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don't look back in anger celtic in the 90s
season 95-96: part 2

Following Celtic's win at Aberdeen the team travelled to sun soaked Georgia (not the US state but the former Soviet republic that was in a complete state) to play Dinamo Batumi in the Cup Winners Cup. The social climate of the place was such that the phrase 'war torn' featured in almost every newspaper piece prior to the game. Fans were advised by the Foreign Office not to travel due to safety concerns. Chic Young was being encouraged by the fans to travel for the same reason. And so it was that we all missed the opportunity to see Celtic's first away victory in Europe for nine years - and that was against Shamrock Rovers. The last decent away win was 13 years previously in Amsterdam.

Now here's one of these occasions that really makes you feel the SFA doesn't like Celtic very much. We played Batumi on the Thursday, UEFA having split the tournaments up in order to maximise TV revenue; the UEFA cup would be played on Tuesday, Champions League on Wednesday and Cup Winners Cup on Thursday. Clearly the clubs playing in the Cup Winners Cup could be at disadvantage given that their fixture would only be two days away from the next league card. The journey back wasn't exactly a shuttle trip from London, the players only returning to Glasgow in the small hours of Saturday morning having been on the move for most of the previous day, yet Celtic were obliged to play a game against Motherwell. The club had asked for, and been refused, a delay of 24 hours in order to recover from the journey.

Despite everything, it all started off quite nicely. The fact that it was the first league game in the new stadium gave everyone a lift and O'Donnell scored a cracking goal, but by the last 20 minutes it was obvious that the players were dead on their feet. They conceded an equaliser and wound up hanging on for a point. Now, of course, it's standard for teams playing on a Thursday to have their games delayed to the Sunday, but this only came in to being after it had cost us a number of points. When it came to another team (any team, not necessarily Rangers) being hampered by these circumstances the league rules were immediately altered. Infuriating to say the least, although nothing compared to what lurked just over the horizon.

After we had slain the beast from Raith in the League Cup the draw had paired us with Rangers at Celtic Park. What a chance this was. Not only could we knock them out the cup and therefore have a great chance of the trophy, we could also make them fear Celtic Park again. The feeling was that we could certainly do it.

The lead up to the game, however, was anything but smooth. Basically, John Collins had decided that this was his last season in Scotland and given that the Bosman rule had just come into force the English clubs were hovering, hoping that Celtic would cash in on the player while they still could. Whilst the player himself seemed to be playing well through it all the fans' perception of him plummeted. If he was leaving we just hoped he'd go with more than one winners medal. Tuesday seemed like a good way to ensure that.

In the event a lot hinged on the man in the middle - Jim McCluskey. Already a hate figure amongst the Celtic Park faithful thanks to his lenient (to say the least) treatment of Hurlock in the early part of the decade he was about to cement his reputation as a less than fair referee.

The game started well from our point of view. McStay was clearly charged up for it and we had the most of the play. Midway through the first half the Maestro picked up the ball and twisted away from Gasciogne who gave chase. First he gave a tug on McStay's shirt before forcing his left arm over the Celtic player's shoulder and elbowing him in the face. The referee immediately blew the whistle, awarded the free kick to Celtic and approached the Englishman. But rather than show a red card (the rule book punishment for such an infraction) he let him off with a quick word in the ear.

One player who did wind up in the ref's book was Charlie Miller. He also managed to commit another 5 to 10 fouls during the remainder of the game but remained on the park. McCoist, too, got himself involved in an incident that had nothing to do with him (even running some 25 yards to get amongst it and attempting to head butt a Celtic player). No punishment. Can you guess which three huns combined to score the only goal of the game?

As if that wasn't bad enough Goram had one of those nights where nothing was going to get past him. With any other keeper on the park McStay would have had a hat trick. To round off a thoroughly terrible evening Andreas Thom injured himself making a rash tackle and had to be stretchered off. It was hard to take, especially just as we were beginning to look like a team again. Final score, 1:0 to Rangers.

Before the next league game the Collins saga really blew up. Middlesborough were the most interested team (it would have been a real blow to the ego if he'd gone there) but they were keeping their powder dry for now. Tommy Burns, on the other hand, was not so patient. Infuriated by what he considered to be a media campaign orchestrated by Collins' agent he dropped him for the trip to Hearts. Tynecastle hadn't exactly been a happy hunting ground for us in recent seasons ( then again where had?) but we seemed to be making life especially difficult for ourselves with Collins dropped and Pierre and Thom out injured. In place of these players came Brian McLaughlin, Chris Hay and Andy Walker.

This game again illustrated how far we had come since the previous season as we took Hearts to bits. We were two ahead within 10 minutes, both goals coming from an unlikely source in the tiny shape of wee Brian McLaughlin. First he mopped up after the keeper had failed to hold a McStay shot from the edge of the box and then scored a real beauty. Gathering the ball at the halfway line he ran straight through the Hearts defence, even nutmegging Dave McPherson before clipping the ball over the goalie. In the second half Walker added another two and real gubbing had been handed out. Literally as well, as Peter Grant was sent off for throwing a punch instead of a point.

Following the game TB gave an interview to Gerry McNee explaining his position on the John Collins situation; typically it was full of passion for the club and a complete disbelief that someone could want to play elsewhere.

The second round of our European tie with Dinamo Batumi was an enjoyable experience. Four goals were slotted past the Georgians as we went through 7:2 on aggregate, with the stars of the show being Simon Donnelly (who scored a fabulous long range effort) and Brian McLaughlin (who set up Thom for the opening two goals). It set us up nicely for the weekend when we had the chance for revenge on Rangers at Celtic Park.

But this time we had no complaints as we meekly went down 2:0. Hell, we even let Alec Clelland score. Gasbag scored the second.

Despondency about that result quickly evaporated after the draw for the next round of the Cup Winners Cup. We were drawn against Paris Saint Germain, at that time one the form teams in Europe. In the previous two seasons they had reached the semi final of both the UEFA Cup and the Champions League. They had lost two of their top players (Ginola we've already discussed and George Weah who joined AC Milan), but they were still a formidable outfit.

Nationally the Scottish game was getting a lot of coverage, not just thanks to the Sky deal. The arrival of Gasbag across the way had turned the spotlight to the perceived sectarian divide in Glasgow (can't be too much of a divide really; Celtic had supporters from all faiths and colours. Rangers... well what can you say?). Channel 4's take on the matter was a documentary called 'Football, Faith and Flutes'. It wasn't really designed to alter anyone's preconceived ideas about Glasgow and its residents who watch either of the big two. The Celtic fan featured was such a committed supporter that he watched the games on Sky in his local pub and spouted out absurdities like 'I'm Catholic, I have to hate Protestants,' while the featured hun had a home made tattoo on his inside lip and simply regurgitated things he'd obviously heard in his local lodge. Cutting edge journalism it wasn't.

The managerial response to the Rangers defeat was positive at least; Jackie McNamara Jnr. was bought from Dunfermline for 650,000, a fabulous piece of business. He immediately slotted in a right back and looked as though he'd been a Celtic player for years. In particular he struck up a great partnership with Simon Donnelly, who had been playing on the right hand side of midfield now that Thom and Pierre had taken the front two positions. Jackie made his debut at Brockville (oh the glamour of the top division), but he wasn't the star of the show on the night. That honour went to John Hughes, returning for the first time to the ground where he made his name. Typically he scored the only goal of the game to win a hard fought three points.

The following Saturday we finally won a Glasgow derby, although it was only against Thistle and it wasn't exactly an entirely convincing 2:1 win. Pierre scored the first after neat play from Donnelly and Collins wrapped up the game with a nice free-kick, although Thistle did cause some tension by scoring just before the end. Truth be told it could have been pretty grim if Thistle's new Liverpudlian forward Rod McDonald hadn't been the worst finisher since Jim Melrose. Twice he was left with only the goalie to beat, twice the wee boys of Barrowfield had a nice shiny ball to play with.

Rod (who had already been 'outed' as a Celtic supporter in the press when it was revealed that King Kenny had been his hero as a kid so naturally he preferred Celtic) would go on to book his own place in football history that season when Thistle took on Rangers at Firhill; as the players made their way into the dressing room Rod, as was his wont, crossed himself as he left the pitch. So far so normal, happens in most countries week in week out. However, a hun in the crowd saw this and went mental (so far so normal) complaining to a policeman. And here's where it gets really wacky. The Policeman actually takes this loony seriously and goes to the referee's room with this complaint. The referee then calls McDonald into the dressing room and awards him a yellow card! Not only that but in the second half Rod fouls Gasbag, gets a second yellow and hence a red, to the confusion of everyone in the crowd (except the Neanderthal who started the whole thing). Now whenever there was an incident of some kind at a football game in Scotland that wasn't too nice, crowd trouble that kind of thing, the pundits would bemoan the fact that this event would be broadcast all over the world and bring shame on to the game. Ordinarily of course they are talking complete cobblers, (do the good people of Lima really care if there was a fight at Pitoddrie?) but you'd better believe that the world's press was most interested in the backwards wee country at the northern end of Europe where the refs book you for crossing yourself and the national association sides with the ref. That did catch the eye of the footballing world. Couldn't make it up could you? Of course it goes without saying that when Rod was dismissed the game was tied 1:1 and Rangers ran out 2:1 winners against the ten Thistle men who were sure to keep their superstitions and rituals well to themselves from then on. The MIB on that shameful occasion was Jim McGilvray. He retired shortly afterwards on the pretext that SFA regulations were cramping his style, but later admitted to the Scottish Sun that Gasbag should indeed have been sent from the field that afternoon but he didn't want to be the first to do it and thereby 'start a riot'. Celtic's paranoia right enough!

Back at Celtic Park we were about to royally shoot ourselves in the foot against Hibs. We murdered them. A team has rarely been so outplayed. They barely touched the ball. Except, of course, on the two occasions when they scored (they had a grand total of three shots during the entire game). It was galling. Celtic's football couldn't be faulted but rather than play a final pass we seemed to prefer making another pretty passing pattern.

With Rangers sitting on top of the league and PSG looming large on the horizon we had to start getting a bit more clinical.


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