Kevin Graham with A Celtic State of Mind – Pat Bonner’s Testimonial: A Gerry Creaney hat-trick, Liam Brady cameo, and Billy McNeill & Jack Charlton in the dug-outs

A recent episode of the Strip Down Memory Lane podcast featured a match-worn jersey that was used in the Pat Bonner Testimonial. The game was between Celtic and a Republic of Ireland select and was played at Celtic Park on the 12 May 1991.

The kit in question had replaced the iconic Celtic centenary kit, which had been worn from 1987 to 1989, but the first home jersey of the new decade wasn’t as well-loved as the kit that preceded it. This is no surprise because the centenary strip is a bonafide classic and triggers the fondest of memories for Celtic supporters of a certain vintage.

The kit worn in Packie’s Testimonial featured from 1989 until 1991, and evokes memories of Partizan Belgrade, as well as defeats to Aberdeen and Rangers in cup finals… looking at it now, it’s easier on the eye than I remember it being at the time. The five broad green hoops have different shades and shapes of green, with a very thin faded-looking white zig-zag pinstripe. Due to the different green shades, the hoops look darker than what you would expect.

Listen to A STRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE with A Celtic State of Mind here:

As the dearly-departed Billy McNeill and Jack Charlton led their teams out for a celebration of Pat Bonner’s Celtic career, in front of just over 38,000, they were accompanied by an accordion band playing ‘The Town I Loved So Well’. Charlton played for Leeds United against Celtic in the 1970 European Cup semi-final. He became Middlesbrough manager in 1973, returning to Celtic to make his first signing – a certain Lisbon Lion called Bobby Murdoch – after a glowing recommendation from Jock Stein convinced Charlton to sign the veteran.

If you are of a certain age then you’ll only remember Charlton as manager of the Republic of Ireland; a team that was full of players that you wished played for Celtic. Ray Houghton, Bernie Slaven, Kevin Sheedy, Paul McGrath and Niall Quinn. Yeah, we did sign Tony Cascarino but he was never one that we wished played for Celtic. Though, some good did come from his time with us. We got Tom Boyd in exchange, so can’t we now just all get along?

Jack took control of the Republic of Ireland in January 1986 and led them to the final stages of a European Championship and two World Cups. His sides were unfairly criticised as being robust and overly physical but all of his players played in Britain and it’s a managers job to use the strengths of his players to get results, and he got results.

The pinnacle of his time in charge was also to be the pinnacle of Pat Bonner’s long and distinguished football career. It came on the 25 June 1990 in Stadio Luigi Ferraris, the home of Genoa and Sampdoria football clubs. The Republic of Ireland and Romania played out a scoreless draw, sending the game to penalty kicks. Both teams had scored four each when the man from Donegal saved from Daniel Timofte. The Republic went to Rome to meet the Pope and play hosts Italy in the World Cup quarter-final.

Bonner recently spoke about this game to Graham Hunter on The Big Interview podcast. Only a few weeks previously, Celtic and Aberdeen was involved in the first-ever penalty kick shootout in a Scottish Cup final. Aberdeen won the shootout 9-8 with Anton Rogan gaining a lifetime of sympathy. Bonner recalled how he was disappointed in his performance, going the wrong way for nearly all of the kicks. Arriving at the Republic’s Italian base, he spoke at length to Bournemouth’s goalkeeper Gerry Peyton about this. During these conversations, Gerry devised a system based on the penalty kick takers’ placing of the ball, body shape, starting position and kicking foot they used. It was based on method and not gut instinct. Go back and watch the two penalty shootouts and you see the difference – Bonner is close to every Romanian penalty kick.

Jack Charlton transformed the image of the Republic of Ireland national football team. It became a team full of characters. Being a Scotsman, you could only look on in envy. They were having fun. Big Jack was the fun school janitor rather than the maths teacheresque Andy Roxburgh. You knew that Big Jack would allow you to buy a carryout on the way home from a long away trip.

Pat Bonner was Jock Stein’s last signing. In a strange quirk of fate, Billy McNeill’s last game as Celtic manager was Pat’s testimonial. Billy knew when striding out onto the Parkhead pitch that this would be his last game.

He had been seeking clarification regarding his position for months. Before the last game of the season against St Johnstone at McDiarmid Park, there was a memo leaked to the press which outlined the club’s plan to sack McNeill with minimal damage to the club’s already faltering reputation.

McNeill and recently appointed Chief Executive Terry Cassidy never got on. The manager blamed the CEO for the news leaks out of the club. Our form had been dreadful for two seasons where we only won 27 league games out of the possible 72. Signings had failed to live up to the standards expected and of those on the other side of the city. It would have been no surprise to Billy that his position was under threat, but the way it was handled still leaves a bad taste.

The final league game of that season saw us having to win and hope Dunfermline beat Dundee United to finish third and qualify for Europe. We beat St Johnstone 3-2 due to a vintage Charlie Nicholas performance, with the winner scored by Tommy Coyne who converted our first awarded league penalty kick of the nineties!

We still had to rely on Dunfermline, though. Thankfully, David Moyes scored the only goal of the game at East End Park. Celtic and Dundee United finished on 41 points but we had a better goal difference. That goal meant we were in the draw to face Neuchatel Xamax the following October. Maybe we shouldn’t thank David Moyes after all…

What McNeill wouldn’t have been expecting was that the next Celtic manager would appear as a substitute in his final match in charge of Celtic. Liam Brady entered the fray for the Republic in the 71st minute along with special guest Roy Aitken. Liam had finished playing for West Ham the year before and was now working for a sports agency (Pat Bonner was one of his clients). He could have played for Celtic, as David Hay tried to sign him when he decided to leave Italy. He got a marvellous reception from the Celtic support who chanted his name constantly during the 20-minute cameo. Did this reception sway the Celtic board? Or was Brady just a better choice than Frank Stapleton, Tommy Craig and Ivan Golac? Whatever was behind the decision, he became the first Celtic manager not to have played for the club, and was reportedly on twice the salary of the outgoing manager.

None of the crowd or players, or even Brady himself, knew the drama that was about to unfold. All were their just to enjoy the day. Off the pitch, the occasion belonged to Pat Bonner but on the pitch it belonged to Gerry Creaney. Creaney had broken into the team earlier that season and would go on to score 23 goals in 27 games the following campaign in his best period at the club.

For the first goal, Creaney played a one-two with Charlie Nicholas on the main stand touchline, drove towards goal, beat a player on the edge of the box before firing in a perfect right-foot strike into the bottom far corner. The second goal saw a precise cross-field long-range pass by Steve Fulton, putting Creaney through one-on-one with the on-rushing Irish keeper Gerry Peyton. Again, the striker finished calmly and early. His hat-trick goal was a tap in after a mistake in the box.

The following season gave us hope and promise of what Creaney could do. The question has to be why is he not remembered as one that got away? It has been said on the podcast numerous times he is the last prolific Celtic home-grown goalscorer. The second goal in this game could have been the future; Steve Fulton to Gerry Creaney. Take a minute to think about the buzz both those players created, and the ability they showed when they broke into the team… then imagine what could have been. We are allowed to do that. We are allowed to dream.

Creaney would find himself partnered with Charlie Nicholas, Andy Payton and Tommy Coyne. He was best suited alongside Charlie Nicholas in an old head / young legs partnership. Could this have been what he needed? Someone to teach him the game? Someone who, despite what you might think about him now, was one of the greatest talents we have ever produced. Nicholas still had merit even at this late stage of his career.

David Elliot played with Gerry Creaney at youth level for Celtic. He recently appeared on A Celtic State of Mind, where he spoke about his former team-mate:

“Was the 14-year-old Gerry any good? He was good but he improved and worked hard at his weaknesses. Did he stand out and in a good Celtic Boys team? I would say no one did, but Gerry did really work hard when he signed as a 17/18-year-old and got his go at professional football. He came on leaps and bounds.

“You didn’t get the ball off Gerry, he kept the ball all the time, he was very skilful and had an eye for goal, and if he could sneak in front of you for a chance of goal he wouldn’t think twice. He had a lot of confidence and really did work hard from 15 onwards.”

Listen to DAVID ELLIOT with A Celtic State of Mind here:

What is clear, what he lacked in natural ability was made up in determination and work-rate, whilst never having the easiest playing style on the eye. But watch his goals in this game and others in 1991 and 1992. Clearly there was a player there and I still wonder why it didn’t happen for him over a longer period of time at Celtic Park. It’s difficult to blame any player for failure when the club was a hopping mad box of frogs. In the case of Creaney, we have to think of what might have been if circumstances were different.

The Celtic fans, after a dreadful season, showed their unwavering support as Pat Bonner, in a distinctive green and yellow pixelated jersey, picked up the testimonial trophy to a rousing chorus of You’ll Never Walk Alone. As the Celtic players went around the pitch, picking up the many scarves thrown in their direction, everyone thought it was going to get better. It didn’t. Well not for a couple of years anyway.

Billy McNeill took the acclaim of a crowd and walked up the Celtic Park tunnel for the last time as Celtic manager. Paul Elliott, covered in Celtic scarves, also took their acclaim and, like Billy, would be gone in a matter of weeks.

Like so many days in the nineties, this was bittersweet.

Kevin Graham

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