‘The Winds of Change – Managing Celtic FC 1991-2005’ by Alex Gordon
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Dickens may have been born more than a century before in Portsmouth but his famous introduction neatly captures the chaos and contradictions of one of the most tumultuous periods in Celtic’s history. This latest offering from CQN Books is a fascinating review of that incredible era when eight different managers led our club from 1991 to 2005. Describing the period as akin to a rollercoaster ride doesn’t quite cover the sheer drops and great highs experienced by the support during those 14 seasons.
Starting with the Liam Brady era through to Martin O’Neill’s incredible five seasons in the hot seat, sufficient time has now passed to properly re-evaluate how Celtic succumbed to mediocrity and almost went into administration through to the club’s rebuilding under Fergus McCann, the stopping of ‘the Ten’ and domestic dominance (and European advances) under our most successful manager since Jock Stein.
The author is Alex Gordon, a former Sports Editor of the Sunday Mail and this is probably the best of the books I’ve read by him – he’s written almost a dozen Celtic tomes in recent years. He’s moved a little out of his comfort zone and away from straight biographies with this effort and the book benefits from the improved research undertaken. It is also a natural follow-on from his last book which covered the time that Billy McNeill and Davie Hay were in charge at Celtic Park. It is quite a sweep of Celtic history contained in those 14 years including many whose names you’d wished you’d never heard of: Terry Cassidy, Wayne Biggins, Gary Gillespie and Neuchatel Xamax among others. Yet the author covers all this ground well and in absorbing detail.
He had some fairly intimate knowledge of some of the main characters – being a near-confidante of Liam Brady and party to the transfer saga that brought Pat McGinlay to Celtic Park, for example. The desperate days of Brady’s time in charge of the club are subject to (painful) scrutiny and one significant theme starts to emerge early – the extent to which Celtic were outspent by Rangers. Of course, this was well known at the time but in light of what we all now know about how Rangers were being funded – and how some of their players were being paid latterly – it is almost worth enduring re-living those years to get a sense of how our club was being shafted. For example, in Brady’s tenure Walter Smith spent more on one player (£4 million for the Barlinnie resident Duncan Ferguson) than Brady spent on all of his Celtic signings. Of course, there were many failings within Celtic Park at the time on and off the field – the author memorably describing Gary Gillespie being out-muscled by Mark Hateley as like watching “a battering ram take on a marshmallow” – but there is now a tinge of near-corruption about how Scottish football and its media were being stage-managed at the time. (The book was published just after the Court of Session judgment in the Rangers ‘big tax case’ which has led to widespread calls for some of the old Ibrox club’s titles to be stripped from it.)
The signing of 33 year-old Wayne Biggins tells you everything you need to know about Lou Macari’s short and hellish eight-month reign as Celtic manager – but this book states that as well as being exchanged for Andy Payton (who at least scored in his time in the Hoops) our club also parted with £100,000 to land Biggins. That, of course, is nothing like the £5 million urinated against a Brazilian toilet on Rafael Scheidt or the £5.75 million gifted to West Ham for Eyal Berkovic in the ill-fated Barnes-Dalglish era but at a time when the club barely had a pot to piss in it was almost a criminal misuse of funds. Things didn’t improve initially during Tommy Burns’ first season as Celtic manager especially with all home games being played at Hampden but in the aftermath of the McCann takeover much of the available funds was diverting on rebuilding Celtic Park. Yet when Tommy was able to put his stamp on the squad – and bring in the divergent but considerable talents of Thom, Van Hooijdonk, di Canio and Cadette – the quality of the football on display certainly lifted our hearts. The book points out that during season 1996-7 Celtic attracted an average of 1,000 more fans than Rangers per game – but of course the failure to take advantage of the surprisingly high number of slip-ups by Walter Smith’s team that season denied Celtic the title.
Wayne ‘Biggles’ Biggins in a Celtic shirt – beware the laxative effect of this image
It was left to the Dutchman Wim Jansen to lead the charge against 10-in-a-row and this one-season wonder remains a firm favourite in the hearts of the Celtic support. There is a comic re-telling of the occasion when Hugh Keevins proudly proclaimed at a Celtic Park press conference that the new manager was Guus Hiddink – as Wim, who had of course played in two World Cup Finals in the 1970s, stood in front of the assembled press pack. At least if he didn’t know who Wim was he should at least have been able to recognise Hiddink. It was clear that someone in the club was enjoying the humiliation of Keevins – and his resentment still simmers on many years later.
Keevins’ eye for a player was there for all to see when the next Celtic manager revealed his star signing: “I don’t know what I find more laughable; the fact that Celtic cannot find £500,000 from their biscuit tin to sign a proven talent like John Spencer, or the fact that they then spent £300,000 on one of Dr. Jo’s old pals, the unknown Lubomir Moravcik.” Lubo of course went on to light up Celtic Park with his often sensational skills as Keevins’ reputation suffered further (if that’s possible) yet the man who signed him – Dr Josef Venglos – was undoubtedly handicapped by the money spent by the then Rangers’ manager, Dick Advocaat. While Dr Jo spent £6.35 million in his single season on Lubo, Viduka, Mjallby and Riseth, ‘The Little General’ with the toupee had £30 million more than that to spend in the same time-span. There was a reason why the League challenge at the time often felt like a handicap race . . .
Although I’d prefer to skip over the Barnes-Dalglish calamity at the club it would be wrong not to highlight the genuine optimism that abounded at Celtic Park at the start of that season 1999-2000. We of course still had Henrik and the bones of a good team which is why for an August home game against St Johnstone an incredible 60,253 fans turned up! It is almost inconceivable to think of such a crowd in a run-of-the-mill domestic encounter in the present climate at Celtic – but one can dream of hitting those attendance heights again.
We all love a happy ending and that is what Martin O’Neill really represented for Celtic – the burying of some truly awful memories and experiences with an incredible Treble in his debut season. It was in Europe where he really turned things around for us, giving us a team to be proud of who would go out and stand up to the biggest names in the continent. The book recalls O’Neill’s comment in a TV interview in the aftermath of Bayern Munich coming to Celtic Park in the Champions League and celebrating a goal-less draw: “They’re taking a lap of honour in front of their fans.” We of course had Seville but crucially we had three league titles – with the other two being lost by a point and a goal respectively. When, at the players’ insistence he went up to lift the Scottish Cup in his farewell game in charge, it was the 7th trophy of his 5 years. Yet what the Kilrea man brought to Celtic could never be measured in silverware alone. He helped us win our respect back.
This was an engrossing read and the first whole-hearted attempt to put these incredible events in the club’s history into a proper context. We’re now a decade on from when we marched with O’Neill and it’s important that we take the time to consider how far we’ve come – and in some ways regressed – as a club and a support. Alex Gordon’s book captures the drama of the period perfectly, largely from a fan’s perspective but with occasional professional insights as a journalist who knows his way around Scotland’s rat pack.
It’s an exhilarating journey to re-live – one we survived before going on to thrive.
The Shamrock rating: 7/10
The book is currently available direct from the CQN Bookstore at the reduced price of £13.99