When Rangers arrived at Parkhead on 16th April 2008, Celtic’s league title hopes hung by a slender thread. They were four points behind Rangers, who had two games in hand, with Celtic having only five games remaining. Anything less than a win was unthinkable and would have inevitably have led to Rangers winning the SPL title.
Rangers had already won the previous two encounters earlier in the season and were favourites to win this one. Celtic’s form had stuttered since new year and there was a feeling that Rangers had bullied Celtic in both those other games and a perception that Gordon Strachan’s team lacked the physical presence required to prevail in the cauldron of what was then known as ‘Old Firm’ games.
When the match started it became glaringly obvious that the Celtic players were highly motivated for the match. In the opening seconds Barry Robson clattered Christian Dailly and set the tone for the rest of the game. Robson, somewhat controversially, was not booked for his indiscretion but Paul Hartley did earn a yellow card shortly after for a lunge at Lee McCulloch. The midfield partnership of Robson and Hartley had already shown a lot more heart and determination than others had that season and expensive midfield signings, Scott Brown, Massimo Donati and Jiri Jarosik all found themselves out the team on the night as Strachan gambled on his Scots’ midfield duo to do the business.
Celtic took the lead with one of the most memorable goals ever seen in Celtic Park. Japanese playmaker, Shunske Nakamura, created space in the middle of the park before firing a vicious, swerving 25 yard volley which gave Alan McGregor absolutely no chance. At half time Celtic were worth their lead.
Rangers fought back in the second half and equalised when Nacho Novo scored. Celtic recovered well from this set back and proceeded to put Rangers under enormous pressure. They were rewarded for their efforts when another piece of genius from Nakamura earned them a penalty when Carlos Cuellar spectacularly punched the ball over his own bar to prevent Nakamura’s net bound shot from giving Celtic the lead.
Sadly for Celtic supporters, they were devastated to see Scott McDonald’s firmly placed penalty saved by the Rangers goalkeeper Alan McGregor. Ten men Rangers, now desperately hanging on for the draw they craved, were then dealt a bad blow when McGregor had to go off injured to be replaced in the nets by Neil Alexander.
Deep into injury time, Celtic had just one last throw of the dice to make. Defender, Gary Caldwell, showed great courage in carrying the ball deep into the Rangers half as the Gers players backed off him. Caldwell then pitched a hanging cross towards the back post, more in hope than expectation. Wee Scott McDonald, keen to make amends after his penalty aberration, strained to the limit to reach the ball and head it back across goal. As he did so, he found Jan Venegoor of Hesselink totally unmarked, and the big Dutchman stooped to head home a dramatic winning goal. TV pictures showed there were only three seconds remaining and there was barely time for the game to be restarted.
Parkhead absolutely exploded with joy. Without that goal Celtic’s title hopes were finished. Now there was a realisation that they were now very much back in the league race. The noise from the Celtic fans was deafening and lasted long into the night. After the final whistle there was an altercation between opposing players, Caldwell and David Weir appearing to exchange blows as tempers flared, perhaps exacerbated by the drama and emotion of Celtic’s last second winner.
Celtic fans were walking on air as they left the stadium that night. They knew they had witnessed one of the most dramatic finishes ever seen at the old stadium and they would talk about it for many years to come. What no one could have realised was that within four short weeks Celtic would win the league title on a particularly memorable spring night at Tannadice.
But without Jan Venegoor of Hesselink’s dramatic, late intervention that would never have happened.