The Spring of 1986 saw Hearts powering towards their first league Championship since 1960. Only a minor miracle could stop them winning the league as they entered the home straight with a good lead over a Celtic side which was a little unpredictable to say the least. They had blown a 3-1 lead at on a rainy, Glasgow day and entered the closing minutes of the game 4-3 down. McLeod secured a point in the dying moments of the match with a trademark long range shot but Celtic needed to find some consistency on the run in if they were to make life difficult for 'Champions elect' Hearts.
Following that draw at Celtic's form improved and they defeated Clydebank 5-0, Dundee 2-1, St Mirren 2-0, Aberdeen 1-0 and Hibs 2-0. They were clinging onto Hearts coat-tails as the last few matches of the season arrived. Dundee visited Celtic Park on 26 April 1986 and a lack luster Celtic managed to subdue them with two second half goals. Such was the level of the performance, one paper commented....
'Celtic still have a fingertip on the league championship trophy but surely they are fated to slip off the edge and miss out to Hearts- certainly if this performance is anything to go by. Considering how much was at stake the home side were unbelievably lethargic and lacking inspiration.'
That same April day, as Celtic's perplexed support were cheering their team more in hope than expectation, events were taking place almost 2000 miles away which would put sport into perspective.
In the early hours of 26 April 1986 there were two explosions at the nuclear power station in Chernobyl in the Ukraine. The secretive nature of the USSR in those cold war days meant there was little news coming out of the Soviet Union although international scientists quickly detected something was wrong. The amount of radiation released was measured at hundreds of times greater than that released by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Despite the clear danger to their health, fire crews raced to the site and brought the fires raging under control. As scientists probed the site to assess the damage, they made a dreadful discovery; Unit four's reactor was in meltdown. Under this reactor was a huge pool of water — used as coolant for the power plant. A continuous nuclear reaction caused by the explosions meant that a smoldering flow of molten radioactive metal, was approaching the water. If it reached the water there would almost certainly be a huge explosion which would have destroyed the entire plant, including the other three nuclear reactors. It has been estimated by respected scientists that the radio-active fallout from such a catastrophe would have wiped out millions of people and left huge swathes of Europe uninhabitable. Something had to be done and the scientists and engineers agreed what it was; the water under the reactor needed to be drained to prevent the explosive reaction.
Someone would need to enter the partially flooded basement and open the valves which would release the thousands of gallons of water under the reactor and prevent a disaster turning into an utter catastrophe. The three volunteers who stepped forward knew the plant well. They were: Alexei , an engineer who knew the location of the valves, and two others, Valeri and Boris Baranov. The trio suited up and entered the radio-active sludge of the flooded cellar. They followed pipes in the semi-darkness relying on their knowledge of the plant and reached the valves they needed to turn. They spoke of their happiness at hearing the 'whoosh' which told them they had been successful and the water was being pumped out of the danger zone.
All three returned to the surface to see their colleagues jumping for joy at the news that the valves were open. Over 20,000 tons of radioactive water was pumped out, and a subsequent report revealed that had this not been done, a thermal nuclear explosion would have taken place with devastating consequences.
These events took place in the week Celtic headed for Love Street hoping for the minor miracle needed to pip Hearts for the title. As the rain fell on them, few of the Celtic support would have guessed that it contained tiny traces of fall-out from the accident at . Indeed, that same rain belt crossing western Scotland in the first week of May 1986 left an orange-pink dust on sheep in the western Isles and in the months and years which followed there was an increase in new cancer cases being reported in areas like Benbecula. Thoughts of such things though were far from the minds of Celtic supporters who roared their team to a comprehensive 5-0 win on that day at Love Street 31 years ago. They waited to hear of news from Dundee where Hearts were playing their final league match needing just a draw to be crowned Champions. A Celtic supporter wearing the dark blue of Dundee FC made sure they didn't get the point they needed and the unlikeliest of turnarounds had occurred. Celtic, for so long written off in the race for the Championship had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and won the flag. How their fans celebrated on that damp in 1986!
There was precious little celebration in Ukraine that week as hundreds of trucks and buses evacuated towns like Pripyat which were in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. Tens of thousands were moved from their homes and today towns and villages lie empty to be reclaimed by nature. The effects of the disaster were felt much more keenly in the surrounding area than they were in far off Scotland. It remains difficult to measure how many people were affected by the radio-active fall-out from Chernobyl. Some scientists put the death toll from increases in thyroid and other cancers at over 100,000 but one thing is certain; the courage of the three volunteers who opened the valves to release the water under the stricken reactor probably saved millions of lives.
We wrap ourselves in the bubble of our own lives and rightly enjoy our team's successes. We can't however, remain immune from goings on in the wider world all the time and back in 1986 we all had a narrow escape. Thanks to the bravery of the Fire Fighters who rushed to the Chernobyl plant knowing full well the dangers facing them we were spared the worst-case scenario. Our sporting heroes may wear football strips, but on another level altogether are those brave people risking their lives to keep us safe. None more so than three heroes who waded through radio-active sludge in the darkness of the basement beneath the stricken nuclear plant to release millions of gallons of water so that we were spared an explosion which would have affected all our lives.
Their names were Alexie , Valeri and Boris Baranov. Perhaps when we smile at footage of Celtic's famous win at Love Street in 1986 we should remember them too for a second. They were brave men.