Thursday, December 24, 2009

The decade's greatest footballing moments (4) - Rangers win the SPL by one goal

In several alternate universes, Albert Kidd would have been remembered by no-one but a few die-hard, geeky Dundee fans. But in this universe, Kidd is the man who, with two goals in the final ten minutes of the last game of the season, denied Hearts the 1985-86 title, handing it to Celtic on goal difference. Those were the only two goals the striker scored all season.

Therefore, it seems quite apt that when, in May 2003, the SPL was once more decided by subtracting goals conceded from goals scored, it was ultimately Dundee and Hearts, in combination, who denied Celtic the title.

2002-03 was the pinnacle of the Old Firms’ dominance of the Scottish football, although signs of belt-tightening were beginning to emerge. Neither team made much in the way of big name summer signings beforehand; Celtic, after two seasons of big-money buys such as Chris Sutton, John Hartson, Neil Lennon and Alan Thompson, were well equipped anyway. Rangers, financially drained by the excesses of Dick Advocaat (£1m for Marcus Gayle, anyone?) completed the signing of Spaniard Mikel Arteta, brought in on loan six months previously and balanced the books by deceiving Peter Reid into giving £7m of Sunderland’s cash to them in exchange for Tore Andre Flo. But both teams had strength in depth that seems almost unbelievable six years on. Celtic still had the likes of Henrik Larsson and Stiliyan Petrov at their peak, whilst Rangers could boast Amoruso, Moore and Ricksen at the back, Barry Ferguson (who has never surpassed the level his performances reached that season) and Arteta and midfield, and Ronald De Boer providing the spark. The gap between second and third at the end of the season was a whopping 34 points. Between them, the Old Firm scored 199 league goals.

Champions in 2001-02, Celtic appeared stronger initially, especially after Rangers suffered one of the traditional Scottish-team-in-Europe catastrophies that inevitably occurs every season or two, crashing to obscure Czechs Viktoria Zizkov in their first UEFA Cup tie. But, like Rangers six seasons later, Celtic (who had also been dumped out of the Champions League early, by Basle of Switzerland), found themselves on an epic UEFA Cup run, forcing themselves past some rather illustrious opponents - Blackburn Rovers, Celta Vigo, Stuttgart, Liverpool and Boavista - to earn their place against Porto in the final in Seville, where, despite a truly heroic performance from Larsson, Celtic succumbed 3-2 to the might of Jose Mourinho.

The European campaign, comprising a total of 15 matches, took its toll, not least in the cups. Three days after battling to a 1-1 draw at Celtic Park in the first leg of the quarter-final with Liverpool, a tie best remembered for the incredible joint-rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by the two sets of fans, Celtic faced their deadly rivals in the League Cup final. Rangers had lost an Old Firm game only a week before, but prevailed 2-1 at Hampden, with John Hartson missing a late penalty that would have taken the match to extra time. To cap it all, Chris Sutton broke his wrist, but even in his absence Martin O’Neill’s side produced a sensational upset at Anfield, winning 2-0 as Hartson made amends for his cup final miss with a stunning solo goal. But with several players exhausted, a second-string team was sent to Inverness for the Scottish Cup quarter-final at the weekend, only to meet the same fate as John Barnes’ misfits three years earlier (though of course, considering the strides made over that period, the result was hardly going to wound O’Neill). Rangers would go on to win that competition too.

But by the Spring, there was no guarantee that the title race would go to the wire, as on April 19th at Tynecastle, it appeared to take a decisive twist. Larsson struck to give Celtic the lead, but Phil Stamp equalized before, with the seconds running out, full-back Austin McCann smashed in a screamer to give Hearts all three points. Rangers were now eight points clear, although they had played a game extra, and had only five matches to play. A draw or better at Ibrox the next weekend, in the last Old Firm meeting of the season, would surely clinch the title. But the Hoops, galvanised by the late winner from their talismanic Swede in Portugal against Boavista three days earlier which had clinched their UEFA Cup final place, produced a effort so superhuman that my father, laid low with the flu, had been miraculously cured by half-time simply through sheer adrenaline. And he wasn’t even a Celtic fan. The last of Rangers’ points advantage went down the tubes when they blew a two goanl lead at Dens Park and were held to a draw by Dundee.

But Dundee were just as up for trying to cripple Celtic’s challenge, when the sides met at Celtic Park on a Wednesday evening televised by the BBC. With goal difference becoming increasingly relevant, Rangers had thwacked Kilmarnock 4-0 a few days earlier. Celtic were not to be outdone – after Dundee had equalized an early goal, Shaun Maloney and Alan Thompson turned on the style as Celtic ran up six goals. But in injury time, with the home side throwing caution to the wind in the search of a seventh, defender Lee Mair foraged forward as part of a counter-attack and struck a late consolation goal. It would prove critical. Four days after losing in Seville, Celtic faced a travel to Kilmarnock on the final day. Rangers were up against Dunfermline at home. Goal difference was level, but Rangers had scored one more goal, giving them a tiny advantage.

Initially the cheers came for the green side of Glasgow, when Dunfermline equalized an early Rangers opener, but by half-time Rangers were 3-1 up while Celtic were ahead 2-0. An Alan Thompson penalty for Celtic extended their lead and temporarily put them in the driving seat, but Ronald De Boer and Stephen Thompson scored in quick succession; at the exact moment as the latter player struck, his Celtic namesake hit the post with his second spotkick. Right to the end, nails were being bitten away, as Celtic led 4-0 and Rangers 5-1, but a last gasp penalty from Arteta made sure the title was wrapped in blue ribbons.

Celtic won nothing. Rangers collected the treble. 17 years after Albert Kidd, a Hearts full-back produced a goal which severely dented Celtic’s hopes, and a late consolation goal from another defender, this time in the same dark blue as worn by Kidd back in 1986, ended up, retrospectively, to be the critical nail in the coffin. With the Old Firm drastically weakened since, along with the rest of Scottish football, it remains to be seen whether we will witness this sort of excitement again.


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