This is the first in a short series of articles which puts the focus on players who joined Celtic late in their careers when their best days were reckoned to be over but who gave tremendous service to the club.
Celtic were not in a great state in the late autumn of 1998. The euphoria of Wim Jansen’s side winning the league in May, and stopping Rangers’ ten-in-a-row in the process, had long vanished in the summer as Jansen controversially resigned and the Celts had toiled to find a suitable replacement for him.
The season was almost started when Jozef Venglos was appointed. The Czech had an impressive pedigree but was 62 years old and hadn’t been in club management for a number of years. Venglos’ appointment smacked of desperation and the Celtic board were under pressure, particularly General Manager, Jock Brown, who faced the wrath of the fans on a daily basis due to lack of activity in the transfer market.
By early November Celtic had been eliminated from the Champions League qualifiers (Croatia Zagreb), the UEFA Cup (Zurich), the League Cup (by first division Airdrie) and were toiling behind a rejuvenated Rangers in the league race. It is no exaggeration to say that Celtic were a team in crisis.
After a 4-2 defeat in Zurich Celtic announced the signing of Lubomir Moravcik. Lubo was a player who Venglos knew well from his days as manager of Czechoslovakia in the early 1990’s where Moravcik was said to be the Czechs best player. He had been unsettled in Germany with MSV Duisburg and was happy to come to Parkhead to assist Venglos.
However, Moravcik was 33 years old and in the twilight of his career. The press were not kind to him although this was something that was to rebound on them in the years that followed. It shows the parochial nature of the football media in Scotland where a player who had a considerable pedigree on the continent was greeted was greeted with dismay by people who were meant to be informed about football on all levels.
On November 6th Moravcik made his debut against Dundee. The hated Brown resigned on the morning of this game and the gloom was lifted as Celtic won convincingly by 6-1. The highlight of the game had came when Moravcik looked up and perfectly swerved a ball with the outside of his right foot on to Henrik Larsson’s head for a stunning goal. The fans cheered and wondered – ‘Have we got a player here ?’
Two weeks later Lubo became an instant Celtic legend within 90 magical minutes. Rangers, under Dick Advocaat, came to Parkhead strong favourites to win against an under strength Celtic team but the Celts rose to the occasion with a tremendous 5-1 victory. Lubo scored two and was Rangers destroyer in chief. As the fans became used to his style it was noticeable that he was two footed and a debate started on which side was actually his strongest. After the game he gave an interview through an interpreter and was asked ‘How does it fell to go from zero to hero ?’ Lubo is said to have replied curtly, ‘Tell him I was never, ever a zero!’
Moravcik and Celtic carried forward their good form into the new year and were making ground on Rangers. Sadly for Lubo, he was injured at Fir Park in February 1999 in the 7-1 rout of Motherwell on the day when Larsson scored four. Lubo had opened the scoring with a sublime free kick and in the months that followed he was a huge loss. Celtic narrowly lost the title to Rangers but the thought remains that a fit Lubo in the run in could have given Celtic the edge.
Venglos moved on in the summer of 1999 and an exciting new chapter in Celtic history started as the high profile managerial pairing of John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish took over. One of Barnes’ first acts was to sign Eyal Berkovic from West Ham for a club record £5.7M. Barnes tried to accommodate Lubo and Berkovic in the same side but they were too similar in style to blend together. Barnes played Berkovic to justify the expensive fee which led to the frustration of the fans who rated Moravcik as the greater talent.
Barnes was only to manage Celtic for six months and Lubo played sparingly but there were two delicious shows of skill which he displayed during Barnes’ tenure which are worth recalling. The first came against Hearts when he controlled the ball on the bounce with his backside and then there was a fabulous goal at Pittodrie when he ran down the right flank before cutting in and sending a 25 yard shot into the top corner. The fans knew they were in the presence of greatness.
Kenny Dalglish took over the reins as caretaker manager until the end of the 99-00 season and Lubo scored the winner in the 2000 LCSF against Kilmarnock which took Celtic to Hampden for the final. Aberdeen were beaten convincingly on the day but Celtic looked for new direction that summer and Lubo found himself under yet another new Celtic manager.
Martin O’Neill hit Celtic Park like a tornado. He installed much needed discipline and a shape to the team however it’s interesting to note that O’Neill wasn’t impressed in pre-season matches especially when he played Lubo at wing back. Happily, O’Neill then quickly realised that he had a major talent at his disposal. The expensive and moody Berkovic was dispatched back down south as Lubo was given an extended run in the side. Rangers were famously demolished yet again by 6-2 and as the season wore on Celtic were unstoppable in their pursuit of the domestic treble.
The league was already won by the time Celtic travelled to Ibrox in late April. Lubo gave a virtuoso performance in a 3-0 win, scoring two memorable goals in the process. The only disappointment in this unforgettable season was when he was taken off injured after 14 minutes in the Scottish Cup final win over Hibs. ironically it was his replacement, Jackie McNamara, who sent the team on their winning way with the opening goal.
By this time Lubo was worshipped by the fans, who would chant his name whilst bowing in respect in the process. O’Neill lavished praise on Moravcik but was concerned over the condition of his knees. Wear and tear through the years was leading to some pain although he bravely played on. Lubo was 36 by then and it was not clear how long he could go on for.
In the autumn of 2001 he gave the fans some farewell performances to remember him by. In August at Easter Road he scored with a howitzer of a shot from distance for a stunning goal. At Fir Park in October he scored a brilliant free kick to which the Motherwell goalkeeper did not even move. However, arguably his greatest ever Celtic performance came against Juventus in the Champions League. Lubo created two goals against the Italian champs and there was one glorious moment when he nutmegged Pavel Nedved in a flowing move. He had graced the greatest club stage of them all.
Lubo’s last contribution to Celtic came at Livingston in January 2002. He came on as a sub when Celtic were one goal down and then he scored the equaliser and created two more for a 3-1 win. Celtic won the 2002 title in a canter and were keen to make it a double at Hampden against Rangers. With the game perilously balanced at 2-2 Lubo was on the bench and being held in reserve until extra time. Sadly, Rangers scored in injury time to deprive him of a final last hurrah on the big occasion to which he thrived on. Old father time had caught up with him and he retired from football in the summer of 2002. Celtic never really replaced him.
Lubo Moravcik is without doubt a Celtic legend. When Celtic greats are remembered Lubo’s anme will always be up there with the best him. He remains, in my humble opinion, the purest football talent I have ever had the privilege of watching in a Celtic jersey.
The only regret that remains is that we signed him at 33 instead of 23.