If you know the history
Billy McNeil once said that there was a fairy tale quality about Celtic and sometimes you could be forgiven for believing it’s true. The club has a habit of winning things on those historical occasions when fate decrees they rise from their slumber and put on a show. In the club’s Jubilee year of 1938, they won the title with an excellent young side which was sadly broken up by World War 2.
In the years after the war they were left floundering in the wake of excellent sides such as Hibs, Rangers and even Dundee. They finished eighth in the old First Division in season 1952-53 but were invited to make up the numbers in the Coronation Cup competition as they had such a big support. Spurs, Manchester United, Newcastle and Arsenal joined Hibs, Aberdeen, Rangers and Celtic in the competition and few gave Celtic a hope of success. Arsenal was English Champions in 1952-53 but Celtic, roared on by a huge crowd, defeated them 1-0 to reach the semi-final. Manchester United, English league Champions in 1952, were then dispatched 2-1 as Celtic’s success starved supporters sensed they could actually win this trophy. The excellent Hibs side of the era awaited them in the final having defeated Spurs and Newcastle. 117,000 crowded Hampden for the battle of the greens. The match was a classic as the ‘Famous Five’ forward line of Hibs surged forward towards a Celtic defence marshalled by Jock Stein. Celtic held them out and scored two goals of their own to seal a famous victory. The team brought in to make up the numbers had won the cup.
Four years later, Celtic approached the 1957 League Cup final in the midst of a poor league campaign which would see the then finish fifth and lose 11 of their 34 league matches. Champions Rangers approached the game in fine fettle and were strong favourites. Of course on the day, Celtic turned in an astonishing exhibition of attacking football to destroy their opponents by 7 goals to 1. It was a brief flash of brilliance for the fans to enjoy before the club again descended to mediocrity, failing to win a single major honour for the next 8 years. The better players were sold as the board showed a lack of ambition which infuriated the fans at times. Between Maley’s last title in 1938 and Stein’s fist in 1966, Celtic was Scottish champions just once.
That 1966 Championship gave Celtic a chance to play in the European Cup for the very first time. Sides like Atletico Madrid, 1860 Munich, Liverpool and Inter Milan were all fancied to do well but Stein’s exciting young side roared through the competition playing exuberant attacking football. That very philosophy which had marked out Celtic sides from the very beginning would meet its sternest test against the defensive masters of Inter Milan who faced them beneath the Lisbon sun. That ‘fairy tale’ McNeil spoke of was evident again as Celtic came from behind to demoralise and destroy the masters of ‘catenaccio’ with a display of attacking football which had all of Europe applauding them. Winning was important but the manner of victory was important too. Celtic had won the European cup in a way which kept faith with the finest traditions of the club.
So it came to pass that Celtic began their Centenary season in the summer of 1987 with Billy McNeil trying to put a side together which would match a Rangers side which was spending huge amounts of money on players and had the previous season won their first title in nine years. It was daunting task for the Hoops and the first meeting of the clubs at Celtic Park in August 1987 was eagerly anticipated. It was a frantic game with both sides fully committed. Celtic fans were encouraged by their team’s play and fight and Billy Stark’s goal was greeted with scenes of bedlam on the terraces. Souness was sent packing for a typically ruthless tackle and Celtic won the day. That win set the tone for a season in which the side fought to the end in every game. Late winners came in a host of matches as the centenary Celts roared clear at the top of the league. With the championship within touching distance they faced a strong Hearts side in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup. Celtic trailed 1-0 with 88 minutes on the clock but in an astonishing finale they turned the game around and won 2-1 amid scenes of utter jubilation. Once again on the historical occasions the club was doing something special.
History records that Celtic clinched the 1987-88 title in a 3-0 victory against Dundee at a Celtic Park overflowing with spectators and emotion. The centenary champions then lined up at Hampden in May 1988 to take on Dundee United. As was their way, Celtic did it the hard way. Trailing to a Kevin Gallagher goal and with time running out, they pounded the Dundee United defence. Frank McAvennie headed the equalising goal as Hampden roared sensing the comeback was on. In the dying seconds of the last competitive game of their centenary year, McAvennie struck again to give Celtic the cup. Tommy Burns, as much a Celtic fan as any of us on the terracing that day said with a sense of what it meant historically for the club… ‘When people look back 100 years from now, I’ll be in the team which done the double!’
A generation after the centenary year triumph, Celtic celebrated their 125th year in Scottish football. A service was held in St Mary’s church on 6 November 2012 and a group of Barcelona Directors took their place in the church no doubt feeling the history surrounding the Glasgow club. The following evening their side took the field at what was perhaps the finest ever night at the famous old ground. Of course the Catalans with players such as Iniesta, Messi, Alves, Xavi and Pique in their ranks were supremely confident. Celtic faced them without their top striker in Gary Hooper and had an 18 year old called Tony Watt on the bench who cost £50,000.
Those of you who attended that match will testify to the sheer dogged tenacity of Lennon’s side who harried and badgered their illustrious opponents throughout the game. We dared to dream when Wanyama headed Celtic into the lead and then one of those moments occurred which lodge themselves in the mind for a lifetime. From my seat in the North Stand I watched a kick out from the outstanding Fraser Forster being missed by a Barcelona defender. Suddenly Tony Watt was racing in on goal. 60,000 people watched in anticipation as the teenager steadied himself before slamming the ball into the net. Bedlam ensued as the celebrating supporters hugged, screamed and roared their heads off. It was incredible; it was the stuff of legend. Celtic’s victory over the reigning European champions that night was simply stunning. Barcelona was at the peak of its powers at that time and Celtic, on their 125th anniversary had defeated them.
Of course Maley’s side of 1938, the Coronation cup winners of 53, through to the Lions and the centenary Celts had the backing of a huge and noisy Celtic support. It can never be underestimated how much the Celtic supporters drive the side on and the supreme example of that was when Celtic defeated Barcelona in 2012. At times the Catalans threatened to overwhelm the Celtic defence but a wall of noise around the stadium roused the players to give every ounce of energy they had to the cause and the team saw it through to the end.
Tomorrow Celtic seek to add another trophy to their illustrious history. I’m sure the supporters will bring the thunder as usual and drive them on. The ‘fairy tale’ Billy McNeil spoke of has many more chapters waiting to be written.