Can Marco Tilio bring magic to Celtic’s number 23?

The number 23 has become synonymous with some of the biggest names in the world of sport.  Stars such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James, David Beckham, and Shane Warne have all claimed the number 23 as their magic number.  For the conspiracy theorists out there, the number 23 also has links with The Illuminati due to the frequency of its appearance during major world events.  It is a number that is believed to hold great significance.

For our new signing, Marco Tilio, it is the date on which he was born on – 23rd August – and that is the reason why he has chosen it as his squad number for most of his career. While we are all looking forward to seeing what our new Bhoy from Oz can bring to the club, we take a look at the Celtic players to have previously worn this ‘magic’ number and in whose footsteps Marco is following?


Andy McCondichie / Dmitri Kharine        

The era of the squad number was introduced to Scottish football for the 1998/99 season with the first incumbent of the number 23 jersey being reserve goalkeeper Andy McCondichie.  McCondichie made one appearance for the first team, a 6-1 victory against Dundee after injuries had ruled out both Jonathan Gould and Stewart Kerr.

By the time the next game rolled around, Celtic had brought Tony Warner in on loan from Liverpool, returning McCondichie to the bench. Warner would then go on to play in the 5-1 Glasgow Derby victory over Rangers in November 1998.

Dmitri Kharine was next to wear the number 23 jersey after John Barnes made him his first signing from Chelsea, where the Russian was mostly remembered for wearing tracksuit bottoms. His Celtic career wasn’t any more memorable as he made only ten appearances, keeping six shutouts, over a three year period before Martin O’Neill shipped him out.

Stan Varga

The first non-goalie to wear the number was the Slovakian defender Stan Varga, who signed for Celtic in January 2003 after a week-long trial along with the Croatian Milan Rapaić.  Varga was offered a short-term deal to the end of the season while Rapaić went on to sign for Hajduk Split.

After making just two appearances during his initial contract period, Varga was awarded a two-year deal in the summer and went on to become arguably Celtic’s best defender in the following season.  The Slovak was a perfect Martin O’Neill centre-back as he was a danger from set plays, scoring 14 goals in his time at Celtic, and played a key role as Celtic beat Barcelona in the UEFA Cup knockouts.

Stan hung around after O’Neill’s departure and won a league under Gordon Strachan before he and Ross Wallace were sent to Sunderland in exchange for £1 million. The Stan Varga of 2003/04 was the player we wanted Ramon Vega to be, in my eyes. Would the 2003/04 version of Stan Varga have made a difference in Seville? We will never know.

Ben Hutchison

We have had a suitcase full of forgettable strikers since Martin O’Neill thought he could replace The King of Kings with Henri Camara. Ben Hutchison is up there with the best or worst of them depending on what way you want to look at it. Hutchison was signed  from Middlesbrough in January 2008 after injuries at the Teesside club had seen him break into the first-team set up.  His record at youth and reserve team level was impressive enough for Gordon Strachan to take a punt on him, however, it soon became clear that there wasn’t much of a player there. He made five sub appearances for Celtic, one of which was in the Champions League against Manchester United, and left without scoring a single goal.

Mikael Lustig

The number 23 has been linked to cult chaos, so I feel that it is fitting that Mikael Lustig wore the number and lived up to both of those expectations. If you look up cult football player in the dictionary, there should be a picture of peak pirate period Mikael Lustig. The Swede was signed from Rosenburg in January 2012 and by the start of the following season had made the right-back jersey his own.

He was a solid and dependable player with a long stride that made him mobile without being quick, and he sometimes looked awkward travelling with the ball.  He was the type of player that would never give you anything under a six out of ten week-in and week-out and every manager, including national team managers, played him when fit.

Like most, he seemed to go up a level when Brendan Rodgers took over and benefited from the increased professionalism the Irishman brought with him. He also hated Rangers and we were lucky to have him, and part of me still misses him although a certain Alistair Johnston is scratching that itch.




Boli Bolingoli

The final player to wear the number 23 before our new Aussie kid was a certain Belgian who was signed for £3 million from Rapid Wein.  The Austrians must have seen us coming and decided to get another one over us in addition to what happened in 1984. Bolingoli was signed to give KT competition for the left back spot but instead ended up replacing him without any success whatsoever. He was one of those footballers who made you wonder why he was ever scouted by us in the first place, never mind purchased. He was a joke before his Covid trip to Spain and an even bigger joke afterwards. What is even more surprising, is that he played twice under Ange Postecoglou!

I, for one, am glad that Marco Tilio is taking the 23 jersey off Bolingoli’s back and not Lustig’s. Unless he has two horses’ hooves as feet and can’t run, he will do better than the previous incumbent. Though, him having a medal haul like Lustig – 8 league titles, 4 Scottish Cups and 4 League Cups – is a much more appealing option.

It’s time to make 23 a magic number again.

Kevin Graham

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