When I think of the most memorable games during my time supporting Celtic there are a few obvious ones that will immediately spring to mind.
Right at the top there is the 4-2 league title win against Rangers in 1979, closely followed by Love Street 1986, the 6-2 annihilation of Rangers in 2000 and the tremendous UEFA cup victory over Liverpool at Anfield in 2003.
However there are other often less spectacular games that stay in the mind for good reason and one such game was the Dundee United v Celtic encounter at Tannadice, twenty years ago, on 27 January 1998.
The 1997/98 season was perhaps the most tense season any Celtic fan has ever experienced or may ever be likely to. The Rangers juggernaut was in full flow going for a record 10th successive league title win and Celtic were hell bent in preventing them from doing so.
Rangers were still able to import very expensive players and had the likes of Laudrup, Gascoigne, Albertz, Negri, Thern and Porrini who had all arrived at a premium. In contrast Celtic had bought more modestly as Fergus McCann fought a war on two fronts in trying to build a stadium as well as build a team on the park at the same time.
The press boasted that Rangers could field three different sides, one in Europe, one in the league and one in the domestic cups; such was the strength of their squad.
Celtic’s results had been mixed so far. They had made a woeful start to the season but had recovered and had crucially beaten Rangers in the New Year derby game. However they had also lost to St Johnstone in Perth during that period which undid all that good work.
By the time Celtic arrived in Dundee on that bitter January evening they were actually in third place, 6 points behind leaders Rangers and 3 points behind Hearts who had been that season’s surprise package and were very much in the league race, although Celtic had this vital game in hand.
P W D L F A PTS GD
1 Rangers 22..14..6..2..54..23..48.. +31
2 Hearts 22..14..3..5 ..49..30..45.. +19
3 Celtic 21..13..3..5..39..15..42.. +23
Defeat at Tannadice was therefore unthinkable and if the worse happened then it was hard to believe that this Rangers side with all its talent and experience would blow a 6 point advantage.
This game had originally been set for 17th January but was postponed due to the arctic conditions in the North East of the country. Temperatures were still below zero on the night and there was such a heavy frost before the game that it looked like a small layer of snow had fallen in the streets surrounding the stadium.
When the game started it was noticeable that United’s under soil heating had not functioned properly and the wings at the George Fox stand side of the ground were rock solid in comparison to the rest of the field which was in better condition.
During the first half Celtic had played well. Larsson went close twice, Burley missed when clean through, Perry cleared a Brattback shot of the line and Dykstra made a spectacular save from Enrico Annoni.
As often happens United scored in 23 minutes, very much against the run of play. Kjell Olafsson, a fine player and a thorn in Celtic’s side, scored when clean through on goal. Olafsson was a terrific player, a strong, powerful left winger who when in full flow brought back memories of John Hughes and Orjan Persson from Scottish football’s distant past.
United had recently signed three Scandinavians, Olafsson, Pederson and Zetterlund and they were all fine players who gave great service during their time at Tannadice. Celtic actually attempted to sign Olaffson in late 1998 but sadly no deal could be agreed.
In the second half United still leading by a goal defended well and Celtic couldn’t break them down but more worryingly Celtic looked as if they were running out of ideas.
Manager Wim Jansen gambled and threw on Simon Donnelly and Darren Jackson for Jackie McNamara and Harold Brattback. This gave Celtic more impetus and they began to press United further back although they became increasingly desperate as the game wore on.
The big break came in 77 minutes just as the fans were beginning to lose heart. Jackson held the ball cleverly on the left of the area and squared a ball to the on rushing Lambert who cracked a low shot which Dykstra touched away only for Donnelly to run in and slide the ball into the net from the narrowest angle. Donnelly is deserving of great credit as this was a difficult chance and could easily have been missed.
Fortified by that goal the Celtic fans in the sell out crowd roared on their team and laid siege to the United goal. There were only two minutes left when Annoni’s long throw sent Larsson scurrying down the right flank. As always he held the ball up well and flicked a beautiful pass inside the area to Donnelly. He cut the ball back to Craig Burley who fired a first time shot. Dykstra had the shot well covered but tragically for United the ball struck the hapless Skoldmark who diverted the ball into his own net.
I was standing directly behind that goal in the west stand and I never will forget the feeling of delight as the ball rolled towards me into that empty net. Celtic held out in the short period remaining and there was much singing and celebrating at the end of the game.
I was on the Govan Emerald bus that night and the journey back was a long and happy one. After the initial exhilaration fatigue set in, a mixture of the alcohol and the drama which we had witnessed, and most of the bus fell sleep.
I can recall sitting huddled as a few of us talked quietly. Although the game had only gained us three points we all agreed that this had been a very significant result. The previous season Celtic would probably not won that game and although the team had improved we lacked the strength of character and leadership that Chris Sutton, Johan Mjallby and Neil Lennon would later bring. We all realised that this was definitely the kind of result that wins league titles.
The two goal scorers, Donnelly and Burley, have been much maligned characters in recent times for various reasons and rightly so. But they deserve great credit that night for their efforts and should be remembered as fine Celtic players for their efforts that season despite their failings in other areas.
Even lying in the comfort of my warm bed in the early hours I could not get to sleep, the adrenalin still pumping through me from the previous night. Until then I had been fairly pessimistic regarding Celtic’s chances of winning the title but for the first time I dared to lie there and dream of league success and was convinced we could now win it.
As it was Celtic did triumph, four months later in May 1998, by a very narrow margin on another day of intense tension, on one of the most dramatic and memorable days any of us will ever have the privilege of witnessing. However that game against St Johnstone is deserving of an article entirely of its own…
Each time I return to Tannadice I never fail to recall that dramatic moment when Celtic scored the winner on that freezing January night. Not many fans may recall that match in much detail but had we not won it then Celtic’s modern history may have taken a very significant turn for the worse.
Perish the thought.