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don't look back in anger celtic in the 90s
season 95-96: part 4

December 12th 1995 was the night of Paul McStay's testimonial match against Manchester United. Alex Ferguson had publicly stated that his team wouldn't be playing any more testimonial games, but had made an exception for this exceptional player. The only bad thing about the evening was the weather; it didn't rain, it wasn't snowing and it wasn't even especially cold but there was a thick fog covering the city, so thick in fact that you could barely see from one side of the stadium to the other. If this had been a genuine fixture it would never have been played. That was a shame because the match, what we could see of it, was pretty good. United fielded basically their first eleven minus Cantona, making our eventual 3:1 win all the more enjoyable. Best goal of the night was a solo effort from Chris Hay.

The following Saturday, by way of a complete contrast, we welcomed John Lambie's Falkirk to Celtic Park. The Bairns' team featured Derek Ferguson and Le Petit Merde, so instead of Yuletide spirit they got something more in line with what Herod had in mind. Van Hooijdonk scored in first half and nothing much really happened after that. Falkirk didn't even make us nervous with a last minute attack.

And with that the league closed down, although this was no scheduled winter break. Instead, the winter closed in with a vengeance. Temperatures plummeted to a bone chilling -26c, tons of snow fell from the sky and all across the country water pipes froze and burst. It certainly made for a very pretty Christmas, as long as your heating was still working and you didn't have to go out for anything. And if you fancied a good read during this enforced break then you were spoilt for choice in the bargain bookshops of Glasgow. Not only could you pick up Dr Michael Kelly's fine tome 'Paradise Lost - The Struggle For Celtics Soul' (by Celtic's Heel) for a fraction of the original cover price, you could also sink in to 'Gascoigne The Inside Story', published list price 9.99, but available to you for just 2.99.

Pick of the publications though, as always, was the mighty Celtic View (Christmas special no less) which had a feature on who our Hooped Heroes had for their own heroes; Tosh McKinlay chose King Kenny, Tommy Burns went for Pele and Peter Grant shed some light on his career as a pro with his choice of Harpo Marx.

The cancellation of our next two scheduled fixtures meant that we next lined up against Rangers. This was almost a must win game, not because they would disappear out of sight if we lost, but more for the kudos of actually having won against them.

The first half was as even as it could be, but Celtic players started the second with their blood up. Tommy Burns had clearly got stuck into them and Rangers were on the back foot. First O'Donnell took the ball on a terrific run from the halfway line before unleashing a shot which went past everyone only to canon off the post. Then Andreas Thom had a header which Goram somehow managed to claw out just as it appeared to be crossing the line. Yet even after all that we nearly lost it. With the final kick of the ball Gascoigne crashed the ball off the bar from a free kick. The reaction of the Rangers fans at the end told its own story. They jumped about as if they just notched up a notable victory. We still trailed them in the league.

A 1:0 win against Motherwell was next - a game originally postponed due to the weather - but the Hoops made hard work it. This game bore a remarkable similarity to the Falkirk win, except that Motherwell actually pressurised us for the last 10 minutes or so, requiring Marshall to make a fine save near the end to preserve the lead. The only real surprise was that Motherwell ended the game with 11 players, but then you could probably say that about most Motherwell matches.

Starks Park Kirkcaldy was next, again a rearranged fixture, the scene of the opening game of the season and again Celtic performed admirably. The result was a fine 3:1 victory, courtesy of goals from O'Donnell, Van Hooijdonk and Collins.

The following day Fergus McCann held a press conference, one which is still referred to to this day. January 10th 1996; the launch of Bhoys Against Bigotry. Taken to its basic level this was a mission statement and a social charter outlining the club's commitment to combating bigotry. One of the underlying aims was to eradicate the view that Celtic was somehow a sectarian organisation. This initiative had been launched by McCann and his board without any pressure from the SFA, the Scottish Office or the press, although both Rangers and Celtic had been coming under increased scrutiny after a young Celtic fan was murdered in Bridgeton after the Thistle game in October. The press reaction was truly amazing. Hostile doesn't do it true justice. Paranoia is something that Celtic is often accused of, but if Rangers had launched this type of initiative first then they could well have had Sir David Murray as their chairman by now. The accolades for confronting such an issue would have streamed forth from the hacks. As it was, McCann was accused of not knowing what he was talking about, even for making the matter worse by talking about it at all.

Predictably, the Daily Record won the prize for the most ignorant, idiotic and mindless comment. Columnist Tom Brown, ranting about the burning issue of the day, asked why Celtic didn't start by dropping the 'provocative Irish 'H' from the epithet 'Bhoy'. Couldn't make it up could you? This was printed in a national newspaper! Quite what was provocative about an Irish influence (and quite frankly it's difficult to see how a single letter can be singled out and classified with a nationality) was never gone into, although the implication was this Gaelicism was a clear threat to the way of life that Tom cherished, so let's hope he never ventured to the North of Scotland, or even to the Isle of Man lest he be subjected to any Scots or Manx Gaelic (it was a pretty safe bet that he wouldn't be going to Ireland).

In the face of all this we went on what was to be possibly the sternest test of our strength so far; back to back fixtures at Pittodrie and Tynecastle. Aberdeen, managed by former Celtic hero Roy Aitken, had already won the League Cup, so they weren't a bad side. Hearts were in third place in the table, but close enough to the top two that the chase for the title could genuinely be called a three way race. Both games followed a similar pattern.

At Pittodrie we had the best of the first half, but conceded a sloppy goal from a corner (Grant and Marshall blaming each other). But we emerged for the second half with renewed power. A powerful O'Donnell run and cross down the right brought the equaliser from Collins before Thom sped away from his marker to cross for Van Hooijdonk to score a superb winner.

Tynecastle featured another fine fight back, but this was much more of struggle. John Robertson had given Hearts a half time lead with an excellently taken strike from the edge of the box. Things weren't exactly looking up when we took the field for the second half without Andreas Thom, who had been injured in the first half. Andy Walker took his place and announced his arrival by missing a gilt-edged chance early on. Still, the Bhoys (complete with provocative H) kept plugging away and with only 14 minutes left Tosh McKinlay swung in a free kick from the left. Giles Rousset in the Hearts goal missed it and Van Hooijdonk headed the ball into the middle of the goal. Six minutes later the big Dutchman became the provider, knocking a throw in to Andy Walker, who shaped to shoot, dummied, took the ball an extra yard and buried it to give us maximum points. The gap at the top of the league was cut to three points when at one stage, thanks to our fixture pile up, it had been eight.

The next weekend saw Celtic travel to Rugby Park while at Ibrox Rangers took on Hearts - first versus third. To add to the mix Rangers had gone back in to the transfer market, acquiring Dutch international striker Peter Van Vossen. Just to spice things up from a press point of view the big Dutchman had been closely linked with a move to Paradise the previous summer. The purchase of Van Vossen had all the hallmarks of a panic buy about it. Rangers had started the season with Russian striker Oleg Solenko, but he hadn't been able to make much of an impact. The preferred choice to replace the Russian had been Jardel. The big Portuguese/Brazilian striker had even been paraded at Ibrox before the crowd in the company of his wife (a most attractive woman, the hacks seemed more interested in slobbering over her over her than her husband's goalscoring exploits). But the deal to sign Jardel had fallen through and now Van Vossen was brought in. All of this was happening while Celtic were steadily gaining ground on them in the league. The Jardel deal had been a real shambles, a fiasco from start to finish, but that hadn't prevented the majority of the Scottish press from praising Rangers to the high heavens for attempting to woo such a player. Indeed when eventually the whole thing unravelled Murray was showered with sympathy by the press corps, instead of pilloried and lambasted for foolishly parading a player they hadn't actually signed.

Van Vossen's debut couldn't really have been worse; Rangers imploded, eventually losing 3:0, thanks mainly to Hearts striker Alan Johnston who scored all of his side's goals. Perfect. Celtic were now only three points behind. Except for the second time this season we could only manage to draw 0:0 at Rugby Park and once again they had been let off the hook.

Losing their points cushion at the top of the table, involved in wild goose chases for foreign players, panic buying others, losing heavily in Europe and now at home in the league - who knows what would have happened if we had drawn level with them. But we hadn't and a perfect opportunity for glory had been passed up. It felt like an omen.

AB MURDOCH

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