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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.'
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
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