I think it’s good at this point to lay down just how much of a mess Celtic were in, pre-Martin O’Neill.
John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish’s team had finished a massive 21 points behind Rangers the previous season. Celtic had seen crowds drop for the the first time since Fergus McCann had taken control of the club in 1994 and some of the games had been so utterly shambolic you’d swear the Marx Brothers were running the team for entertainment purposes. Just not ours.
Then something strange happened. The Celtic board actually had enough and decided it was time to do something about it. O’Neill got the call when all the family were in his car and in his own words he “thought about it for about two seconds. Okay, maybe one,” and the wheels were in motion.
A press conference was arranged and on Thursday June 1, 2000; as O’Neill met the waiting fans outside Celtic Park he said: “I will do everything I can to bring some success here to the football club,” and we were off and running.
Tannadice was to be the venue for Celtic’s opening league game that season and with a new away ticket registration scheme in place, tickets were very hard to come by as everyone started from scratch. I just couldn’t get any and it was first real game of the MON era and I had to be there, no matter what.
After all contacts turned up nothing I had to try and be a bit creative.We didn’t fancy sitting amongst the Dundee United fans in their end, so I phoned up Dundee United and said my mate Victor and I were coming up from London for the game and wanted to know the hospitality options. We were quoted £180 per person plus VAT and that, although just within our reach, seemed ludicrous to us to pay for one game, no matter how important it was. I suggested that we wouldn’t be arriving til 30 minutes before the game and wouldn’t need much “hospitality” just some good seats, to which the guy replied with the immortal, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you them half price” and, one credit card number later, we were in.
It was a 6.05pm kick off on a Sunday night and an absolutely gorgeous day in Dundee when we arrived at the stadium at 3pm. We were so early, hospitality didn’t open until 3.30pm and as we sat in the reception waiting, Jim McLean came walking in, stopped right in front of us and said, “Celtic supporters, eh?”, smiled and walked away. We were crapping ourselves. We got led into the hospitality and quickly realised that for our £90 each not only were we getting a five-course meal, seats in an executive box and a comedian after the game, all the drink was free and we had five hours to participate in it. Here we go.
Well fed and very well oiled, we took our seats in a box of 12 people right in front the track and out of the 12, including us, there were four Celtic and eight Dundee United supporters. The other two Celtic fans were both small, mild-mannered, nice guys, so the polar opposite of us. We had been told before entering that it wasn’t the done thing to jump about when goals went in, so we thought, “Okay, we’ll behave” and did so, even when King Henrik put us one up with a goal right in front of us.
As the game wore on United came back into it and got an equaliser, to which the eight United fans around us promptly went berserk and goaded us to the full, with no one batting eyelid in officialdom. Okay then, the genie is out the bottle.
It was a tense game and the fear of falling behind Rangers already was gripping me, and this was getting more evident in my shouting. When Chris Sutton popped up late in the game to get the winner, I immediately leapt up and started banging the front of the box window. Victor jumped on my back – steady – and were both screaming – Okay, this is starting to get like a Linda Lovelace novel – we were delighted, anyway. As we turned round, the two small, mild-mannered, nice-guy Celtic supporters were screaming at the Dundee United fans.
The final whistle went and we all shook hands, although secretly I think they wanted to kill us. We went back in for more drink and the comedian came on and to be fair he was really funny, with lots of Scottish football impressions. By the time it was time to go, we were fairly pished and the main guy who ran the show there came up to us and said, “You were a bit boisterous, but good craic”, and handed us two team sheets from the day with the newly printed league table on and a tenner taxi voucher. We bounded into the taxi we got reception to call and, being Dundee, the boy was not happy with the voucher, but could see the state were in and just took us to the station as quickly as he could.
We were well early for the train, it was Scotland on a Sunday night, the trains were once a month, so we decanted to the bar in the station. By this time we were paralytic and quickly deduced that the barman was a Dundee fan and they were in the midst of the Bonetti revolution. We had some good banter with the guy and just before we left I handed him the bit of paper we got in Tannadice. On Dundee United-headed paper there was the league table, with Dundee top, courtesy of their 2-0 win at Fir Park the day before. He was elated and a bit surprised, given the slaughtering we had given him for the previous hour.
We moved towards the platform resembling rubber men. About a minute before the train arrived the barman came running out and handed us a carryout, on the house, for the journey home. We were off and running.
God, I miss Martin O’Neill.