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May 2005
Rangers shock title win
O'Neill leaves Celtic
Strachan new Parkhead boss











Two decades after Alex Ferguson (along with the redoubtable Jim McLean) smashed the Old Firm duopoly in Scottish football, the Glasgow giants have paid the Old Master the biggest tribute possible. The appointment of Gordon Strachan to replace Martin O'Neill as Celtic manager means former Ferguson players will lead Scotland's two biggest clubs. Of course many of Fergie's protégés both north and south of the border are in management but placing the futures of the Old Firm in the hands of Strachan and Alex McLeish is a sign that Ferguson's influence continues to be felt in his native land just as the maestro faces his biggest challenge at Old Trafford since his faltering early years there.

Strachan's appointment was the sub-plot to a dramatic end to the Scottish domestic season in which his new club threw away a championship which had seemed secure just a few weeks ago. Perhaps it will be a lesson to the media in Scotland and to Old Firm supporters too never again to so lightly disregard the opposition.

Five points clear with four to play and all looked done and dusted for Celtic. That was the perceived 'wisdom' inside the Scottish game. No one informed Hearts and Motherwell though. The former's win at Parkhead opened up the race again and the latter's dramatic victory over Celtic in the dying minutes of the final game forced the SPL helicopter hovering over Fir Park to turn east and head for Edinburgh where a 1-0 win for Rangers was enough to bring them their fiftieth title outright.

But while it's true that it was Celtic's impersonation of Devon Loch that guaranteed success for the Ibrox club it would be churlish not to acknowledge the part played by Rangers themselves. For it took more than Celtic to lose twice to give Rangers the title, the Gers also had to win all their remaining matches after losing at home to their great rivals. It would have been easy to accept the race was over and drop points casually in the run-in.

That Rangers did not do so is a tribute to their players and manager Alex McLeish. The never-say-die spirit McLeish exhibited as a player was to the fore during those last weeks. It was an effort of which his former mentor Ferguson would have been proud.

But joy at winning the championship must be tempered by the knowledge that no matter which of the Old Firm took the prize they can never celebrate success the way others do. In London 250,000 took to the streets to celebrate Chelsea's English Premiership victory. Arsenal fans had an FA Cup to celebrate but Spurs supporters kept discreetly out of the picture while their rivals enjoyed the glory. Barcelona went wild with a 36-hour party after capturing the Spanish title. Local rivals Espanyol carried on with preparations for a match of their own while the fireworks went off all around them. And, most dramatically of all, somewhere between 500,000-1,000,000 were on the streets to welcome Liverpool's stunning success in the Champions League. Everton fans either congratulated their rivals or kept a respectful distance away from proceedings.

Yet none of this public outpouring of collective joy was experienced in Glasgow beyond the big two's own citadels. Rangers took their unexpected title to show to a hastily assembled but impressive number at Ibrox. Celtic secured the Scottish Cup in O'Neill's last game and celebrated 24 hours later in a Parkhead testimonial for Jackie McNamara.

In the streets of Glasgow a day after the title upset there were no signs whatsoever of Rangers' success. In the most fitba-daft city in Europe you would have been hard-pressed to have known any games had been played at all.

And that must be one of the saddest aspects of being an Old Firm supporter. Not just to know that tribal hatreds are so intense as to prevent your club from experiencing the acclaim heaped upon the Chelseas, Barcas and Liverpools of this world they even stop you from enjoying success as much as your oft-derided 'diddy' opposition in Scotland.

For it's only Glasgow where such sectarian division prevents a public display of triumph. Hearts and Dundee United enjoyed Scottish Cup victories in the 1990s and their open top buses progressed through the streets of Edinburgh and Dundee without threat of attack from rival fans.

For all their trophies, their medals, their glittering prizes, Old Firm supporters will never experience that elation felt by others when their club brings home a trophy. It's not just the rarity of the occasion. It's that unsurpassable emotion that comes with the knowledge that your club's success is a victory not just for a football team but also for an entire community. Hatred, bigotry and division prevents Celtic & Rangers from ever achieving this. Twenty of their titles couldn't buy the experience of one minute in 1997 as the bus bearing the Scottish Cup winners turned into Kilmarnock's John Finnie Street.

Maybe one day the Old Firm will be able to share that elation. But before they can join the 21st century they will have to leave the 17th behind.

O'Neill Departs

Martin O'Neill departs the stage, rightly, to spend more time with his seriously ill wife. Every genuine fan will wish the O'Neill family all the best at this fateful juncture in their lives and that Geraldine O'Neill is restored to good health.

All else is secondary.

Inevitably though it didn't take long for assessments of O'Neill's impact on Celtic to be made. By any standards it was impressive. He took over a moribund club, humbled by Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Cup and with just one league title in the past dozen years to their name.

A parade of previous managers - Liam Brady, Lou Macari, Tommy Burns, Wim Jansen, Jozef Venglos, John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish - had all tried and largely failed to revive the Parkhead club. Only Jansen, through winning the title in 1998 and by signing Henrik Larsson, could claim any success.

O'Neill took over a club 21 points behind Rangers and within a year had won them their first treble since 1969. Two more years and they were in a European final for the first time since 1970. And he leaves them having claimed three titles - as many inside five seasons as his predecessors had amassed in the eighteen campaigns before his arrival.

It's been said in many quarters that O'Neill was Celtic's most successful manager since Jock Stein. In terms of trophies that's not strictly correct and it's a bit of a disservice to Celtic legend Billy McNeill who, like O'Neill, won three Scottish Cups and one League Cup but who won four league titles - one more than O'Neill. True, McNeill had two stints as manager but trophies are trophies and McNeill has the edge.

Those two last day championship losses will haunt their fans for years to come. Not so much in 2003 when the fate of the flag depended on the outcome of turkey-shoots but this time round when it was a stunning and completely unexpected collapse which gave their rivals the title.

O'Neill, like another former Old Firm boss, Walter Smith, was too loyal to his players. Like Smith as he strove for ten in a row he exhorted his charges to make one further, final effort which just wasn't in them. Nor, in this final campaign did he have the talismanic touch of Larsson available to him.

But even though it's clear there will have to a massive rebuilding job done on the Celtic team as age takes its toll and others depart more willingly, O'Neill's place in the pantheon of Celtic heroes seems secure. The worst any of his sides did in the League was to finish second by a point - and if the season had ended three minutes earlier they would have been the champions.

In Europe his achievements were substantial if not quite the unalloyed glory some of his acolytes would claim. Reaching the 2003 UEFA Cup Final restored Celtic, briefly, to a level unknown for a generation. Parkhead - Barcelona's victory there apart - has been restored to a fortress but their away record in the Champions League remains appalling.

But two of the main measures of any manager's success is comparison with his predecessors and the expectations laid on his successor. And there can be no doubt O'Neill restored pride and glory to a club desperately in need of both. Of his leaving he has earned the most difficult accolade of all - that he will indeed be 'a hard act to follow.'

Strachan Arrives

Gordon Strachan will be the man trying to fill O'Neill's shoes and already difficult challenges lie ahead. The mainstays of the O'Neill era - Sutton, Thompson, Lennon and Hartson - are all approaching veteran status. New blood is desperately needed and the famed biscuit tin will need to be raided on more than one occasion if Celtic are to continue to challenge Rangers or fare any better in Europe.

Strachan is not a universally popular choice among the support and his record in the game has been subject to detraction by some. That is unfair. Strachan did well with limited resources (a fact not gone unnoticed by the Celtic board) at Coventry and Southampton. Those who point to a lack of management medals in the drawer do so unfairly. They would do well to look at the position of both Coventry and Southampton at the time of Strachan's departure and compare that with those clubs today.

The return of Strachan to Scotland will brighten up the game in general and enliven dull media discussions in particular. Any man who can answer a reporter asking for a 'quick word' with the reply “velocity” should be treasured. The wee man is fast becoming the 21st century's Bill Shankly and we can only hope that the strictures of his new job don't lead to him becoming more unwilling to speak his mind.

They may not be getting a 'Celtic-minded' manager but the Parkhead punters are getting a man dedicated to the game, a man who continued as a player till he was 40 - the oldest outfield player to appear in the English Premiership. And for all the public perception of him as being a fiery, ginger-headed, speak first think later character, Strachan is no mug.

He was wise enough to let Martin O'Neill say his goodbyes at the Scottish Cup Final and Jackie McNamara's testimonial without intrusion. He turned down a media pundit's position at the former and was hundreds of miles away from the latter, watching son Gavin play for Hartlepool in a Cardiff play-off match. Strachan v McLeish should be a contest to savour.

While it inevitably overshadowed much else, the title race finale wasn't the only event of importance at the end of the season. The battle for a UEFA Cup spot, a four-way fight to avoid a relegation and farewells from leading referees provided plenty of talking points.

With upcoming World Cup qualifiers as well, we must hope that the excitement of the past few weeks continues for just a little while longer and Scotland make sure 2004-05 goes out with a bang, not a whimper.



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