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so farewell then...

gordon strachan

And so the era of Gordon Strachan comes to a close and, thanks to the way the league was surrendered last season, no one is going to shed too many tears over his departure. Some fans (but not as many as the press would like to portray) simply never took to him, but most people recognised that he had done a fine job in winning three consecutive leagues and a fair share of cups while also progressing the team into the last 16 of the Champions League.

Strachan was announced as manager during the farewell press conference announcing the departure of Martin O’Neill in 2004. The reaction in the media was a predictable one – this will be a disaster (Ewan Murray in the Guardian used the sub headline “Celtic fans be afraid, be very afraid”). Apparently, being a proven manager in the EPL, saving Coventry a couple of times and taking Southampton to the cup final, just wasn’t what we needed, especially when he was known to be nippy with stupid people from the press, and God knows we have plenty of them in this country. The hacks wasted no time is sticking the boot in and they were aided and abetted by some from our own ranks. The phone-in lines damn near melted when WGS got the Celtic job.

There were two reasons for this:

1. He was replacing a guy who had not only been successful, but had been talismanic. Martin O’Neill had been a dream appointment for many. A much sought after manager in 2000, he had already turned down Leeds and Everton before coming to Celtic. Big name signings, leagues, cups and European progression had all followed in an almost dream-like way. This was almost an impossible act to follow and the man chosen to do that wasn’t just someone who had no previous connection the club, he had been a major thorn in our side during the 80s (older fans still blamed him for Roy Aitken being sent off in 1984)

2. Linked to point one was the fact that we had just surrendered the league in the most dreadful way and in the process suffered a defeat which had no modern equivalent (maybe even no historical equivalent at all). Someone was to blame and the most obvious person was the manager. But Martin O’Neill was bullet proof - his 5 years had given us 7 trophies and a European final. To blame him seemed ungrateful to say the least when you consider what had been going on prior to his arrival.

When we lost to Artmedia all that pent up anger came boiling out at the man now occupying the manager’s chair (remember the only reason we were even playing that qualifying game was because of what happened at Fir Park the previous season). Some people just never got over that result.

Others (Celtic fans would you believe) actually bring up Gordon Strachan’s contempt for the media as a negative. For me it was always a huge plus mark. I was once confronted by a Celtic supporter in March ‘08 who railed against Strachan. He wasn’t happy with the way the team was playing, but mainly he disliked the way our manager treated the press. He went on to tell me that Strachan had been very rude to Forbes McFall (a season book holder at Celtic oddly enough) the previous Friday at the press conference. McFall had asked after Tommy Burns and Strachan had bitten his head off. This, I was told, was not the calibre of man we wanted as Celtic manager. It subsequently turned out that Celtic had expressly told the media not to ask about TB because his health was not good. Knowing that, you decide who lacked the class and who treated the press exactly how they should be treated.

Of course Artmedia was a hell of a way to start your time with any club, far less Celtic. A record European defeat in the kind of game that two years previously (when again we has surrendered the league to a Rangers team that shouldn’t have got a sniff never mind a treble) we would win 3 or 4 nil.

That was the night I really felt fate had turned against us. Artmedia had five shots on goal and every one went in (that set piece from the corner will never again be repeated - spawny doesn’t even remotely cover it), while our efforts on goal were best summed up by the infamous Aiden McGeady miss from no yards. Losing Chris Sutton to injury only minutes in to the game didn’t help either.

Better yet we followed that with our opening league fixture - at Fir Park, scene of the last league game and total meltdown of course (that fixtures ‘computer’ has got a cracking sense of humour).

3-1 up at the interval, the players conspired to find themselves 4-3 down with a minute to go, Craig Beattie eventually salvaging a point.

The next Wednesday Artmedia came to town. They left having qualified for the next round despite a 4-0 thrashing. It was the biggest defeat they suffered in Europe that season. Eventually they would qualify for the group stages, meet Rangers twice and get two draws. Even Inter Milan couldn’t knock 4 past them. Like I said, the defeat to them was a hand of fate sketch.

At the time it was murder, but WGS said at the end of the season that it been a blessing in disguise for him (presumably a very expensive, painful disguise). Without the pressure of midweek fixtures, all through the autumn he was able to actually do some coaching as opposed to always focusing on the next game 3 days away and that helped build the team quicker than he might have expected.

Looking at the results it’s hard to argue. After the dodgy start to the league season we got Naka into the team. We then had the Stuart Dougal show at Ibrox. (red card for the first foul committed by a Celtic player and go on from there. Hell, he was still sending off Celtic players as he went down the tunnel after the match!)

But from that point on Celtic started to look better. A tricky game at East End Park was basically the first time we got to see a Strachan team with most of the O’Neill bits removed and the result was a 4-0 victory. Zurawski and Naka got their first goals and Boruc even saved a penalty.

By the time November came round Celtic were sitting top of the league, followed by Hearts. Rangers had all but collapsed under McLeish with the pressure of European games. Their luck didn’t hold as they drew us at Celtic Park in the League Cup and they suffered a complete eclipse, 2-0 barely touching on how superior the Hoops were.

10 days later they returned and were further humiliated 3-0. Their league campaign was over .

The championship was decided in a fantastic game at Tynecastle on New Year’s Day 2006. Celtic had started brightly, Petrov heading over from four yards out after only a couple of minutes, but after 20 minutes we were 2-0 down and looking shaky. We managed to get to half time without losing any more goals but the team didn’t look like getting back into the match. At the start of the game we had been four points ahead and a win for the home team would see the gap close to just one.

At halftime Alan Thompson was taken off, Maloney coming on as his replacement and with 30 minutes to go WGS made a forced substitution; Petrov was injured and was replaced by Pearson. This turned the game.

Almost immediately Pearson scored, Hearts panicked and two almost identical goals from McManus in the last three minutes won the game.

Typically we managed to go from this high to another low in the space of a week as we played our third round Scottish Cup game against Clyde and managed to get out on the end of only a 2-1 defeat (it was actually much worse than that, Clyde had at least one goal wrongly chalked off).

That was the day Roy Keane made his debut. Rumour had it he was signed at the insistence of Dermot Desmond, but given that WGS had walked away from his post at Southampton when the chairman started sticking his oar in I doubt it.

Also making his first, and last, appearance that day was Du Wei, the Chinese centre half WGS had brought over the previous summer. His arrival, coupled with some others that didn’t work out (Virgo in particular at £1.25m), helped develop a new media thread that the manger of Celtic wasn’t any good in the transfer market.

Well, after four seasons let’s see: in the good column we have Naka, Boruc, Zurawski (his goals in the first season alone see to that), Caldwell, JVoH (see Zurawski), Hartley, McDonald, Brown, Hinkel, Robson; in the average we have the likes of Wilson, Keane, Pressley, Naylor; in the disappointing/insert own adjective here column we have Virgo, Gravesen, Jarosik, Mark Brown and Riordan (Donati would have appeared in this column, but it’s right after our win in Moscow and there could be a player lurking in there yet).

The problem is obviously that most of those players arrived with a good bit of fanfare and certainly in the cases of Gravesen and Jarosik cost a hell of a lot of money. But on balance I would say his transfer dealings brought in more good than bad, and even the bad ones tended to do useful things now and again – Gravesen scored a couple against the hun, Jarosik scored some vital goals and even Virgo left for some money.

The first trophy won under WGS was the league cup of 2006, a 3-0 win against Dunfermline. The scorers that day kind of reflected the first season perfectly. Zurawski was the new guy with the number 7 shirt and the burden of scoring goals on him, Maloney was the youth product that Martin O’Neill hadn’t even mentioned to his successor and Dion Dublin was the stop gap brought in fill out the numbers.

The championship was won a few weeks later (it was actually won in record time) with a 1-0 win against our nearest rivals – Hearts, MON stalwart John Hartson, in his last season with us, scoring the goal.

That close season the Celtic Park revolving door went into overdrive as a startling number of players whizzed in and out. One of Gordon Strachan’s regrets, as expressed to the 2007 AGM, was that he hadn’t managed to have a settled team from one season to the next. Before the transfer window closed Varga, Hartson, Dublin, Wallace, Camara, Keane and most importantly Petrov all left. Add to that list Chris Sutton who had departed during the previous window and you can see that the rebuild job in ‘06 was almost as big an undertaking as ‘05. In came Caldwell on a free from Hibs, Gravesen for big money from Real Madrid, JVoH for big money from PSV Eindhoven, Naylor from Wolves and also from Wolves former hun Kenny Miller, not a player renowned for scoring a huge amount of goals.

Facing this Celtic team was a Rangers squad led by new manager Paul Le Guen, the hottest coaching property in Europe, a man who had turned down the biggest jobs on the Continent to try and wrest the SPL title back from us.

It all went hilariously, disastrously, marvelously wrong for PLG and Murray’s lickspittles in the media.

Almost from the outset it was doomed as Rangers bought a gaggle of players from the European super team of Austria Vienna – the second biggest team in Vienna no less. By the time January came round the league was over and Le Guen was replaced by a man who walked away from his country and his contract with his national association to widespread media delight.

Also by that time Celtic had managed to find the promised land of the last 16 in the Champions League, although typically we had done it the hard way. While our away form was again tripping us up, our home form was spectacular: a solid 1-0 win over Copenhagen had been followed with a rip-roaring 3-0 demolition of Benfica (possibly the best performance we ever gave under WGS) and of course the night Naka and Artur shot down Man United (the European signature game of WGS’s time in charge).

Heady days, and throughout it all the media would repeat the line “but the Celtic support don’t really like him” over and over again, as if trying to convince themselves that not only was it true (which it wasn’t), but also that it would have some material impact on the league table (it didn’t). In a moment of panic Darryl Broadfoot even penned a ‘Strachan must go – he can’t take the club any further’ article!

Eventually Milan and a referee too scared to give a penalty against the home side at the San Siro would send us out of the top competition, but Milan couldn’t score against us in 180 minutes of football, should have been on the end of at least one penalty in the second leg and even though they went on to lift the trophy they didn’t have a harder game for the rest of the tournament.

That game against the Rossoneri basically saw the end of the entertainment that season. We never really recovered from going out of the Champions League, although we still managed to close out the SPL, thanks to Naka’s last minute free-kick at Killie and sealed the double with a dour win over Dunfermline in the cup final.

Two seasons, back-to-back titles, four trophies and successful qualification out of the champions league group stages. Good work in my book. But you could argue that already we were on the down slope of this reign. The performances after Milan were turgid, the league had been won with games to spare, but we couldn’t see the end of it quick enough because we weren’t playing well, and to top it all we had lost badly to Rangers twice. The press were confident that in the next season the natural order as they saw it would be restored.

Gordon Strachan’s third season finished in triumph with a seven game run that saw Celtic beat Rangers twice and ultimately lift the league title for a third consecutive year. But long before that run of consecutive victories began there were many who were calling for the manager to go and who had good reason for doing so.

On the face of it we had a better squad than them, we weren’t looking to off load players, we could afford to buy decent players, we weren’t crippled by debt, we had again proved our worth in Europe by qualifying for the last 16 of the Champions League and yet we were allowing them to compete with us. Worse, we were throwing away games that should have been won (last minute penalty at Hearts, losing from 2-0 up at Inverness, the run of home draws during December 07).

This wasn’t good enough. But just as the noose seemed to be tightening WGS managed to galvanise his squad into a run of wins that has now taken its place in the legendary feats of the club (4-1, 2-1, 1-0, 3-2, 2-1, 2-0, 1-0).

Critics will doubtless say that the team that eventually won the championship in 2007 fell into the manager’s lap only because injury and suspension forced his hand, but the fact is we still went out and won those games. Whether they were won in style or won through sheer grit, they were still won.

Of course prior to the final league game of the season we had the tragedy of Tommy Burns’ untimely death and the manager giving a press conference in tears as he talked about his colleague and friend. The following Thursday Gordon Strachan became the first manager since Big Jock to do three-in-a-row. He had succeeded where Billy McNeill and Martin O’Neill had both failed and he celebrated with a huge huddle involving all the players and back room staff - then he had a mug of tea on the Tannadice pitch.

It all looked set for four. Although we lost the first derby match we then went on a 12 game winning run, going seven points clear. The team lost its way a bit on the back of a disastrous European campaign, failing to even make the UEFA cup, but a win at Ibrox in December re-established the seven point gap.

In our next game we had the chance to make it 10 (albeit they had a game in hand) and we were 2-0 up after 60 minutes at home to Dundee United. Yet we could only draw. The gap narrowed and only ever got smaller after that.

Celtic did manage one last trophy under Gordon strachan, a landmark win at that with our first cup final win over Rangers in 20 years. But even that didn’t give us the spur we thought it would. By the end of the season the team looked as jaded as we had during the last days of Martin O’Neill’s reign.

Two 0-0 draws in the last two league games of the season, despite still having it all to play for, said it all.

And so WGS resigned, coming back to address the fans before the Tommy Burns game and leaving to a warm round of applause from a crowd that had seen enough of the teams he had put on the pitch but wise enough to appreciate the six trophies he had won for us.

We wish him all the best for the future and can assure him that he will always be welcome back at Celtic Park.