RIGHT ON CUE FOR CELTIC

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley in December 2021.

Friday January 2, 1998: Celtic 2-0 Rangers.

Just as the Hogmanay celebrations subsided, the Celtic faithful were ‘Bhoying’ themselves up again pretty quickly for the imminent arrival of Rangers to Glasgow’s East on January 2nd.

Back in 1998, Celtic were in the early stages of a restructure under new manager Wim Jansen. Despite a rocky start to the season, the Hoops and their plethora of new signings went on a fantastic run throughout much of September and October. 

They hit a bit of a sticky pitch in November when they went three games without a win, but crucially in the run, they’d secured a vital 1-1 draw with their crosstown rivals thanks to a stoppage time header by Alan Stubbs. Come January, Celtic were looking to go one better. 

Rangers were in hot pursuit of their tenth successive league title that year. Marco Negri had already noticed a staggering 33 goals by the turn of the year, but despite the fact they held a four point lead going into this game, there was a feeling that they were still there for the taking.

One of Celtic’s major undoings in previous Old Firm meetings was a leaky defense. Although they could often attack in a dazzling manner in these intense fixtures, their Achilles heal, time after time, was getting caught on the break by Rangers’ talismanic figures like Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup to name but a few. 

There was a different feeling around Parkhead this time however. It seemed as though Jansen was righting the wrongs of the past by installing a solid and watertight defensive unit through Marc Rieper, Enrico Annoni and the aforementioned Stubbs. 

On the day itself, the game was covered by the Sky Sports commentary duo of Martin Tyler and Andy Gray on the gantry. It’s hard to imagine now but yes, this pair often covered Scottish football meetings back in those days. 

Celtic Park was well underway with its completion but the section we now know as the Jock Stein Stand was still eight months away. A rickety terrace behind the goal, known simply as the ‘temporary stand’ would have to suffice. 

Lesser numbers certainly didn’t reduce the atmosphere as the teams took to the field. And credit where credit is due, the Rangers fans in the far corner added brilliantly to the spectacle with an array of colour and cheering of their own.

The game itself started as a fairly edgey affair. Tough tackles were going in – adding much to the noise levels from the crowd – and Rangers felt aggrieved for not being awarded an early penalty when Stubbs put a strong barge into the body of Laudrup.

Gradually, the game opened up. Celtic’s new signing Harald Brattbakk was generating huge hopes but he was denied on at least three occasions, in the first half alone, by Rangers goalkeeper Andy Goram. 

Typically, Goram always seemed to save his best for games against Celtic. 

Following the interval, Celtic burst into life and began to start turning the screw with more severity. Their passing and running was frantic but measured and they came close when Henrik Larsson struck the post from a side footed volley. 

Inevitably, there was the traditional sprinkling of questionable refereeing decisions thrown in. A curious offside against Brattbakk and a bewildering decision to stop Paul Lambert’s charge on the grounds that the ball was out of play maybe had Celtic fans thinking the worst. 

Thankfully, the deadlock would be broken in the 65th minute. A lovely mazy run by Jackie McNamara saw him play a delightfully delicate reverse pass into the path of Craig Burley who struck low and hard, first time, into the Rangers net.

“Well its a magnificent, magnificent goal … it’s been on the cards. It’s arrived right on cue for Celtic” proclaimed Andy Gray.

Despite the jubilation, there was still a storm to be weathered as Walter Smith unleashed ‘Gazza’ from the bench. His flute-playing gestures during his warm-up wasn’t endearing him to the Celtic supporters.

And yet the Geordie was finding it difficult to adapt to the pace of the game and was lucky not to be dismissed after a tussle with Lambert.

Going into the closing stages, Celtic were on the brink but they knew that nothing can be taken for granted in a fixture like this. Goram wasn’t giving up the fight anyway as he brilliantly saved a venomous strike from Darren Jackson. 

In the same passage of play though, Larsson’s cross to the back post was headed outwards by Alec Cleland. Rangers however still hadn’t cleared their lines properly as the ball dropped invitingly to Paul Lambert. 

Still at least twenty five yards out and with only one thought on his mind, he went for it. To be fair, I think the commentary team said it best with this one: 

“That’s Laaambeert!!! … Ohhhhhh, what a way to settle it!! No chance for Goram!! No chance now for Rangers … and it is bedlam at Celtic Park!! (Martin Tyler)” 

“It’s unstoppable! It’s unsavable! It’s an absolutely magnificent way for Celtic to finish their afternoon! Take that! You just do not save those! Take a bow, son! That’s a great goal! (Andy Gray)”

An absolute screamer that crashed in off the post beyond a hapless Goram. 

Songs rang out around the famous stadium for the remaining moments and when the final whistle did go, the victory was confirmed; their first in a New Year game since 1988 and also their first over Rangers for almost three years. 

For the moment, Rangers’ lead at the top was cut to one and the title race was well and truly back on. More drama was to follow in that season of course but this was a major turning point, at New Year, for Celtic.

@johnnyfoley1984 @ArmchairFanatic