Celtic were not in a good place in January of 1991. The season had been a very difficult one and manager Billy McNeill had spent a considerable amount of money in 1990 on three significant summer signings. John Collins looked a tremendous acquisition and the supporters had taken to him immediately. The other two purchases, Charlie Nicholas and Martin Hayes, had proved to be hugely disappointing so far and were not named in the side for this league clash due to a combination of injuries and poor form.
Matters were not much better off the park. The previous October, Celtic director Brian Dempsey, had been sensationally voted off the board at the club’s AGM. To make matters worse this happened on the eve of the League Cup final which Celtic proceeded to lose narrowly to Rangers. The board were now under enormous pressure between the teams’ mediocre results and from trying to find the finance to fund a new stadium in view of the Taylor report recommendations after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.
The directors had newly appointed a new chief executive named Terry Cassidy. The Englishman was an abrasive type who spent his time insulting and alienating everyone from the Celtic supporters association to the Lisbon Lions. He was there to take the heat off the directors but it was clear from the beginning that Cassidy would not last long. BBC Scotland had actually commissioned a current affairs programme to focus on Cassidy, such was the concern over his brusque behaviour and outpourings in the media.
Aberdeen were huge favourites to win this game. Celtic’s current form was poor and the Dons had already thumped the Celts twice that season, both times by a 3-0 margin as their much vaunted twin strike force of Eoin Jess and Hans Gillhaus ran amok on both occasions. Aberdeen were now embroiled in a fight at the top of the table with Rangers for the league title with Celtic way down in 5th place.
The Celtic fans were pleasantly surprised to see that Celtic were up for this game from the start. With the midfield duo of Paul McStay and John Collins on form Celtic took the game to Aberdeen but could not find a way through the Dons’ defence, marshalled superbly by the veteran centre back, Alex McLeish.
The game was actually stopped in the first half s a ‘Stop the war’ protestor ran on the pitch to voice his concern over the current Gulf War in Kuwait between the forces of Iraq’s Sadam Hussein and the western allies. He was jeered by the crowd as the police marched him away.
Late in the game Aberdeen saw their chance and only desperate defending had stopped them going ahead as Celtic looked to frustrate their supporters yet again. The final whistle was fast approaching as Celtic forced a corner at the junction of the main stand and Celtic end terracing. Celtic substitute, Steve Fulton, sent over a hanging cross which Paul Elliot attacked superbly and sent a powerful header at goal. Aberdeen keeper, Theo Snelders, made a good save but as the ball broke, Tommy Coyne was on the spot to lash home the rebound for the winning goal.
I can still recall the explosion of joy from the Celtic fans that day. It was an indication of how desperate for success they were during such a dark period in the club’s history. Results had not been great and the hope was that this would be a turning point for the team. Sadly, it was a false dawn, and many more miserable seasons would be endured until the tide finally changed.
It was appropriate that Elliot and Coyne would combine for the winning goal. Elliot was rated as one of the best centre backs in British football and was coveted by a number of English clubs. His form had been one of the few bright lights during a dark period. Coyne had shown remarkable resilience by persevering when he had been dropped to the reserves for a long period. He had been recalled to first team action and had grabbed his chance with both hands by scoring regularly with this goal was now the latest of his increasingly impressive tally.
Aberdeen licked their wounds and headed north. They were not to know it on that cold Glasgow January day but that late Coyne goal would prove tremendously costly as at the end of the season as they ultimately lost the title to Rangers by a single point after losing their final match at Ibrox on the last game of the season.