Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The decade's greatest footballing moments (1) - Super Caley Go Ballistic

I'm on annual leave for the next fortnight, so I intend to use the time in between studying to look back at the events that had the most impact on the (not so) beautiful game during the noughties. I like the idea of coming up with ten, though only time will tell if I can. Some will be focused on Scotland, while some will be in English or European club football, and some will be international.

None, you'll be reassured to hear, will be focused on my own endeavours on Inverness' all weather pitch on a Monday night...though if anyone would like to hear more about my magnificent hat-trick yesterday evening, feel free to ask.

The first of the great moments of the decade is, shall we say, rather close to my heart. Not least because, when I was in New Zealand in 2006 and I mentioned I was from Inverness, all the kiwis (none of whom had any interest at all in football) immediately brought up one thing.

Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic Are Atrocious.

Yes, I'm an Inverness fan, so obviously I am massively biased over this. But it is not unreasonable to suggest that this match, and it's aftermath, shaped the future of Scottish football for years to come. On February 8th 2000, Inverness, spending their first season in the first division, travelled to play Celtic at Celtic Park on a Wednesday night in the third round of the Scottish Cup. The match was originally to be played ten days earlier, but was postponed after a piece of guttering on the roof of one of the stands came loose, becoming a potential hazard.

Caley Thistle had only existed for six years. Initially a squad made up mostly of former Inverness Caledonian players, the club had been dragged forward by Steve Paterson, an Elgin-born social worker and former Manchester United prodigy who had been appointed as manager in 1995. Paterson is now often remembered less for his achievements at Inverness and, prior to that, in the Highland League, and more for his subsequent failures at Aberdeen and well documented drink and gambling problems. But under the direction of "Pele" (his nickname tells you just how well regarded he was as a player before injuries befell him), Inverness won two promotions in three years, with a squad containing the best of the Highland League and a few other players lured up from the central belt. Barely any of the playing staff from the club's formation remained.

One of the survivors was the goalkeeper Jim Calder, a bricklayer by trade who had past experience of a cup-tie with Celtic, for Calder was the only Inverness Thistle player to join the merged club in 1994. Thistle had played the Bhoys in the cup in 1987, and Calder had sat on the bench...as an outfield player. Only later on he had been converted into a keeper, after damaging a knee ligament. He was loved in the Highlands mostly for his willingness to swing on the crossbar and dribble round opposing forwards, rather than for his ability. In February 2000, Calder was five months shy of his fortieth birthday.

Another player from the pre-Caley Thistle days was Charlie Christie, and he had even stronger links with Celtic, having played for them in his younger days. As a striker, Christie had spent two years scoring goals for Celtic reserves, but had chosen to return to his native Inverness in 1989 after failing to break into the first team, instead choosing to combine part-time football with a role in Inverness Caledonian's commercial department (he went on to take a similar role with ICT). Christie was a month short of 33, and over the years had converted from a forward into an intelligent holding midfielder critical to Paterson's attack-minded, short passing strategy. Both Calder and Christie would start this match, part of a side which, after a slow start to the season, were now comfortably in mid-table with little fear of relegation.

It could not have been a greater contrast to Celtic. Looking back, it's astonishing to think of the hype surrounding the club in the summer of 1999. Just 12 months before, they had broken Rangers' ten-in-a-row dreams by nicking the title, only to immediately dismiss their eccentric Dutch manager, Wim Jansen. His replacement, the cerebral Czech Jozef Venglos, was likeable
but inadequate, and Celtic once more finished a distant second in the table, with all the progress made under Jansen flushed down the toilet. So, that summer, Celtic brought back their prodigal son, Kenny Dalglish, to become Director of Football, and on his recommendation they appointed John Barnes, Liverpool and England legend, as Head Coach.

In hindsight, Barnes might actually be the worst football manager ever. Certainly, his spell at Celtic destroyed his reputation to the point where he returned to club management only in the summer of 2009, when appointed by Tranmere Rovers. He lasted only a few months before being dismissed again. But in 1999, Barnes was sold to the fans and the media as the Bright Young Thing, a man with revolutionary tactical ideas who would lead Celtic back to the glory days of the 1960s. Sadly, Barnes' ideas were revolutionary simply because they were so daft that no other manager had ever thought of them. Effectively a 2-2-2-2-2 formation, with two wing-backs instead of full backs and four players pretty much with no defensive responsibility, Celtic were easily exposed when they didn't have the ball, and were so vulnerable defensively that, following defeat at Motherwell, he eventually agreed to use a more orthodox 3-5-2 after being criticized by his team.

Nor did he help himself with his signing policy. After years of prudence (not least because they nearly went bust in 1994), Celtic finally freed up some transfer money - which Barnes spent on Eyal Berkovic, the talented but mercurial, and ultimately lazy, Israeli, and on an obscure Brazilian defender who was part-wonderfully, part-unfortunately, called Rafael Felipe Scheidt. Rafael (as the club called him) cost 5 million pounds. He went on to play only three games for Celtic. To cap it all, Barnes had simply no luck; two months into the season, Henrik Larsson suffered an awful leg break that ended his season and left the club without their most talented (and least egotistical) star.

By February, pressure was beginning to grow. A god run of form pre-xmas ended with an Old Firm draw at Celtic Park, and defeat the previous Saturday at Celtic Park to Hearts left Rangers ten points clear at the top of the table. Celtic badly needed the confidence boost of a comfortable, high-scoring win against Inverness. The next 90 minutes were to be defining moments in the history of both clubs.

Caley showed none of the nervousness expected of underdogs. They came out fighting and flying, clearly taking Celtic aback. The opening goal should have been considered a shock, but Caley had been so bright in the first 15 minutes it felt like they deserved it; Barry Wilson stole in front of his marker to glance a header past Jonathan Gould in the Celtic goal. Wilson was a winger by trade, playing as a forward because of injuries. Certainly he was not in the slightest bit renowned for his heading ability.

Order appeared to be quickly restored, however, as the scores were level within 90 seconds. It was the one quality move Celtic would produce all night, a flowing attack which ended with Mark Burchill lashing a left foot shot past Calder. It's hard to believe now, but back then, of course, Burchill was supposed to be "Scotland's Michael Owen". In the decade since he has wandered round England's lower leagues, had a spell with Dunfermline and is now a backup at Kilmarnock.

Celtic had their chances to go in front, with Mark Viduka, the burly Ozzie forward who went on to greater things at Leeds and Middlesbrough, denied by a goal-line clearance. But so did Caley, with Gould producing an outstanding stop to block a header from Mike Teasdale, another Highland League journeyman. And the wee team from the Highlands were back in front after 25 minutes,albeit in fortuitous circumstances. Big centre-back Bobby Mann got his bonce to a corner kick, and Lubomir Moravcik stuck out a boot and deflected the ball past his own keeper. And, frankly, it was a deserved lead which the visitors held on to with fair ease till halftime.

It was, by all accounts, the events in the Celtic dressing room at halftime which did for Barnes, when he got into a shouting match with Viduka which led to the striker's substitution for the veteran (translation for old and past-it) England forward Ian Wright. Instead of coming out all guns blazing, the home side still looked a mess at the start of the second half, and ICT took quick advantage. A glorious passing move ended with Wilson racing into the box, and he was shoved over by Regi Blinker for a stonewall penalty. Up stepped midfielder Paul Sheerin, who did his best to replicate the frosty temperature of a certain vegetable, stroking the ball into the net and promptly running to the away support like a rabid maniac.

And that, as they say, was that, as Celtic simply gave in. The aforementioned Charlie Christie was man of the match, commanding the centre of the pitch against four international midfielders in green-and-white. Radio Scotland, who had instead chosen Aberdeen-St. Mirren as their main game, finally realized with 20 minutes to go that history was on the cards, and some random journalist was pressganged into providing commentary on the last quarter of the match. But there was never any doubt about the result, further immortalized by THAT headline in The Sun.

Ironically, the result might have been the best thing that ever happened to Celtic. Barnes was sacked within 24 hours. Dalglish took over coaching duties to the end of the season, when he was replaced by Martin O'Neill. O'Neill ultimately turned out to be the man to take Celtic back to success, making them, at least for a period, the superior half of the Old Firm. If Barnes hadn't lost that match, then who knows how long he might have lasted, and whether Celtic might have ended up with a less impressive replacement. Hard to say. But Celtic 1 Inverness 3 was a scoreline which occurred only six weeks into the noughties, yet it shaped Scottish football for a decade to come.


1 comment:

Allan said...

Mate I think the highland air has gone to your head if you believe the greatest footballing moment of the last decade was your beloved caley thistle beating celtic. Surely the top 10 you meant for caley to come top of was the top 10 freakish results of the decade!