It’s the most-used question in football. What if the referee didn’t give England the third goal in the 1966 World Cup final? What if the handball against Inverness Caley Thistle was seen by one of the three officials within touching distance of it?
It’s the prelude to arguments between friends and families in homes, pubs and workplaces all over the world… a simple question: What if?
During A Celtic State of Mind’s recent interview with John Barnes, the former Celtic manager was absolutely convinced that he was sacked before being given a chance to turn things around…
The England legend was part of the ‘Dream Team’ with Kenny Dalglish and Terry McDermott, that breezed into Celtic Park on 10 June 1999. The trio were high profile appointments, and Chief Executive Allan MacDonald was convinced that they could halt further domination by the club’s largesse-era Ibrox counterparts.
“I know what football in Glasgow is like – I knew long before I arrived here. I know about the desires and the raw passions which drive the fans of Celtic and Rangers… I’ve been here a short time but I already know it’s not okay to finish second.”
John Barnes, speaking to the Celtic View (7 July 1999)Listen to JOHN BARNES with A Celtic State of Mind here:
Evidently, a defeat to Inverness Caley Thistle was the tipping point for Barnes’ downfall, but what if that result went Celtic’s way? What if Mark Viduka hadn’t refused to go out for the second half of the game? What if he was the one to turn the result around to knock the part-timers out the Scottish Cup? What scenario would we have been left with?
What if Celtic had better spent the £4.8 million wasted on Rafael Scheidt? This was a player who had not been seen in the flesh by anyone at the club. Kenny Dalglish and John Barnes took a near-£5 million punt on the strength of some VHS compilations. This was something that would have been against company policy during the Fergus McCann era (the only player who was signed without a prior scouting mission was Harald Brattbakk, at the behest of Wim Jansen). The club signed Rafael at a time when he was playing with Gremio alongside a prodigiously talented Ronaldinho.
Imagine John Barnes had actually shown some due diligence by going back to the country where he had enjoyed his finest moment in an England jersey. Had he (or anyone else with even a passing knowledge of football) bothered to go and physically watch Rafael, they may have realised that the majestically talented Ronaldinho was far more worthy of the £5 million gamble. Would he have swapped Brazil for the Barras? Well, he almost signed on loan for St Mirren, so who knows? Ronnie left Gremio two years later for €5 million and became a global phenomenon, winning a World Cup, Champions League, Serie A and La Ligas. What if, eh?
At the point where Barnes’ hapless side bounced out of the Scottish Cup, Celtic were 10 points behind Rangers in the league, but there were still 16 games left to play, including two encounters with the Ibrox side; there were still 48 points to play for. What if a turnaround against Inverness turned out to be a major turning point? Squad harmony may have improved, the potential embarrassment of losing to Inverness may have been avoided, and a 4th round tie against Aberdeen – a side that Celtic seemed to enjoy playing against that season – would have been the reward. There was a League Cup semi-final against Kilmarnock to look forward to just eight days after the Inverness game, would being in the running for all three domestic competitions lift the threat of Barnes’ sacking? Would he have been given until the end of the season? Could he have potentially won the league? Would Martin O’Neill have left Leicester to take the reins the following season?
“I am looking forward to playing football in Scotland and I hope to win many things. Celtic have paid a lot of money for me and made me an offer none of the other clubs could match… I wouldn’t like to have to choose between playing for Celtic and Brazil…”
Rafael Scheidt, speaking to the Celtic View (12 January 2000)
Another ‘What if?’ scenario was raised during the interview with John Barnes – What if Neil Lennon hadn’t turned around the result against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park on 11 October 2011? Having been in the role permanently for just four months, what if the substitution of Mo Bangura for Gary Hooper didn’t work out? What if Celtic went on to lose that game and fell 15 points behind Rangers with two games in hand?
Where would that have left the Celtic powerbrokers? Would they have gone back to some of the previous candidates for the role? Would Roy Keane, Paul Lambert or Steve Kean been reconsidered?
The inevitable financial combustion at Ibrox wouldn’t have changed, but what if Joe Ledley hadn’t headed Celtic to top of the table just before the new year? Rangers’ 10-point administration penalty would have still left them within touching distance of their very own 4-in-a-row. Celtic’s first step on the road to 10-in-a-row may never have happened? Would we have beaten Barcelona the following season?
Two major 45 minutes which defined the legacy of two managers’ careers at Celtic – one in a positive way, one catastrophic – leaves no room for what ifs. One turned it around; one didn’t.
‘What if?’ is used by those looking to mask their own deficiencies, stroke their own egos, and soften the blow of failure. John Barnes’ record in the transfer market and on the football field got him the sack. Celtic went on to dominate Scottish football for 20 years (and beyond) and no amount of revisionism will convince Celtic fans that Barnes’ downfall was due to any other reason than his own failure.
Colin WattWatch SAUL DAVIES with A Celtic State of Mind here: