Fergus McCann would be in charge before I got to go to another game after that. By that time we were playing at Hampden, the Jungle was no more and a new stand was under construction. It would be a few more years yet before I was to become a regular in that reconstructed stadium. I wasn’t there when we stopped the ten, I was at home listening on the radio. In fact, I was hiding under my pillow when Harald scored the second – the result of overwhelming nerves trying to convince me St Johnstone would equalise. I wasn’t there when Dr Jo sent him team out to skelp Rangers 5-1, nor was I there when Martin O’Neill sent his team out to skelp them 6-2. In fact, my first Glasgow derby came at Hampden where I had a perfect view of John Hartson clearly not being offside when scoring what would have been an equaliser in the League Cup final of 2003.
My big games didn’t come against Rangers – they came in Europe. I saw Barnes knock out Hapoel Tel-Aviv before being knocked out by Lyon, but Bordeaux the following season under O’Neill was one that still sticks in my mind. That was the night I first experienced properly what the atmosphere at Celtic Park could really be like.
Half time was coming to a close and the teams were getting ready to come back out for the second half. The tie was finely poised. 0-0 on the night, but we were edging it with an away goal from the 1-1 first leg. The support responded with the loudest and most heartfelt singing of You’ll Never Walk Alone I had ever heard. I’m sure it was louder when we stopped the ten – “scarves, banners, jerseys, green and white hoops raised in triumph”, you know the speech – but like I said earlier I wasn’t there. That night against Bordeaux the hairs on the back of my neck were literally standing on end. It got better when Lubo gave us the lead that night. I hadn’t heard a roar like it at any of the games I’d been at previously. It was amazing.
Of course, my old man was quick to point out just how irrelevant that Lubo goal was. Bordeaux still only had to score once just as they had needed to before the goal. That they did, and did so again in extra time to knock us out, but the ultimate disappointment that night was overwhelmed by the atmosphere I’d experienced. I’m not sure if Paul McStay ever did say “there’s a buzz about the place” – I suspect Jonathan Watson has more to do with that than anyone else – but I certainly knew what the phrase meant that night.
Since then I’ve gone on to be at some classic games. The defeat to Valencia on penalties the following season was some night. The entire road to Seville was epic. Seville itself was phenomenal and an experience to match no other for my generation. The beating of Barca is something I was beginning to suspect I was going to have to dig out the DVD to prove actually happened to the younger generation, such has been the opposite trends of the two teams since that tie. I was even lucky enough to be in the Camp Nou for the second leg. I was at all five of the whitewash games against Rangers. There was the beating of Manchester United to send us into the Champions League last sixteen and the singing of You’ll Never Walk Alone that followed it… that was something special. The last gasp defeat of Milan was bedlam, as was the last gasp Vennegoor of Hesselink winner one midweek against Rangers on the way to three in a row.
There’s no doubting there’s been plenty of big games against big opposition… and Rangers too. But I remember being at other games where the atmosphere was electric. In O’Neill’s first season there was a night game against Dundee that was pretty special. The fact that winning that night meant we could clinch the title at home a few days later probably helped, but the manner of the game was huge too. With about ten minutes left, Dundee equalised and it was left to Johan Mjallby to literally batter in a winner. The atmosphere was such that Johan nearly ended up in with us to celebrate his goal.
Sadly, the atmosphere at Celtic Park hasn’t been what it once was. A few years ago we were filling the stadium but most of the fans would be sitting watching the gameuietly. In more recent times the numbers have dropped as the economic climate has hit as have the disappointing results. You began to wonder if you’d see the stadium full again, never mind jumping.
For a few years now, that debate has raged on the Celtic message boards. What can we do to improve the atmosphere? How can we bring back how it used to be? A number of answers would be thrown up. Some would say it’s the memory remembering what it wants to and that even back in the “good old days” you’d have plenty of quiet games. Others would point to the all seated stadium ruining the atmosphere. My favoured argument was always that it was down to the performance on the park – if we were given something to get excited about, then that’s precisely what we would do. That was something we’d been losing progressively over the years.
O’Neill’s first few seasons were a fantastic ride. With Henrik on the park you were practically guaranteed excitement. But when he left, and O’Neill became understandably distracted with family issues, the performances dropped off. The entertaining football was no longer what it once was. Strachan’s brand of football was more successful than O’Neill’s final season, but the entertainment factor was few and far between. You could usually count on one hand the truly memorable games that season where you came out thinking you’d happily pay to watch that every week. Strachan was given a pass though, as for his first three seasons that brand delivered league titles. When it failed to do so in his final season, and we whimpered over the finish line, some where glad to see the back of him. Others thought it was perhaps time, while there were some who were genuinely sorry to see him go. Mowbray came in promising to improve the entertainment factor, but despite early signs his promises went unfulfilled. That’s the nicest way I can think to put that.
Then up stepped Neil Lennon with his vision to “bring back the thunder”. Some were sceptical. After all, Neil himself was hardly the entertaining part of the O’Neill era. That wasn’t his job. If you came away talking about Neil Lennon it was because he’d scored one of his all too infrequent goals, or because he’d risen above the hate coming from the opposition fans. Or maybe he hadn’t and he’d given them the finger. But you rarely came away thinking Lennon had entertained. It was far more frequently the case of “Lennon gave them nothing”.
Others have talked about his inexperience but how quickly he’s learned on the job, how he seems to get the most out of his players and all the other qualities he’s shown over the season so far. Whether these qualities will be enough to give us the silverware that we – and he himself – crave remains to be seen. There is still a lot of football to be played between now and the end of May. But one thing is certain – the thunder is back.
I’ve always been more into the European nights than Rangers games. We’re a massive club and we need to be seen to be doing it on a massive stage. Scotland just isn’t that stage, not even when we play Rangers. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting it up them as much as the next Celtic fan. But given the choice between beating Rangers and beating a top European side like Barcelona, AC Milan or Manchester United… it’s Europe for me every time. More often than not, I think of big atmospheric nights at Celtic Park rather than big atmospheric days. Maybe it’s the lunch time kick offs, or maybe I’m not alone in thinking Europe is bigger.
But in the nearly twenty years of attending Celtic games I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anything like the scenes I witnessed on Sunday. All those big games I’ve been to, all those games in Europe and against Rangers, all those You’ll Never Walk Alones… nothing compares to standing there watching almost the entire stadium jumping about to the sound of Depeche Mode. Nothing compares to watching a mass huddle taking place throughout whole stands. That’s one of those sights you tell the grandkids about. “Yes son, we all turned our back on the game and bounced in delirium”. Mind you, we’re a lucky generation, we can show them on YouTube if they don’t believe us. I’m sure there’s a few who doubted the Charlie Tully scoring from a corner twice story when they first heard it. Or the Patsy Gallacher somersault story. Once you’ve heard it a few more times you know they’re true, but the first time you can be forgiven for having your doubts. Especially if you’re not used to just how much of a fairytale feel there are to some of Celtic’s greatest stories.
As something of a roving reporter for the Lostbhoys these days, I’ve been truly humbled by the number of people who have told me how much they love hearing the “live” recordings from the matches that we’ve done a few times this season now. But I can’t take the credit for it. The credit has to go to the Celtic supporters. The atmosphere that has been generated this season by the support as a whole has been phenomenal. There’s no way that the recordings would have been anywhere near as good twelve months ago because the atmosphere was nowhere as good. The part played in that by the likes of the Green Brigade (from whom I’m fortunate enough to sit just a few sections away) and the other supporters groups that have formed is to be highly commended.
But more than that, the credit should also go to the team. For all the great work of those supporters groups the team has finally been delivering what we’ve been crying out for. We’re finally getting not just successful football that wins games, but entertaining football week in week out too. Once more we’ve remembered how “to play football the Glasgow Celtic way”, and the Celtic support have responded to that as I always knew they would.
Unlike a lot of you, I can only imagine what it must have been like in the truly great Jungle days. But now I don’t feel like I have to. I can just close my eyes and remember Sunday. I’m sure it belongs up there with anything the Jungle produced. It’s certainly a memory I’ll treasure for a good while.
Well, until we roar the team to victory in the Cup a week on Wednesday of course.