Saturday, 7 April 2018

The Mickey Mouse League

The Mickey Mouse League 
Grim faced Merseyside Policemen watched the tightly packed fans press towards the turnstiles. Thousands had travelled from Scotland, Ireland and further afield to see if Celtic could overcome a strong Liverpool side studded with stars such as Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen and Sami Hyypia. It would be a big ask for Martin O'Neil's side to better the 1-1 draw they had to settle for in Glasgow in a match they dominated. The fans clad in green were in good voice and the Anfield Road echoed to a song born in Glasgow but much copied by Liverpool's rivals across Stanley Park. Thousands of voices sang in unison.... 

'For it's a grand old team to play for,  
for it's a grand old team to see 
And if you know the history,  
it's enough to make your heart go oh, oh, oh, oh ... 

Big Steph McLaughlan sang along but kept one eye on the Policeman at the turnstile in front of him. He and his long-time girlfriend, Kerry, had one ticket between the two of them and were preparing to 'double up' once they reached the turnstile. He had blagged his way past the cordon around the stadium with a colour photocopy of the ticket Kerry had in her hand. It might fool a bored cop but not a sharp turnstile operator. He was determined to see this vital match but to his dismay the cop ahead was asking individual fans to show their tickets. 'Here, Kerry,' he muttered through the noise. If I get chased I'll get ye in the boozer after the game.' She smiled that smile which first attracted him to her'Don't panic Steph, you're getting in and so am I.' At that point the young Policeman asked to see her ticket which she held up for inspection. The Policeman nodded at her and looked towards Steph, at that point Kerry distracted him, 'Here mate, can ye buy a pint in this stand?' As the cop momentarily re-focused on Kerry, the sharp-witted Glasgow girl surreptitiously slipped her ticked into his hand. Steph held the ticket up for inspection and was nodded towards the turnstile.  

The final hurdle faced them now as they entered the extremely narrow opening to the turnstile. Steph gave the ticket back to Kerry and squeezed as close to her as he could. The grey-haired turnstile operator had no doubt seen it all in his time but as they hoped, he took the ticket and the accompanying £20 note with no hint at all that anything was amiss. The turnstile clicked and they both squeezed into Anfield Stadium. Steph grinned and hugged his lady'Yass! Made it darlin!' 

At that precise moment Martin O'Neil had called his players to silence in the away dressing room under the main stand. He looked around at the faces staring back at him. Grim faced Lennon, ready for war. Thompson, quiet and determined. Hartson, focused as always. Larsson, the consummate pro, ready to give his all and young Maloney, fresh faced and un-phased by the challenge ahead. The Irishman waited for a second, heightening the tension before he spoke. He looked around the dressing room and pointed out young Shaun Maloney...  

'This is a European quarter-final and this boy is only nineteen, but he might never get this opportunity again.' He looked around the older guys and added: 'You guys in your thirties probably won't get the opportunity again to prove a point, to prove to England and Europe that you deserve respect, and that you are worthy of respect, and that you are worthy of a place in the semi-finals.'  

By the time he had finished the Celtic players were ready to go out onto the pitch and run through brick walls if they needed to. Henrik Larsson would recall that talk in later years. 'The talk he gave before the game made everything sink in for me. I said to myself 'Fucking hell, I will have no regrets after this game.'  As the Celtic players ran onto the field to be greeted by an almighty roar, there was a determination about them. They knew the arrogance of the English media and the way they regarded Scottish football. Now was the moment to shut a few big mouths and show them that Scottish sides could play the game at this level.  

There were Celtic supporters in every section of Anfield and they were making themselves heard. One half of the Anfield Road stand was packed with Celtic fans and Steph and Kerry were among them. There was no concern about where to sit as the entire away support was standing throughout the game. As the action roared from one end of the field to the other, they shouted, sang and just willed Celtic to score but it was Gerrard who flashed a shot past Rab Douglas' right hand post. They need not have worried about big Douglas on this night as former bricklayer was in supreme form and his confidence was spreading throughout the team. Celtic were creating as many chances as Liverpool and as half-time approached the hosts looked rattled. As Steph and Kerry looked towards the ominously quiet Kop, Alan Thompson lined up a free kick 30 yards from goal. The stadium held its breath expecting him to flight the ball over the wall. Instead the canny Geordie fired a low shot under the jumping wall which flashed into the net. As the Celtic fans celebrated wildly, the referee brought the first half to a close with Celtic deservedly leading 1-0. 

As Steph and Kerry sang their way through the half time break with thousands of other Celtic fans, Martin O'Neil was again marshalling his troops and finding the right words. John Hartson recalled... 

"The way he went around the dressing-room, every individual was given a specific talking to and the words certainly hit home and we went out in the second half and we were brilliant. That the team talk was special and hit home for every single player.' 

The expected Liverpool onslaught after the break didn't materialise as Celtic again gave as good as they got and in defence played with a fierce determination. As the game entered its final quarter, Liverpool became increasingly desperate and launched a series of attacks which were again repelled. Then with under ten minutes to go the decisive moment arrived. John Hartson played a one-two with strike partner Larsson and moved towards the Liverpool penalty box. He dropped the shoulder to gain a yard on the defender who was desperately trying to stop him shooting. Hartson then unleashed a venomous shot which flashed through the air and past the despairing hands of the diving Dudek. As the ball smashed into the top right- hand corner of the net, those backing Celtic exploded in sheer joy. This was the killer goal. Liverpool now needed to score three times in the remaining eight minutes and that wasn't going to happen. Celtic were through to the Semi-final and how their supporters roared out their victory songs. 

Steph and Kerry, along with thousands of other Celtic fans, floated through the last moments of the game on a cloud of joyous emotion. They had listened to the usual jibes of sections of the English media in the run up to the tie about Scottish football and were even informed by a few locals that Liverpool would take 4 or 5 off O'Neill's side. They had shut a few mouths tonight and that added to their joy. They knew that Celtic fans in Scotland and Ireland and indeed all over the world would be sharing their elation at that precise moment. As the final whistle sounded Steph and Kerry just hugged each other in silent delight as the thousands around jumped, sang and screamed out their delight.  

As the Celtic side ran to salute the fans and the red clad Liverpool side trooped off the fieldSteph, grinning from ear to ear, looked into Kerry's face. As the Celtic players danced and waved in front of the celebrating fans, Steph shouted above the din, 'Here Kerry, is it no time we got married?' She looked at him, her eyes wide in surprise, 'Is this the time or place for a proposal?' He nodded, 'the perfect time, whit dae ye say?'  She smiled, 'What do you think?' Before leaning forward and kissing him. 

In the aftermath of the match as Steph and Kerry headed back to their supporters' bus elated at both the football and their new-found status as an engaged couple, Paul Lambert was being interviewed by an English BBC reporter. 'Paul. You must be delighted with that result and display? The midfielder who held a Champions League winners medal from his time with Borussia Dortmund looked him in the eye and spoke words which had the watching hundreds of thousands of Celtic fans smiling in agreement, 'Aye, not bad for a team from a so-called Mickey Mouse league.' 

It was a famous victory for Celtic and that final in Seville didn't look like an impossible dream any more. 

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