Originally penned by Jonathan Foley in January 2022
In the build-up to Celtic’s final match of the Scottish Premier Division against European hopefuls St Johnstone – Saturday 9th May, 1998 – there was a duality within the emotions to the usual roars of the Celtic Park crowd as the two teams took to the field.
On the surface, the stadium looked more spectacular than usual that afternoon. As glorious sunshine bathed the playing surface, it seemed as though every single man, woman and child, lucky enough to get a ticket that day, was wearing more green and white than usual.
Caught up in a gentle breeze, a scattering of party balloons floated around the stands. Some had trickled on to the pitch while the ritual pre-kick off ritual rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ echoed with more haunting purpose than it ever had done before. It was essentially a prayer in all but name.
Underneath the fanfare and wash of club-coloured pariphanilia and decoration lay a deep sense of nervous tension however. Celtic’s players and fans were unison in the knowledge that a win in this fixture would see them officially crowned champions of Scotland for the first time in a decade; a proverbial eternity for a club such as Celtic.
Anything other than a win would mean that crosstown-rivals Rangers would likely snatch the title for themselves was worrying enough.
Moreover, a Celtic failure – of which there had been plenty in the preceding ten years – would not only mean the loss of a league title. It would also see Rangers win the elusive ‘10-a-Row’ and ultimately banish Celtic’s cherished accolade of nine successive titles (1966-74) from the history books altogether.
Having the record equalled at the end of the previous campaign was tough enough to take for the Celtic faithful. Such is the intensity of the rivalry between these two Clydeside clubs, it’s not as though Rangers were going to be content with drawing level with the record. They were out to overtake Celtic and put themselves in the historical reckoning.
In the final weeks of the season, it appeared to be Celtic who were taking the initiative in the title race. A splattering of nervous-by-the-occasion draws however kept Rangers in the hunt and on the final day of a most important season, it would all come down to this.
In Walter Smith’s sixth season as Rangers’ manager, he had never not won a league championship. With an expensive array of talent that he’d signed in earlier in the season from Serie A , he had his sights on another. On the other hand, after much boardroom and financial trouble in the not too distant past before this, Celtic had put their latest trust in Wim Jansen.
ONE YEAR EARLIER
Merely twelve months earlier, Celtic had the look and feel of a scourged harvest.
Battling performances against Rangers in the 1996-97 campaign were to be marginally admired, but ultimately, all four of the league meetings had ended in victories for the city’s blue half. Even Celtic’s hopes of a consolation Scottish Cup success ended with an embarrassing loss to lower-division Falkirk in the semi-final.
This unfortunately spelled the end of long term club servant, Tommy Burns, who was relieved from his position as manager. Spoiler alert, but the silver cloud of Burns’s tenure was that would not only be invited back as a coach years later, but that his name remains ever fondly remembered.
Back in the summer of 1997 though, things didn’t get much better after his departure when the attacking trio of Jorge Cadete, Paolo DiCanio and Pierre vanHooijdonk all packed their bags and abandoned the club. A soap opera of walkouts at the same time as when Rangers fans were dancing in the streets chanting ‘9-in-a-Row.’ while quickly escalating those into calls for Ten!
There was a sense of ‘Wim who?’ when the board of directors, under the chairmanship of Fergus McCann, unveiled him as the new Head Coach. As Rob MacLean reported for BBC Scotland, “the Dutchman has previously coached in the J-League with Hiroshima where one reporter there unflatteringly claimed ‘Jansen was the second worst disaster to ever hit this city.’”
The overall setup was rather curious too. Officially, Jock Brown – a football commentator with BBC and Sky Sports just a few months earlier – was to be the General Manager with Jansen as Head Coach.
While it became fairly self-evident early on that Brown and Jansen were far from bosom buddies, things would need to be shaken up on the playing field as quickly as possible. It might be hard to fathom for some nowadays, but Celtic were hugely active during the summer transfer market and by the time the season opener came around, seven new players had signed.
Arguably the most notable signings were those of Marc Reiper (West Ham, £1.8m), Craig Burley (Chelsea, £2.5m) and a certain Swede who Jansen knew well from his time in the Netherlands, Henrik Larsson (Feyenoord, £650,000).
The quality of players would take a bit of time to settle and gel together, but it was clear that Jansen was adapting a new approach for Celtic as a whole.
A SOLID UNIT
Traditionally, Celtic had often received praise for their cavalier and alamoesque methods that they had incorporated into their attacking game. As entertaining as that often was to watch, it was so often their undoing at that back where defenders and goalkeepers were essentially left helplessly abandoned.
Jansen was adamant that the new testament of contemporary football should be played with a strong defensive unit, the utilization of wingers, a compact midfield – later added to by the signing of Paul Lambert in November (Borussia Dortmund, £2m) – and a forward line where one played behind the other.
Physical strength was going to be key as well as pace down the flanks. ‘Total Football!” Not just attacking alone!
Despite a horrendous start to the league campaign where they lost their opening two games to Hibernian and Dunfermline, the team did, slowly but surely, begin to mold into Jansen’s image.
A great run of wins followed from late August into November and during that run, they graciously bowed out of the UEFA Cup only on away goals to Liverpool – after an immensely spirited performance at Anfield – while also booking their place in the final of the Coca-Cola Cup.
In an age of Britpop music and Girl Power, Celtic fans started to steadily add to their knowledge as to just who their new gaffer really was.
The fact that search engines hadn’t become a thing yet didn’t stop fans from learning that Jansen had actually played against Celtic before; that game being the 1970 European Cup Final no less! Not only that, but he’d also played in the 1974 World Cup Final for Holland against West Germany. A former teammate of Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskins to boot!
Celtic did hit something of a rocky patch in early November. Losing the first Old Firm meeting of the season at Ibrox as a painful, but albeit important lesson to learn. They also lost at home to Motherwell a week later, but there was a point salvaged in the rearranged home game with Rangers when a stoppage time header by Alan Stubbs made it 1-1 and hope was restored.
As much as the League Cup is looked down upon, Celtic realized that if they could win that trophy by overcoming Dundee United in the final, it would likely whet their appetite for more silverware come the rest of the season. And rest assured, the Celts stormed to a comfortable 3-0 win in that final and, with that, the Dutchman had his hands on his first trophy as Celtic boss.
Rumblings off the park couldnt be ignored though. The disunity between Jansen and Brown’s working relationship was showing cracks and their dislike of one another became worthy of media attention. It seemed as though Jansen had a maverick tendency to go against club policy at times which angered those on the board. Talk of a break clause in his contract also got headlines.
The priority focus hadn’t shifted far from anyone’s thoughts that the league title must take precedence. Going into December, Jansen further added to the squad by bringing in Harald Brattbakk from FC Rosenborg. A late Burley goal against Hearts proved crucial in keeping Celtic in the title race, but 1997 would end in a frustrating loss away to St Johnstone.
On the morning of the New Year Derby, Celtic trailed Rangers by four points and they knew all too well that a loss in this fixture could be the most telling factor in the title race.
This was a Hogmanay fixture that Celtic hadn’t won in ten years. Frank McAvennie’s double on a mucky pitch in 1988 seemed a lifetime ago to those who stood in The Jungle that day, but alas the Bhoys rose to the occasion this time and thanks to two wonderful goals, one from Burley and a screamer from Lambert, Celtic were right back in the hunt.
Despite the occasional draw here and there, Celtic went into April unbeaten in 1998 and went into the final Old Firm league meeting of the season holding a three-point lead over their rivals. As expected, Rangers were not going to lay down and, on Easter Sunday, a hailstone shower didn’t drown out the noise of the Rangers support as their side powered to a 2-0 win.
Four games to go. All square.
THE FINAL FURLONG
In mid-to-late April, Celtic seized back the initiative with a 4-1 victory over Motherwell and hope sprang eternal when Rangers suffered a shock defeat away at Aberdeen the following day. One Saturday later though, Celtic blew the chance to push ahead after an infuriating 0-0 draw at home to Hibernian while, on the same day, Rangers cut back the gap by thrashing Hearts 3-0.
As the May Bank Holiday weekend approached, Rangers were up first and after two tough away games, they were expected to breeze past Kilmarnock in a home game. This would also put them ahead of Celtic and no doubt grant them the psychological edge in the race. Low-and-behold though, a last-gasp Ally Mitchell Killie winner kills the Ibrox party atmosphere.
All Celtic need to do is win away at Dunfermline, which they’d already done twice this season already in both the league and the cup, and the title race would be officially and mathematically over. A first-half Simon Donnelly strike hit the net and the corkscrews were being turned. Typically, it went back on ice when the Pars snatched a draw seven minutes from time.
Going into that final six days before the league decider must’ve been full of immense pressure for the Celtic players, but although the support continued to go their way, sympathy wasn’t always forthcoming. Club writers like Matt McGlone documented his feelings clearly that the “league should be well and truly in the bag by now” with some fans echoing his sentiment.
Issues over Jansen’s contract had become an issue for the club when, back in February, he openly admitted to the press that he had a breakout clause in his deal with Celtic. Essentially, this meant that he could leave the club after a year of his initial three-year-agreement and with the Rangers’ charge for number ten still on the go, where a record created by the Lisbon Lions had to be protected, it must’ve felt chaotic in-house, to say the least.
LAST CHANCE SALOON
All in all, it all came down to a simple plan for Jansen’s men. Beat St Johnstone on Saturday and the league will be won in front of their own fans. Fans who deserve it, more than most, for their loyalty that had never waned nor wilted during the storm of the last decade or so.
Jansen may have had no love for the likes of Jock Brown, or indeed most of the boardroom it later emerged, but there was no denying his devotion to his players and supporters.
In the second minute of this very crucial game, Henrik Larsson cut inside and unleashed a fearsome curling effort that bellowed into the net and the cheers that rang out from the stands must’ve echoed throughout all of the East End.
There was still a job to do of course. Celtic couldn’t quite find a second goal for a long time and having been stung late on in the game against Dunfermline only six days earlier, the tension amongst the support was understandably unbearable at times. Radio sets held to the ears giving news that Rangers were two up at Tannadice didn’t do much to help the nerves either.
Going into the final twenty minutes or so, Harald Brattbakk made his way on as a substitute. He’d become a fairly maligned character after an inconsistent run of performances, but Jansen and the fans stayed loyal to him and, somewhat typically, it was the trainee pilot / accountant who wrote his name in Celtic’s folklore.
Determined not to give up possession of the ball, club captain Tommy Boyd held strong under attention from an opponent to send a long one forward. It found Jackie McNamara whose burst of pace saw him fly down the wing and it was his low cross that found Brattbakk to slot home.
Bedlam! Absolute bedlam, maybe with a wee touch of emotional tearge, from the crowd.
Eighteen minutes later, the final whistle finally confirmed Celtic as the champions of Scotland for the first time in far too long. Boyd wept tears of joy before making his way up to kiss and collect the trophy.
Chants of ‘Championaaays! Championaaays!’ rang loud and proud and iconic image of a bare chested Enrico Annoni hoisting Wim Jansen off his feet to share in a jubilant embrace probably confirms the theory that, despite all the politics that had gone on behind-the scenes, Wim Jansen’s loyalty to his players and the supporters always came first … just like the team did!
Although when the dust settled and the hangovers subsided, Wim Jansen departed the club just two days later. While it did prompt a response from fans that was targeted at McCann and Brown, their support of the Dutchman showed.
Nevertheless, Jansen rode off into the sunset leaving Celtic fans safe in the knowledge that they could now add the chant of ‘Cheeriooooo to Ten in a Row!’ to their evergrowing playlist of anthems.
“Wim who” had become “Wim the Tim!”
On a personal level, just for a sec, I’d like to give thanks in my own way to what Wim Jansen did for Celtic Football Club. He took the reigns on when I was just 12 years old. I was an extremely shy kid at the time. I was finding the transition into secondary school very difficult and my parents – for a time anyway – split up.
As you can imagine, it was a fairly confusing time during my youthful adolescence. Football though, and Celtic in particular, became my health and well-being. They gave me heroes to look up to; not to mention some dreams and songs to sing.
Thank you Wim.
Wim Jansen, Hail Hail.
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