“And They Get the Equalizer…”

DID JUST ONE HEADED GOAL CHANGE CELTIC FC FOREVER?

By Jonathan Foley

Celtic Football Club enjoy a wealth of support from across Scotland, the world and even our own wee Donegal and they are widely known for the passionate following of this great club.

Just to cater to our younger fans for a second however, many of them who I know and come across in schools or in local sports clubs, have lived the vast majority of their lives so-far with only seeing Celtic success. 

They’re the blessed ones because as the elders will remind them, in the not too distant past, seeing the Hoops lift silverware was often a rare privilege and not a formality.

Being something of an amateur historian of football, particularly with the history of Celtic, I decided to pry into the single moment that maybe – just maybe – was the defining moment that changed the course of the club’s history during my lifespan.

And for me, that was a 91st minute header by Alan Stubbs against Rangers (who else?) on the rainy night of Wednesday 19th November, 1997.

With Rangers leading the game through a Marco Negri goal that he’d rammed home twenty minutes earlier, Celtic were in crisis but thankfully, a late penalty box scramble saw the ball come into the path of Celtic winger, Jackie McNamara.

A deft cross with his right peg hung in the air on a damp and drizzly night just as Alan Stubbs rose high above three Rangers defenders to score a, not so much a bullet of a heade, but more of an aptly placed one.

Then with a capacity of 50,000, Celtic Park erupted!

You may ask though, if this was only to achieve a 1-1 draw against Rangers twenty years ago, how can it be so relevant to the great gulf of success that Celtic have in their wonderful 133-year  old history? 

To understand why this goal was so important, let’s turn the clocks back a decade before this night.

The club’s fairytale end to the 1988 season couldn’t have gone much better as that team lifted the Premier Division and Scottish Cup double in what was their centenary season. It seemed that this team had the capabilities to go on and achieve more but it was not to be. In the years that followed, Celtic would fall away both on the field of play and off it.

Rangers became utterly dominant; the golden representatives of Scottish football. They had big nights in the newly formed Champions League, they were attracting major players from both England and abroad as well gathering millions upon millions of pounds in revenue. 

So what of Celtic?

Across the city during the 1990s, Celtic plummeted to an all-time low. 

Fans were aiming their frustrations at the board and boycotts became common as the club sank into financial turmoil. The club went through a series of panic-signed managers and by the end of the 1994-95 campaign, they’d become regular finishers in the third-to-fifth positions. Unheard of today.

Despite an important cup success in 1995 under the late Tommy Burns, Celtic could still not get close to catching Rangers in the all-important league title chases.

Behind the scenes though, things were starting to look a little better. Fergus McCann invested heavily into converting Celtic to a PLC and plans were made to reconstruct the stadium into what it is now.

On the field, even with gradually improved performances, wonderful attacking game-plans and exciting foreign players coming in, success was still illusive as Rangers homed in Celtic’s previous 9-in-a-row record from the 1966-74 seasons.

Even with the mercurial talents of Paolo DiCanio, Jorge Cadete and Pierre van Hooijdunk now leading the Celtic frontline, they would still fall short in the head-to-head and often heated clashes with their rivals.

Sure enough, in May of 1997, Rangers went on to clinch that ninth title and as their fans danced in the streets, ours mourned the loss of a cherished record.

The summer of 1997 also offered Celtic fans little to look forward to.

All three of those high-profile players mentioned walked out of the club and with loyal captain, Paul McStay, opting to retire, things seemed like worse to come. Rangers were roaring favourites to now go on and overtake Celtic as they sought to reach the unprecedented ten-in-a-row.

Changes were afoot however. An unknown Dutch coach named Wim Jansen was drafted in as well as nine new players throughout the season; two of which included a dreadlocked Swede called Henrik Larsson and a European Cup winner in Paul Lambert. On the field again though, it looked as though nothing had changed – at least at first anyway.

By the time Celtic lined out to lock horns with Rangers in mid-to-late November, they’d already lost four league games that season.

Two of which had come in a period of twelve days building up to the game. So with Rangers leading with just seconds remaining at Parkhead, Stubbs’s late leveller looked only to be a blush-sparing equaliser at the time.  We know now that it was so much more.

Celtic gained immense confidence from this draw and six months later would win the league to stop the ten-in-a-row. Not without its nail-biting moments and frustrations of course, but it was done. One can’t help but ponder the hypotheticals if Rangers had won that night and gone on to win ‘the ten’ (or more!) after that.

In the two decades since then, Celtic have undoubtedly had their disappointments in Scotland and in Europe, but in overall sense, they’ve recorded a copious amounts of cherished memories and success; of which our local support here in the town has witnessed through the generations since. The true dominant force.

Martin O’Neill’s treble season, the epic voyage to the UEFA Cup Final in Seville, winning the ‘Title for Tommy’ against all odds and beating illustrious European opposition like Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester United, AC Milan and Barcelona in recent times are only the tip of the iceberg.

Not to mention the famous the latest treble winning seasons; of which we saw an undefeated domestic run (2026-17), in what was the 50th anniversary of the Lisbon Lions’ most glorious campaign.

Yes, Rangers / Sevco / Newco / The Rangers (whatever!) have had their fiscal worries … but that’s none of my business.

So just to raise the question again: “did just one headed goal change Celtic FC forever?”

Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. Perhaps it was other factors, but it did certainly help the famous Grand Old Team immensely in shaping their future. Paradise Lost? Paradise Found!