At first glance, the Celtic career of Tony Cascarno could be easily summed up in one grammatically bad sentence. A poor signing by a poor manager during one of the poorest periods in the annals of Celtic FC.
Anthony Guy Cascarino arrived at Celtic Park in July 1991 in a blaze of indifference. He was the first signing of our new, untried manager Liam Brady (Cesar had just departed for the second time). The mystery for me surrounds how Brady persuaded Jack McGinn to prise open the infamous biscuit tin and spend a club record £1.1 million on this certified dud.
Firstly, Brady—a world renowned midfielder himself—was dedicated to playing football on the grass. His principles were such that it led to many a disagreement with Jack Charlton, the Irish manager at the time, over Charlton’s cherished long-ball approach. Cascarino was an integral part of Charlton’s favoured strategy and it seems strange that Brady broke the club record for a player far adrift from his way of thinking. Tony himself admitted that he did not enjoy ‘a low ball played across his body.’ A slightly unsettling admission for a striker.
Secondly, up until 1989 Liam Brady had been Cascarino’s agent. If they Celtic support knew they’d been sold a pup, surely manager Brady knew this also? What had he seen in Cascarino to suggest he’d be anything other than an abject failure?
‘One Cascarino, There’s Only One Cascarino’
Tony had arrived at Celtic from Aston Villa a failure. Signed by Graham Taylor for £1m in March 1990 as they pursued Liverpool for the title, he was brought in to bolster the attack with seven games to go. He didn’t score once in those seven games and they finished 2nd. After playing an extra’s part in Italia ‘90 he returned to Villa and chalked up an underwhelming 9 goals in 36 appearances in season 90-91. Not exactly McGrory-esque form but it had Brady all a quiver and Tony left Villa Park with Dr Jo Venglos (then Villa manager) quietly munching on Brady’s severed hand.
On 10th August 1991 Cascarino made his league debut at Tannadice in a thrilling 4-3 victory for Celtic. He was not among the scorers. The man himself had no doubt he’d be a Celtic scoring sensation. As he later admitted in his award-winning and painfully confessional autobiography, ‘Full Time’: “And why not? Celtic after all was an Irish club and I was an Irish star. The fans would appreciate me, the league was a joke, and my friend and agent Liam Brady had just been appointed manager. How could I go wrong?”
With a winning attitude like that, how indeed . . . and almost two months after making his debut he still hadn’t scored in the ‘joke’ league. His former agent had benched him, the Jungle was getting restless, the Celtic board were on collective suicide watch as their record £1.1 million investment floundered . . .
“I’d walk a million miles for one of your goals”
Saturday 5 October 1991 was a glorious autumn day. Celtic Park was packed to watch the league game with Hearts. Fans in the Jungle strained under the glare of the bright sunshine to watch the action and they were not disappointed. Celtic took an early lead only to be pegged back as a result of some calamitous defending. The lead was regained before half time through a Charlie Nick penalty and all appeared well again.
Cascarino didn’t enter the fray until well into the 2nd half, coming on for Nicholas and within minutes caused uproar on 2 fronts. A quick breakaway found Tommy Coyne in acres of space. As he raced towards the Hearts goal he saw Cascarino unmarked to his right. With the whole ground awaiting the ripple of the net Coyne squared the ball to his Irish team-mate. It was that ‘low ball played across his body’ he didn’t favour and with all the grace of a gravedigger Cascarino swung his huge right foot at it – and dislodged a sod of earth similar to the one Michael Davitt had placed in the centre circle almost 100 years earlier.
Time stood still. Everyone leaned forward and there was a large intake of breath. With the perfect view I had from the centre of the Jungle, I watched the ball roll slowly towards the outside of the left hand post. At the very last moment it swerved inwards and collapsed exhausted in the net. There was uproar all round the ground. He’d done it! He’d finally done it – and in the most comical of circumstances. Even supporters like myself who already considered him a dead man walking couldn’t help but feel joy for this big goon. Every player except Bonnar was on top of him in celebration. The whole ground wanted to get on top of him!
With the millstone finally loosened from around his neck Tony decided to live a little. Minutes later, with the ground still bouncing, Hearts won a free kick just inside the Celtic half. Tony was earmarked to watch Craig Levein and as the kick was taken he turned and chinned Levein, sweet as a nut. More uproar! No need for video replay, he was off. Tony claims he was just getting his retaliation in first but you can’t help feel the reaction inside the ground to his first goal left him feeling untouchable. Celtic held on for the win and on the way home the main topic of conversation, in between fits of hysterical laughter, was what had you enjoyed more: the comical goal or the right hook?
The monkey was off Cascarino’s back yet he couldn’t believe he’d received a standing ovation for being sent off. Packie Bonnar’s subsequent penalty save and the fact ten men held on to win the game helped and he showed an understanding of how things worked off the field if not on it: “. . . it was explained to me that Hearts were the ‘Rangers’ of the two teams in Edinburgh, the fog began to clear. Slowly, I was learning the rules of engagement . . . Today’s lesson was that there was only one thing better than scoring against the ‘Huns’, and that was scoring against the Huns and then smacking one in the mouth.”
“Who put the ball in the Rangers net?”
So the corner was turned, right? Wrong. Calamitous defeats later in the month away to Falkirk (4-3) and Neuchatel Xamax (5-1 *shudders*) meant Celtic Park was in full-blown crisis mode. Out of the League Cup, out of Europe (barring a miracle) and trailing in the league to a Rangers team who’d already taken the points in the first Glasgow derby of the season. So what better place to go than to Ibrox . . .
Celtic were a goal down in the second half when Cascarino’s appearance as a sub was greeted with cheers – from the home support. Only two minutes had passed when amazingly Spackman played a passback into the path of Cascarino who delightfully slipped the ball past Goram before running off the pitch and into the outstretched arms of those occupying the front row in the Broomloan Stand. Today’s lesson: the only thing better than scoring against the diet Huns was scoring against the real Huns!
A point rescued and Cascarino, at last, was the toast of the Celtic support – and himself. He revealed some years later in the Celtic View that he went out after the game and got “absolutely rotten” in a Chinese restaurant where he kept falling asleep. Each time a waiter came to shake him to try and rouse him he would start singing “Who put the ball in the Rangers net? I did! I did!” It was Paradise Found, finally, for the big man.
Police, Camera, Action!
A few weeks passed and he celebrated returning to the starting line up for the first time in over two months with a goal against Airdrie at Broomfield. With back to goal and under pressure, he turned the defender on the edge of the box and shot past scab goalie John Martin with an excellent left foot strike. He set up Tommy Coyne for the second in a 3-0 goal win but his most memorable contribution to the game was a genuine Keystone Cops moment which resulted in a female police sergeant being taken to hospital, never to work again. Not once, but twice, the stretcher-bearers slipped and dropped the injured officer on the wet surface while carrying her to a waiting ambulance, making her back injury worse.
In a subsequent damages action in the Court of Session the judge outlined how her police career had come a cropper at the hands of Cascarino: “While she was standing with her back to the pitch, watching that disturbance unfold, a Celtic player, as can be seen on the film, named Cascarino, in endeavouring to control the ball, departed the pitch at a fast rate of speed, and cannoned into the back of the pursuer (sergeant) with such force that she was propelled from her standing position at the pitchside edge of the track right across it and into the barrier at the bottom of the enclosure.”
The police sergeant was one of many in Scotland who would look back in anger (and no little pain) at Cascarino’s time north of the border.
“Let’s All Laugh at Chelsea . . .”
The next seven games yielded an impressive total of one (yep, count ‘em) goal from Cascarino in a sequence which included a New Year hangover of back-to-back defeats at home to Rangers and Hearts. He persuaded manager Brady to drop him into the reserves to help restore his confidence but the glamour of Scottish football’s backwaters wasn’t to Tony’s liking: “At Hamilton the dressing room was so small that I couldn’t stand up without bumping my head on the ceiling.”
He had lost all interest in Celtic and in his book freely admits to being delighted when not picked for a game against St. Johnstone as yet another bad performance could undermine a rumoured move to Chelsea. Celtic were interested in Tom Boyd who hadn’t settled at Stamford Bridge after moving from Motherwell. Cascarino was anxious about the protracted negotiations between Boyd and Celtic – ‘Come on, Tommy! For fuck’s sake sign the form!’ – and finally left Glasgow without shaking hands with his former agent, embarrassed that four goals – at a value of £275,000 each – was all the return he gave on Celtic’s investment. After the deal was completed at the next home game against Falkirk the Celtic fans sang ‘Let’s All Laugh at Chelsea, na-na-na-na!’ in astonishment at their purchase of the striking failure.
Cascarino bombed at Chelsea with 8 goals in 40 games before fleeing to France where his career briefly flourished at scandal-hit Marseilles – although he subsequently admitted he and his team-mates received performance-enhancing injections from Bernard Tapie’s personal physician. If only Jack McGinn’s GP had thought of that . . .
He later became a professional gambler, was accused of attempting to murder his second wife and revealed that he was never in fact eligible to play for the Republic of Ireland after all. Cascarino doesn’t do “quiet life”. He once said that “Celtic played too much football to suit my game” – at a time when the football played at Celtic Park was the worst many of us have ever seen. When he left Celtic Park for the last time, to prevent waiting paparazzi from snapping him on the walk of shame down Kerrydale Street, Cascarino wore a balaclava over his head. The only thing missing was a bag marked ’swag’ carrying his wages.
‘Don’t go mistaking paradise for that home across the road’
Bob Dylan—The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest
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