech’ headline which not only showed huge ignorance of his coaching record but got his nationality wrong too. They joked about his age despite the fact Jock Stein and Bob Paisley both managed at the highest level when older. One disrespectful ‘Journalist’ even challenged Dr Jo to a race and had his picture taken outside Celtic Park in his track suit. All of this and the summer of discontent before it led to some Celtic Supporters actually booing Fergus McCann as he unfurled Celtic’s first League flag in a decade. Elements of the gutter Press had of course turned their venom on McCann since his arrival at Celtic Park and the character assassination he endured culminated in him being compared to Saddam Hussein. Dr Jo must have wondered what sort of country he had arrived in.
His late arrival meant that there was little time to sign new players before the serious action began on the field. Some Celtic players arrived back from France 98 looking a little worn out and a bonus row was also rumbling along in the background. In truth Celtic’s early season form was patchy. Dunfermline were brushed aside 5-0 in the opening game but in the Champions League Qualifiers, Celtic faced a Dinamo Zagreb side which combined the sublime skills of Robert Prosineki with the physicality of Mark Viduka. A battling first leg win was followed by a bitterly disappointing capitulation in Zagreb in the second leg. Celtic did begin to show some decent form as the autumn arrived and brought with it new players in the shape of Johan Mjallby and Lubomir Moravcik. Again the ill-informed in the Scottish press had their say. High Keevins in an article which still haunts him said….
"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!"
Jim Traynor, a man prone to the odd gaff, also put his foot in it by stating
"If anything the signing of Lubomir Moravcik at a cut price has merely caused them further embarrassment."
With Rangers and their expensive signings heading for Celtic Park that November there was great interest in seeing how the new boys would do. Derek Johnstone was another pundit who displayed a complete lack of knowledge about Celtic’s new arrivals when he stated after hearing the team news, "Josef Venglos will live to regret his decision to play this unknown Slovakian ahead of Mark Burchill in such a vital Old Firm Game." The Celtic fans headed for the game more in hope than expectation as they had lost at St Johnstone the week before. They were rewarded with a fine performance in which the sublime skills of Moravcik were allied to the movement of Larsson to rip the Rangers defence apart. As the supporters roared themselves hoarse, Celtic smashed five goals past their great rivals to record an unlikely and unforgettable victory.
In an interview after the destruction of Rangers a reporter asked Moravcik crassly what it felt like going from ‘zero to hero?’ The little Slovakian stared at him and replied through an interpreter, ‘You tell him I was never a zero!’
Celtic lagged behind Rangers in the title race but approached the New Year with optimism. They again faced Rangers in the Nerday fixture at Ibrox and fought out a worthy 2-2 draw. Indeed had Referee McCluskey awarded a penalty when Kancheslskis clearly fouled Mahe in the box Celtic might well have won. Venglos himself admitted that too many draws, especially in the first half of the season made the gap between Celtic and Rangers a difficult one to close. Undaunted Celtic won 15 of their next 17 games but as Rangers arrived at Celtic Park in that spring of 1999 retaining the title won the season before looked a forlorn hope.
Much has been written out the match that took place at Celtic Park in early May 1999. Celtic were without Gould, Boyd, McNamara, Rieper, Moravcik, Burley, McKinley, O’Donnell and Mjallby due to injuries and this made them particularly suspect in defence. In a game which kicked off at 6pm to suit Sky TV, tensions were high. Rangers could clinch the title with a victory and Celtic did not want that occurring in their home stadium. Referee Dallas played a huge and controversial role in this match and his sending off of Stephane Mahe as well as the awarding of a soft penalty to Rangers were lost amid the mayhem as several fans invaded the pitch to have it out with him and some other fools threw coins one of which hit the hapless official. One supporter even fell from the top tier of the stand onto fellow fans below and was still cursing the Referee as he was stretchered away! Rangers won the game and the title and there was more trouble as their players mocked the Celtic huddle after the match. It was a sorry day for Celtic and indeed for Scottish football. That such a game kicked off in the evening on a Bank Holiday undoubtedly allowed many supporters to drink far more than was wise. This had an effect on the behaviour of some and the Celtic support could not deny that much of the poor behaviour emanated from within their own ranks. The cultured Dr Venglos must have wondered what the hell was going on.
With the title gone Celtic would again face Rangers in the Scottish Cup Final. An injury ravaged side fought hard but a slack moment in defence allowed Rod Wallace to score and the cup was gone. A season which put Celtic supporters through the emotional wringer was over and Manager Venglos decide he would move on. His tenure was an interesting one but when faced with a powerful and free spending Rangers side, a hostile media and most importantly of all, a crippling injury list at key points in the season, his side fell short.
Dr Jo left with our thanks for his efforts. This cultured and experienced coach, who turned 80 this week, was hampered by a variety of circumstances during his one season with Celtic and one wonders if he might have achieved more given another year or two. Football though is an unforgiving and impatient game and Managers are judged on results. His tenure was brief and in the end unsuccessful. I’m sure he must have shaken his head at times at the antics of our press corps but in the end he was judged on results. The following season would see John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish lead Celtic through another emotional roller coaster trip before Martin O’Neil arrived to restore Celtic’s fortunes.
Thanks for your efforts Jozef and happy birthday.