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donc l’adieu alors...

bobo balde

So farewell then Bobo Balde the last of the O’Neill stalwarts and incredibly the only first team player Martin O’Neill bought from outwith either the EPL or the SPL.

Balde arrived in the summer of 2001 from Toulouse for no fee due to the French club falling into administration and therefore not holding his registration at the time. He was brought in to fill the gaps left by the soon to retire Tom Boyd and the departing figure of Alan Stubbs and made his debut in a regulation 3-1 win over Dunfermline, his main contribution being a 40 yard pass which allowed Lubo to score the third. That wasn’t something we were to see terribly often.

The first impression was basically “Look at the size of this bloke!” Even for a centre half Bobo was big, 6 3” in his socks, with Boris Karloff shoulders and the way he tackled was something to stop the heart, especially if you were in the opposing team.

To make opposition forwards in the mood for the game to come the fans quickly took up the chant “Bobo’s gonnae get ye!” Scarves and banners also appeared with the same legend on them and quickly he became something of a cult figure and almost as quickly the press started to peddle the line that he was a dirty, reckless player who would happily drive his opponents straight into the ground without the good grace to even mark with spot with a small wooden cross.

Complete cobblers of course. Balde was certainly committed in the tackle, and having 6 3” 14 stones of Guinean flying at you with the ground trembling under each stride must be fairly alarming, but the truth is he generally won the ball fairly. And of course I’m sure I don’t have to point out that the journalists who produced this particular line of bilge had in previous years fallen over themselves to praise the, ahem, ‘whole hearted’ style of, for example, John Brown, Mark Hately and of course Terry Hurlock.

In his first year Bobo picked up a League winners badge and a Scottish Cup losers medal on the day we saw the good and the very bad from the big centre. Celtic weren’t playing well, but Rangers were not great either. At 1-1 a free kick was launched into the penalty area and Bobo came crashing in to give us the lead (he had already scored against them at Hampden in a 2-1 league cup loss earlier in the season).

But a few minutes later he ploughed into a needless challenge on the edge of our box and allowed the man with the V shaped fingers to level the game. The result was a re-energised hun team and a bad loss.

The following season he basically cemented his position in the team alongside Johan Mjallby and Joos Valgaeran and was voted the fans’ player of the year.

Incredibly Celtic didn’t win anything that season. We allowed the league to slip due in part to some dodgy defending (the first two games against the huns were literally thrown away, even though we drew one of them) and against other teams we seemed content to score one goal and shut up shop, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the hun was cremating the teams they were beating. By the time we realised that we needed to score lots of goals it was too late. Not even 14 goals in the last three games could haul us back.

The cups were just as bad. The Scottish ended in Inverness when Martin O’Neill thought the reserves would be good enough, the League Cup was handed to the hun by the officials when a perfectly good Hartson goal (clear yard onside) was ruled out and the UEFA cup final was lost to the synchronised diving squad from Porto.

That was a particular low for Bobo given that he collected a second yellow card at 2-2. TV pictures showed him weeping in the stadium tunnel.

Bobo was a key part of the team that won the domestic double in 03-04, but again he cost us in Europe. Celtic were in Lyon with the score a creditable 2-2 and the game drawing to a close, we appeared on the verge of not only ending our run of away defeats but also qualifying for the last 16 of the Champions League. Then the ball was played in high to the Celtic box and Bobo went for it with his opponent. No contact appeared to be made with the ball (TV pictures showed that there was none) but Bobo had his arm up and the ref pointed to the spot. Penalty Lyon, 3-2 and no time to do anything about it. It wasn’t all Balde’s fault of course - Hedman had more than played his part that night - but again a rash challenge from the big stopper had cost us.

That defeat dropped us into the UEFA cup where, in March, the Hoops faced Barca and despite winning the home leg 1-0 we travelled more in hope than expectation to the Nou Camp for the return. Our cause wasn’t helped by the fact that Bobo was suspended. In his place was John Kennedy, who would write secure own place in Celtic’s history that night with an outstanding performance.

Meanwhile, in the stands Bobo was writing his own bit of Celtic lore as he elected against watching the game from the comfort of the player’s box and instead joined the fans high up in the cheap seats, singing his heart out during the game and celebrating like any other punter at the end. His stock rose immeasurably after that.

Season 04-05 wasn’t great for anyone at Celtic Park. The league was thrown away, Europe was a wash out and at the end of it all Martin O’Neill, the man who had brought trophies back to the East End, walked away.

The Scottish Cup was won again but it was definitely a watershed moment. Many of the players that played in the Final that day at Hampden were wearing the hoops for the last time, but we all knew Bobo wouldn’t be one of them (although by this time some wished it to be otherwise).

In the January of 2005 Balde had been negotiating a new contract when Middlesborough had made an enquiry. Bobo even travelled down there, but quickly returned to Glasgow where he signed a four and a half year deal that made him one of the best paid players at the club.

The arrival of Gordon didn’t seem to have any immediate implications for Bobo, although it began under more than one cloud. Firstly he played in (and was booked in) both legs of the Atrmedia debacle, but Varga was the victim of that defensive debacle as WGS cast him out.

However Bobo was also accused by the then Leicester manager Craig Levein of attempting to end the career of a 17 year old boy with a particularly hard challenge during a pre-season friendly at Filbert Street.
Still, he remained at the heart of the Celtic defence for the new season, now playing alongside McManus and there he stayed for the remainder of the season. In fact 05-06 was possibly his best with the club. His natural aggression was now allied to some experience and he appeared less prone now to lunge into challenges.

In the November of that year he had two very enjoyable experiences against Rangers. First, in the league cup he terrified Stephan Klos to the extent that he put the ball into his own net, then he finally got a goal in a winning game against them as we ran out 3-0 winners in the league game.

He finished the season with a League winners badge - his third - and a League Cup medal, his first, although his season ended early so that he could have treatment to an injury.

Unfortunately for him the injury didn’t heal and instead he required an operation which kept him out of the reckoning until November. By then Caldwell and McManus had formed a decent partnership that had helped us pull away at the top of the league, but then Caldwell picked up a hip knock and Bobo was back in the frame for the Champions League home match against Manchester United.

Obviously this game will be covered in more detail in other Farewells in the following pages, but Bobo had a couple of memorable moments himself that night, the main one coming when he neatly disposed an opponent, turned away and damn near fell over his own feet allowing Ronaldo a clear run at Boruc. Happily it came to nothing, but it was certainly a good example of the risks involved in fielding Bobo. He did nothing else wrong that night, and in fact he was a rock at the back, but you just never knew what might happen if he caught the light from a full moon.

His season was going along reasonably well after that, but on Boxing Day in a match against Dundee United at Celtic Park the roof fell in as he was carried from the pitch with a broken leg.

That appeared to be that. He recovered in time for the new season, but it was clear that he no longer featured in the plans of WGS. Strachan was building a newer, younger team. Bobo was the wrong side of 30 and just didn’t fit (also Pressley had been signed to provide experienced cover). Roy Keane tried to get him to go to Sunderland in the August, but Bobo refused saying he liked it in Glasgow too much (Read – I’m the best paid player at the club, match it or get lost).

By November he was giving interviews saying he didn’t want to be at a club where he wasn’t wanted. Then in December the call went out. We had gone more than a year without a clean sheet away from home, our form had been ropey in the league and we were in a tight race with Rangers. Bobo returned to the team exactly a year after his leg break (oddly enough against the team we had been playing when he’d broken it – United) and helped the team to a 2-0 away win. Pundits and fans patted themselves on the back – they’d been saying for months that he should have been brought back. And indeed he won every high ball he went for, although he didn’t once manage to head it to a Celtic player. More often than not it actually went to Barry Robson who was still wearing tangerine at the time, but his presence had been a reassuring one.

And then he was gone – off to the African Nation’s Cup again (it was a major pain in MON’s plans when Bobo disappeared for that tournament). He made one further appearance that season in the 1-0 home game against Aberdeen, but for the last two games it was McManus and Caldwell. Given that we finished the season with two wins and two clean sheets, McManus got a goal and we won the league at the end of it all, I don’t think you can argue. At the end of the game at Tannadice he was celebrating on the pitch with all the other players. It was the fifth league win he had been involved in.

Last season he only featured in the pre-season games and McManus, Caldwell, Kennedy, O’Dea were all in line before him. As the season slipped away there were calls to bring him back to put some fear into the huns, but it’s debatable whether he would have been capable of that anymore.

The last I heard he was on trial with Wolves. I hope he can get another couple of years playing at a decent level - it’s worth it to see the look of horror on a forward’s face as he sees the large figure of Bobo preparing to launch himself at the ball.

He leaves us with 5 league winners badges, 2 Scottish cups badges and a league cup medal and the memory of 16 goals scored. We wish him all the best for the future.



bobo balde