A toss of the coin
In memory's view I can still see Chris Sutton control the ball under pressure and play it to his ever ready striking partner Henrik Larsson. The Swede controlled the ball and glanced up as Didier Agathe went through the gears and raced towards the Ajax back line. Larsson guided a perfect pass into his path and the Frenchman glided past the last Ajax defender with deceptive ease. The advancing goalkeeper had no chance with Agathe’s well-placed shot which flashed past him and into the net. It was perhaps one of the best illustrations of Agathe’s value to Celtic in that era. His road to Celtic Park though was one full of twists and turns and it is a remarkable saga of chance, luck and determination.
For any young footballer aspiring to play professionally, being told that a hereditary condition would mean that their career was virtually over would be cause enough for depression and it was no different for young Didier Agathe. He had travelled thousands of miles from his home in La Reunion Island, a French possession in the Indian Ocean, to join Montpellier FC. His tribulations began when he suffered a ruptured appendix which almost ended his life and saw him on the operating table for six hours. However it was a recurring knee problem which, upon investigation led to the discovery that he had no cartilage in his right knee, which threatened his footballing future. The condition meant his right knee was functioning bone to bone with no cartilage to cushion it and stop the inevitable grinding pain and problems it would bring.
Agathe faced the harsh realisation that his football career might be over before it had really begun. The quiet, deeply religious young man who spoke the Creole language of his home island when he arrived in France took the news badly. The Doctors, who couldn’t believe he had got so far in football with the problem, told him he should have an operation to correct the problem but that it would mean his footballing career would be over. He went into a depression and during one particularly low point for him, sought solace in alcohol. He overdid it and crashed his car. He said of the accident…
‘I fell asleep at the wheel and my car went over a fence and landed on a barrier. The windows were blown out and the airbag went off and I was stuck on a quiet road on a Sunday morning with no one around. By sheer chance an ambulance on its way to another call found me. My car was totally destroyed. It was hanging over the edge of the road over a steep drop. I don’t know why it didn’t drop.’
Agathe decided after surviving this ordeal that once he had recovered he would try again to make a career in football. He knew that it wouldn’t be in France so took the decision to decide where to try and resurrect his career in a most unusual way. He took a map of Europe and flipped a coin onto it. Wherever it landed, he told himself, he would go there and play. It landed on England so he sold most of his possessions and drove to England. Initially he was sleeping in his car and using his fast diminishing savings to live and keep fit at the local gym. In the end a friend gave him a room and he arranged a trial for Stockport County. He excelled but alas failed the medical when they discovered his ongoing knee problem.
In another twist of fate, he met a Frenchman called Ludovic Pollet who was in England having a trial with Wigan. Pollet asked him to come watch him play and Agathe obliged. At this point Agathe had virtually no money little prospect of earning any through football. Pollet introduced him to his agent at the match in Wigan and he in turn introduced him to Willie McKay, a Scottish agent with interests north and south of the border. When Agathe explained he was available, McKay said, ‘Why not come try your luck in Scotland?’ Agathe replied in all seriousness with the words, ‘Where is Scotland?’ McKay had Agathe literally follow him up the motorway from Wigan to Fir Park Motherwell in his battered old Honda. He arrived in Motherwell at 11.30 at night to meet the Manager, Billy Davies. Agathe must have been wondering what if his luck was out when he was informed that Davies had been taken to hospital with, of all things, appendicitis! So it was that Motherwell missed out on a chance to sign Agathe.
McKay was soon on his phone again and told Agathe to follow him across Scotland to Kirkaldy. The young Frenchman arrived in the Fife town at 2am and had soon convinced a struggling Raith Rovers that he was worth a trial. Manager John McVeigh needed a striker badly as the team was struggling for goals and asked Agathe if he could play there. Agathe lied and said yes so he was played up front in a bounce game against the first team and impressed with his pace and finishing, scoring two goals. He was then played as a trialist against Airdrie and hit a hat trick. He signed for the rest of that season and his play was soon attracting the attention of other clubs. Hibs boss, Alex McLeish, liked what he saw but foolishly only signed Agathe on a two month contract just to run the rule over him. Agathe impressed and during a game against Dundee scored a tremendous goal after slicing through the defence with that blistering pace. Watching from the stand that day, ostensibly there to look at Dundee goalkeeper Rab Douglas, sat a certain Martin O’Neil.
Agathe recalls the phone going in the week after that game and an Irish voice saying, ‘Hello, it’s Martin O’Neil here.’ He thought it was a wind up and hung up. Fortunately O’Neil persisted and due to Hibs negligently signing Agathe on such a short contract, secured his services for Celtic for a ridiculously low price of £50,000. It could be argued that this piece of business was the best value Celtic ever had in the transfer market. His pace was ideally suited to O’Neil’s favoured 3-5-2 formation and he had all the attributes a good wing back needed. O’Neil understood his knee problems enough to allow him to miss out on training if he was in pain and was rewarded with some fine performances. The Road to Seville saw Agathe perform well against top opposition and the big European nights under the lights brought out the best in him. His pace was electric and he used it in defensive as well as attacking roles. O’Neil asked him to mark the great Ronaldinho when Celtic Played Barcelona in 2004 and he did so to great effect as Celtic defied the odds to knock Barcelona out of Europe.
He spoke of his time at Celtic in an interview in a French Magazine and said he had an affinity with the club. He also spoke of the darker side of football in Scotland and was taken aback as a devout Catholic by the vitriol about the Pope he heard at derby matches and the off field pressures such as having his car vandalised or being threatened in the street. It was noted that on a trip to St Peter’s cemetery just along the London Road from Celtic Park, he invested time and money restoring religious statues which had fallen into disrepair or had been vandalised.
It’s a testament to his character that he made a good career for himself at Celtic and was part of O’Neil’s fine side of the early part of the twenty first century. He won three titles, three Scottish cups, one league cup and played in some of those dramatic European ties Celtic had in that era. He said of his time at Celtic…
‘I can’t explain the feeling I had playing for Celtic. I was like a child. I felt I was dreaming, especially when we played in the Champions League. I always knew how lucky I was to be there.’
For the supporters he could be something of an enigma. On his day he was simply brilliant but on occasion his speed and wing play wasn’t matched by the final ball into the box and he did sometimes appear to lack confidence. When some fans were getting on his back during a European game, he commented later; ‘they don’t do it because they don’t care, they do it because they care too much.’ His time with Celtic was successful and he did enough to be remembered as a good player in a fine side. The arrival of Gordon Strachan and a bad injury picked up after a savage tackle in a match against a typically bellicose Hearts side ended his time at Celtic Park.
I for one will remember him for his blistering pace and the balance he brought to Celtic in the O’Neil era. He was a good player and by all accounts a very decent human being. The road he took to reach Celtic and play in some of the club’s biggest games in recent times demonstrates his courage and determination. Plenty would have given up on football when faced with the obstacles he had to deal with but he battled on and made a decent career for himself and that is a lesson in life for us all.