Henrik Larsson was just 16 minutes into his Celtic career, but already it wasn’t going well.
Introduced as a second-half substitute at Hibernian, his task was simple: help Celtic win the game. Instead, he inadvertently helped them lose it.
When Larsson picked up the ball on the corner of his own penalty area, the dreadlocked Swede tried to start an attack, swivelling and aiming a pass towards team-mate Darren Jackson.
However, it never got there. Chic Charnley, a 34-year-old barrel-chested journeyman also on his debut, intercepted Larsson’s pass and rifled home Hibs’ winner from 25 yards. A week later the Bhoys lost at home to Dunfermline, and sat bottom of the Scottish Premier Division on zero points.
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In the space of a few short months, Celtic’s three previous star forwards – Paolo Di Canio, Pierre van Hooijdonk and Jorge Cadete – had all walked out of Parkhead in controversial circumstances. Meanwhile, their arch-rivals Rangers had won nine consecutive league crowns, equalling the record set by Celtic’s Lisbon Lions during the Jock Stein era. Now the Ibrox side were going for 10 in a row, and Celtic seemed powerless to stop them. “After two matches, I would have said we had zero chance,” Craig Burley tells FourFourTwo now.
Then came one of Scottish football’s most famous title races, as a Gers team featuring Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne and Gennaro Gattuso were reeled in against all odds. “We had a 10th title in our hands but we blew it,” says Richard Gough, the Rangers defensive legend. “It was so sad, the way it all ended.”
During a remarkable 1997/98 season, the course of history changed. Celtic avoided the humiliation of Rangers winning 10 in a row, and Larsson quickly became a Bhoys legend.
Total football meets total desperation
Celtic were reigning champions when they went to Ibrox in August 1988. They lost 5-1, and took nearly a decade to recover. Graeme Souness helped Rangers kick off a period of domestic dominance, and when he departed for Liverpool in 1991, successor Walter Smith ensured that it continued.
On this day in 1988 Rangers thumped Celtic 5-1 at Ibrox. The pick of the bunch was this stunning volley from Wilkins pic.twitter.com/SSBdkPjfaIAugust 27, 2016
For seven straight seasons, Celtic weren’t even in the top two. In 1989/90, they finished fifth in a 10-team league, losing more games than they won. They went trophyless for five seasons and were on the verge of bankruptcy before Fergus McCann completed a takeover in 1994. A year on, they won the Scottish Cup in Tommy Burns’ first term as boss.
“Burns brought us closer to Rangers,” says Simon Donnelly, who joined Celtic in 1993. “The next season [1995/96], we only lost one game but still finished second. Rangers had some fantastic players in that period: McCoist, Laudrup, Gascoigne... For me, that was the best Rangers team of all time.
“When we played them, we always felt we were getting somewhere, then they’d break away and score. They had the Indian sign over us – particularly Andy Goram in goal.”
Despite their progress, Celtic went without a trophy again for two seasons. When they lost to second-tier Falkirk in the semi-finals of the 1996/97 Scottish Cup, Burns got the sack. From that fateful day in August 1988, Rangers had won 17 major prizes to Celtic’s two. A ninth successive league title would equal the record set by Jock Stein’s Celtic, who reigned supreme from 1966/74 and also lifted the 1967 European Cup in Lisbon.
In 1997, the Bhoys had other problems. Their forward line had been spearheaded by Van Hooijdonk, Di Canio and Cadete, but they subsequently became known as ‘The Three Amigos’ for the manner in which they forced their way out of the club in quick succession.
Wage disputes were the root cause. Van Hooijdonk departed for Nottingham Forest in March, infamously quoted as declaring that “£7,000 is enough for a homeless person but not for a top-class footballer” – something he has since denied saying. That summer, both Di Canio and Cadete refused to report back for pre-season. Di Canio was eventually sold to Sheffield Wednesday, while Cadete joined Spanish side Celta Vigo.
By then, the Bhoys had made plans without them. Efforts to lure Bobby Robson to Celtic Park didn’t come to fruition, but on July 3 they were ready to unveil their new manager. One newspaper confidently predicted that it was Artur Jorge; however, the moustachioed former Porto, Benfica and Switzerland chief was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there was a mop-headed Dutchman by the name of Wim Jansen. “I don’t think many of us knew who he was,” admits Donnelly. “But that was through ignorance – he had played in two World Cup finals.”
A member of the Total Football generation, Jansen had enjoyed a far less distinguished managerial career. He had won a couple of Dutch Cups with Feyenoord in 1991 and ’92, but his most recent post at J.League outfit Sanfrecce Hiroshima hadn’t gone too well; indeed, one Scottish newspaper billed him as “the second-worst thing to hit Hiroshima”. But the deep-thinking boss came with a calm demeanour and set about improving Celtic’s squad, signing Larsson for £650,000.
“Wim knew him from his Feyenoord days,” explains Donnelly. “Henrik had been playing out of position there and fallen out of love with the game a little bit – but Celtic was the perfect platform for him.”
Although an attempt to bring in Bebeto fell through, also snapped up were Marc Rieper, Stephane Mahé, Darren Jackson, Jonathan Gould and Craig Burley. Despite being a Scot, Burley, joining from Chelsea, didn’t realise the significance of what he was walking into. In Celtic’s eyes, they simply had to stop Rangers winning 10 in a row, and thereby prevent the Lisbon Lions’ record from being obliterated.
“I was in this little bubble down south,” Burley tells FFT. “I only became aware when I was in talks with the general manager, Jock Brown, and he mentioned that this was one of the biggest seasons in the club’s history.”
Burley continues: “Very early in the season, it became abundantly obvious what it meant to the supporters. Once we lost our first two matches, they wanted blood. I got, ‘F**k off back to Chelsea’ – the lot. We all did.
“Some Celtic fans have since told me that only winning the European Cup was more important than what was at stake that year.”
Headbutts and homecoming heroes
The Hibernian game was a nightmare start, for Celtic and for Larsson. “Today, I blame that all on Darren Jackson – he didn’t want the ball and then he ran away!” Larsson later joked to FFT, recalling the moment when his errant pass was intercepted. “But after the match I said, ‘It’s my fault, I hold my hands up’. I think I managed to turn it around.”
He certainly did, although not before Celtic lost the first leg of a UEFA Cup qualifier at Tirol Innsbruck and were roundly booed after that surprise home defeat to Dunfermline.
“Had we lost at St Johnstone, it was going to be the worst league start in Celtic history,” says Burley. “Thankfully, we won.” Larsson broke the deadlock that day.
Across Glasgow, Rangers had started the season ominously well. After an audacious bid to recruit Ronaldo from Barcelona, they had signed a pair of Italians from Perugia: a 19-year-old Gennaro Gattuso and striker Marco Negri, who netted twice on his debut against Hearts, then all five against Dundee United. He plundered 23 goals in the first 10 league matches, including four in a 7-0 win over Celtic’s conquerors, Dunfermline, and another three at home to Kilmarnock. His tally was already five more than anyone else in the division would manage all season.
Rangers led the early table, before a pivotal fortnight in Europe for Gers and Bhoys alike.
Celtic, having rescued their tie against Tirol with a 6-3 home victory, faced Liverpool in the UEFA Cup’s first round proper. “We gave them a trouncing and should have beaten them, only for a Steve McManaman wonder goal in injury time,” recalls Burley. “That was when we knew we had a good team. We had a new manager and lots of new players, and at the start of the season we had arguments about the way we should be playing – but when it gelled, it was bloody good.” Donnelly adds, “That was the first time I thought, ‘We have a chance of doing something this year’.”
For their Old Firm rivals, league titles had become almost run of the mill, and a strong European campaign was a major priority. But Walter Smith’s team had dropped into the UEFA Cup after a 4-1 aggregate defeat to IFK Gothenburg in Champions League qualifying. Then, as Celtic were giving Liverpool a real scare, Rangers slumped against Strasbourg.
Despite Smith’s domestic success, criticism was severe. Rangers had finished bottom of their Champions League group in the two previous campaigns, and some had lost faith that he could deliver in Europe. Soon, it was revealed he would leave at the season’s end.
Even with Negri’s goals, Rangers lost 2-1 to Dundee United, following high-scoring draws against Aberdeen and Motherwell. After eight consecutive wins, Celtic went into the first Old Firm clash of the season, in November, above Rangers – although Hearts were top having played an extra game.
But things went awry before Celtic even got to Ibrox. Two days earlier, the headlines were dominated by a training ground tussle when defender Tosh McKinlay headbutted Larsson. “Some fans had been watching over a wall and it was splattered across the radio before we had even finished training,” says Burley. “It was an unpleasant incident, and Sod’s Law that it was ahead of the Old Firm game, but it was never an issue after that. At Ibrox, we were just completely outplayed by Rangers on the day.”
The hosts won 1-0, thanks to a low strike from the returning Gough. The defender had brought an end to 10 successful years with the club that summer, joining Kansas City Wizards. But replacement Lorenzo Amoruso damaged his Achilles’ tendon shortly after arriving, and 35-year-old Gough came back in an attempt to fix the Gers’ defence. He did so with a determination not to let Smith’s exit affect their season. “A lot of people tried to use that as a contributing factor, but it was nothing to do with that,” he explains.
For Celtic, what Gough did at the end of that Old Firm derby lingered longer than the goal. “That was the game when he raised the 10 fingers,” says Donnelly. “It gave us a wee bit of incentive to stop 10 in a row.”
Just 11 days later, the teams met again at Celtic Park. The match was originally due to be played on August 31, only to be called off hours before kick-off following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Rangers were reduced to 10 men when Gascoigne was adjudged to have lashed out at Morten Wieghorst, but they went ahead through Negri. Celtic had lost 2-0 at home to Motherwell in between the two derby games. They simply could not afford a third loss on the spin. In stoppage time, Jackie McNamara looped a high cross into the penalty area and Alan Stubbs headed a crucial equaliser.
Happy Birthday Alan Stubbs, part of the squad that stopped the 10 inarow. His injury time goal against Rangers that season secured a point that proved to be vital on the last day of the season.. pic.twitter.com/AUuzuDyFAeOctober 6, 2018
Swapping the lead at the top
Although Celtic won the Scottish League Cup in November, they were third in the league at the turn of the year, with a 1-0 defeat at St Johnstone piling on the pressure ahead of Rangers’ return to Celtic Park on January 2. “If we had lost that, we’d have gone seven points behind them and it would have been insurmountable,” says Burley.
“There was just so much pressure on that one game. Look at Rangers’ bench that day: Gordon Durie and Paul Gascoigne. That was the size of the task. But Wim man-marked Brian Laudrup out of the game with Enrico Annoni and we steamrolled them.” Burley fired Celtic in front, to send the majority of the 49,000 crowd wild. “The noise...” he says. “It was an amazing feeling.”
Five minutes from the end, Paul Lambert sealed the victory with a stunning 25-yard half-volley. He had joined Celtic in November, a few months after winning the Champions League final with Borussia Dortmund. “Was it Wonder Woman who’d go into a telephone box, spin round and come out as somebody else?” asks Burley. “That was Paul Lambert. He went to Dortmund as a run-of-the-mill midfielder and came back as one of the best holding midfielders in Europe.”
Paul Lambert scores a screamer for Celtic vs Rangers, 1998. pic.twitter.com/ArAZEmZunsNovember 23, 2019
For Rangers, it was a bad day all round. Not only was it their first defeat in 11 Old Firm league meetings, but Gascoigne got himself in the middle of a sectarian storm. Taunted by Celtic fans, he responded by playing an imaginary flute – a gesture associated with Protestant marches. He was fined £20,000 and received death threats.
“I had a letter from the IRA,” he revealed. “It said, ‘Hi Gazza, I’ve seen what you done. If you do it again, I’ll kill you’.” Two months after the incident, Gascoigne joined Middlesbrough, his powers on the wane. By the end of 1997/98, he had missed out on England’s World Cup squad.
Even more significant was the loss of Negri, who suffered a detached retina while playing squash just days after defeat at Celtic Park. Although he returned later in the campaign, his peripheral vision was hampered. “Marco getting injured was massive,” admits Gough. “He’d been sensational in the first half of the season, but then he suffered the eye problem and wasn’t the same player after that.”
On course for the European Golden Shoe before his abnormal injury, Negri scored just three more goals during the second half of the season. He later said: “Celtic supporters would place their palms over their eyes and laugh when they saw me out in the street, or feign blindness as they groped in front of me with imaginary white sticks.”
Rangers won three of nine league games and the Bhoys hit top spot, despite Hearts’ continuing challenge and speculation about a deteriorating relationship between Jansen and Jock Brown, Celtic’s general manager.
In early April the Gers hit back, defeating Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-finals before winning 2-0 in the final Old Firm game of the season, at Ibrox. It edged them back to the summit on goal difference, with four games to play. “We should have gone on and won it,” says Gough. “But we failed to finish it off.”
Rangers lost away at Aberdeen but rallied to beat Hearts 3-0 at Tynecastle, while Celtic saw off Motherwell and drew with Hibs. That gave Jansen’s men a lead of one point going into the penultimate weekend.
“We were playing away on the Sunday, and I vividly remember being sat at home on the Saturday when the Rangers result came in,” remembers Burley. “They were at home to Kilmarnock. I thought, ‘They’re not going to f**king lose, with Walter Smith and all their experience’. But then they did, 1-0. Suddenly, we could go to Dunfermline the next day and win the league.”
Unsurprisingly, East End Park was packed. “It felt as if every Celtic fan was there that day,” says Donnelly, who broke the deadlock. “From a selfish point of view I was thinking, ‘My name is going down in history’.”
Craig Faulconbridge’s late equaliser ensured that wouldn’t be the case. “It was like slow motion, this header f**king looping into the net – I can still see it now,” says Burley. “We were like, ‘S**t’. After the game Tosh McKinlay said, ‘Well, it was meant to be that we would win the league at Celtic Park’. I said, ‘No, it was f**king meant to be that we were going to win today and go on the piss for a week!’
“That was a long week. Wim Jansen had to stop training one day because the lads were kicking lumps out of each other – if we’d kept going, we would have had several injuries for the weekend. The tension was so high. With his experience, Wim said, ‘Stop. Everyone go home, and we’ll come back tomorrow’.”
Celtic, expecting Rangers to win at Dundee United, needed all three points at home to St Johnstone. Three minutes in, Larsson cut in from the left and curled a brilliant 25-yard effort into the far corner. It was his 19th goal of the season. “That was big,” says Burley. “Henrik would score many more goals in later years under Martin O’Neill, but he was hugely important that season. He had an incredible all-round game.” In his seven years at Celtic, the Swede would win four league titles as well as the European Golden Shoe.
For 69 nervy minutes, St Johnstone denied Celtic a second goal. Then Norway’s Harald Brattbakk came off the bench to seal victory. “When he scored, it was just relief,” explains Donnelly. “It was amazing at the final whistle. Fans came onto the pitch – great scenes.”
🎬⚽️Henrik Larsson Celtic Glasgow - St Johnstone, 1998. pic.twitter.com/cKZ05y4UlOApril 29, 2020
“We had protected a legacy,” says Burley, who was named SFWA Footballer of the Year after netting 13 goals from midfield.
For Gough, it was a disappointing end to his time with Rangers. “It was a sad way for that group to break up, but we can be so proud of our achievements,” he reflects. “I’m lucky to have been involved in the most unbelievably successful period. The most important thing for me was getting the nine. We would have loved to make it 10, but it wasn’t to be.”
It was the end for Wim Jansen at Celtic as well. The title-winning gaffer announced his exit, unwilling to work with Brown any longer.
More than two decades on, it’s Celtic who are looking to claim a record 10th successive title. If they hadn’t triumphed in 1997/98, the record wouldn’t be there to claim. “The fans still thank me for playing a part in stopping the 10,” Donnelly tells FFT. “It probably means more to me now than when I played.”
Burley confesses, “I wouldn’t swap winning nine titles at Celtic now for the one we won, because I know what we had to go through to get there. If Rangers had won the league that season, they might have taken it into territory Celtic could never get back. It could have been 12, 13, 14 in a row – who knows?”
Now, it’s Rangers and their gaffer, Steven Gerrard, who face that pressure. “From the first day of the season to the last, they will have a finger pointing into their chest,” says Burley. “Every sentence will start with, ‘You’d better...’ The players will have to stand up to that pressure, but it’s a far less experienced squad than we had – they don’t have a guy who’s just won a Champions League final, or a Henrik Larsson.
“It would be a heck of a feather in Gerrard’s cap if he was able to pull it off – that would propel his managerial career further than he could imagine. But he’s on a knife edge – if Celtic win it again, Rangers fans are going to be baying for blood. It’s a big season for him, and I’m sure he knows that. He’ll find out just how big when the season starts.”
Celtic and Larsson found out the hard way at the beginning of the 1997-98 season. Nine months later, they were champions.
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