Watching Celtic progress last night through an awkward Champions League tie in Sweden, if not the nervy performance, the continued improvement to our away record in Europe is sweet to savour. While participating in the preliminary rounds admittedly causes great irk, there’s something to be said about these two-legged monsters that fray the nerves and devour sleep with nightmares of away goals scenarios. They’re horrible, yes, but that gives them a nervous edge that games in the group stages at times struggle to match.
The intensity of the constant home and away legs, as your team makes its way from first round to final, is arguably something lost by the shift from European Cup to Champions League, the demise of the Cup Winners’ Cup, and change from UEFA Cup to Europa League. Great as Champions League nights are, this leg-by-leg intensity is something different, something we last experienced on our UEFA Cup run and the road to Seville in 2002/3.
Though admittedly falling at the last hurdle, the set of Bhoys who wore the hoops that night in Seville made us proud to be called Celtic supporters. A sleeping giant of the European stage had never reawakened so graciously – or with such passion – in victory, let alone in defeat.
Since its origin in season 1971/2, the UEFA Cup was always the poor man’s trophy – but it was the only one that mattered if your team was involved. Looking back at that first campaign sends more than the proverbial butterflies fluttering through the stomach, given the similarities between it and that of season 2002/3.
When you look at the fixtures that made up that first outing of the UEFA Cup, many familiar names and features from the 2002/3 campaign come to light. In fact, there’s even a Battle of Britain and a ‘V’ theory of sorts to boot. A glance at the first round fixtures calls to mind many of the great – and not so great – encounters the Bhoys enthralled us with in season 2002/3. First off there was Shelbourne, the congenial Irish side who welcomed us over for the first preseason friendly of season 2002/3, allowing us the chance to watch our heroes in action after the mild distraction of Japan 2002, while whetting our appetites with shared songs amidst pints of the black stuff.
Not so palatable is noting the participation of FC Basle, though seeing them fall at the first hurdle does bring a wry smile of contentment to the face. And anyway, if it were not for them, remember, we would never have made it to the UEFA Cup final in Seville. Here the first tenuous connection to Seville appears as in 1972 Basle fell to the mighty Madrid, demigods of the beautiful game from the capital of Spain, the country where we recaptured our place among the giants of Europe on 21st May 2003.
The eventual winners of the first competition, Spurs, not only rank as a British side (note the reversal of the English trend here, where Scottish sides become British when they threaten to achieve), but like Celtic, got off to a thumping start in the first round of the competition. Spurs also offered preseason hospitality to the Bhoys at the start of season 2002/3, and they share the same first letter as Suduva, so surely this was an omen going into the first round! Admittedly disappointed to be facing such minnows of Europe and not taking in the grandeur of the Champions League, the 8-0 drubbing we dished out that bitterly cold night did much to warm the heart and restore belief that the Basle results had been taken out of perspective. Watching the “tangerine” brigade fall to Viktoria Zizkov, the mighty giants of the Miners’ Welfare and Social Club League (where are they from again? I’m sure they were playing our local YMCA team at the weekend) brought more than a few cheerful tears, too. The smoke from burning passports around Ibrox sent the signal there’d be no oranges in Seville at least!
Oranges were the order of the day in the next round for the Hoops, as “Ibrox legend” Senor Souness marched his Blackburn side up north and back down again to show us why they’ve achieved nothing since the departure of Chris Sutton. As the children’s song goes: when they were up they were up, and when they were down they were down! Again, Henrik’s header aside, the home performance had my manky molars munching and mauling nervous holes in my scarf as we never really seemed to get going. However, the Rovers’ Return had me dreaming not of flat bitter and pie ‘n’ mash, but of fiestas, sangria and sombreros. If we did not make it any further after this round, the sight of the new three amigos leading the Bhoys to victory over En –ger-land’s third placed finest was enough in itself. Men against Bhoys? As Jim Royle would say, “My a**e!”
By the time of the third round fixtures the plot of The Bill was fairly heating up. Another of the original participants of the 1972 UEFA competition, third placed Spanish side RC Celta de Vigo were next to fall at the hands – or should that be heads and feet? – of the Hoops. This, for me, was where the dream of Seville really came into being. I had watched Vigo from time to time on Sky and, their blue strips disgracing the RC and Celt in their name aside, I had been impressed. Not only did they possess the customary Spanish flair, they had a physical presence to go with it. Nevertheless, despite the slim victory at home – the Magnificent Seven living up to expectation once again – I was quietly confident we had the attacking prowess and fighting guile to win this one abroad. We had shown at home against Vigo and Blackburn that we were always capable of scoring and our disappointing away record in the Champions League the previous season seemed light years away. True to form, the player I reckon would have been the deciding factor in us winning in Seville had injury not cruelly robbed him of starting the match, the player who personified passion and prowess and physical presence in his own unique and considerable bulk, Big Bad John Hartson, saw to it that shares in Ryanair would continue to rise and that we would march on with O’Neill to the next stage of the competition. A huge thank you to the Rangers medical staff for their technical accuracy and precision!
Although Vfb Stuttgart were missing from the first UEFA Cup, another German side whose name begins with ‘s’, Salzburg, were there to keep the link between season 2002/3’s campaign and the 1972 competition tenuously alive. Stuttgart must have wished they could have swapped places in history with their German compatriots, however, after a Larssonless Celtic put to bed any notion that we were a one-man-team. If we did not have the Magnificent Seven, we had the Fantastic Five in Lambert, Maloney, Petrov, Thomson and Sutton, to see that we’d progress as planned. The ‘V’ theory was really in full flight now and, just like in the eighties sci-fi hit of the same name, people everywhere seemed to be pulling off their masks and revealing themselves as green beings. Even the Rangers fans were green, though admittedly only with envy (another ‘v’!). The whole team made us proud on these two nights, as they did before and would do from here on in, but I was especially pleased for big Bobo. The fact we seemed to have forgotten the words to “Bobo’s gonnae get ye!” speaks volumes about the defender he’d become.
On their way to the 1972 final, where they were involved in their own Battle of Britain (not England, remember), Wolves had their own ‘V’ theory, as they took out the mighty Juventus in the quarters and Ferencvowes in the semis en route to the final. Keeping up our own ‘V’ theory and encountering our second Battle of Britain of the campaign, the Bhoy’s dismissal of Liverpool was to the average Celt what a fortnight of unadulterated hedonism on the Island of Sheep must be to the average Dons fan. The reruns of Steve McManoman “spectacularly” equalising (the boy got lucky!) last time around to put us out were beginning to bring the Barry Ferguson out of me, and I must admit to hanging around Bothwell Bridge on occasion looking for the odd Scouse fan to harass. However, seeing Henrik return disfigured but equally destructive, Bobo superbly babysitting Michael Owen (I’m sure he even offered to change the wee man’s nappy a few times), Thommo showing why you should never trust a Scouse brickie to build your garden wall, and Big John bursting the net with a precise thunder strike, ensured that my copy of Hey Jude remained intact. Altogether now: nah, nah, nah, nanananah, nanananah, Celtic . . .
And so to the semi-final. The Milan teams aside, when major cities have two “big” rival teams, you often find that one plays classy football for the purists, while the other couldnae kick their grannies’ cellulite-ridden bahookies off their commodes. Take (at that time) Man U and Man City. Dortmund and M’gladbach. Everton and Liverpool. Us and the other mob. And so it seemed with Porto and their city rivals, Bore-avista. If the climate in Seville would be stifling, then these two matches would be ideal preparation for the Bhoys, their Portuguese opponents happy to stifle every attempt to play football with their foul tactics. In my drunkenness I thought I was at Fir Park. In saying that, even the Barras had run out of tenderhooks until The King of Kings popped up to put us through with a strike that seemed to be played in slow motion as I watched it make its way towards the net on a screen in a pub in the centre of Glasgow. I was praying the ref would add on a few minutes of extra time to allow it time to cross the line. What a night this was! My Visa card squealed on more than one occasion as slurred instructions to the barmaids ordered yurr fineshed shampane pleash. To my credit, I remembered to use the Visa to keep with the theory, even if the V-necked jumper and V-front pants was taking it a little too far. But it was worth it, especially walking into the most bitterly Orange taxi firm in Airdrie to order a taxi to Seville, por favor! Phoning up the next day to enquire after a lost sombrero left on the back of one of their cars was equally sweet.
If at that time I had known what would happen next, I’d still have embarked on the Willy Wonka rush for a golden ticket to Seville. Unfortunately, like most, I never received one, and through work commitments I would not have been able to make it even if I had. I did, however, manage to secure a ticket for my father and he, like the other 1967 million other Hoops fans lucky enough to make it to Seville, now has the memories to share with his grandchildren that are the stuff of legend.
Having only watched the match on television, it’s not my place to comment any further on the final in Seville – I’m sure there are more than a few others who can contribute their memories which they acted out and witnessed in person – other than to say I have never been as proud to be a Celt after watching not only the players’, but the fans’, efforts. They were a credit to the club, its history and to football the world over. The fun and the thrills along the way will never be forgotten – I’m sure the record books will struggle to find the last time 60,000 football fans sang about flip flops and lilos while donning sombreros, bouncing beachballs and cheering off their team to a chorus of A Viva Espana!
It’s unfortunate that the ‘V’ theory might well have stood for diVing cheats more than Victors in the end, the Porto team hamming it up more than Ronald Villiers on too many occasions, but what Martin O’Neill and his squad of heroes achieved can never be understated.