It would be fair to say that 25 years ago the Celtic support was in optimistic mood going into the September international break. It’s also fair to say that the music and tabloid press were in optimistic mood, as Alan McGee delivered them a band that would fill column inches with an attitude not seen since The Sex Pistols.
Oasis released ‘Definitely Maybe’ on 29 August 1994. The album is unarguably epoch-defining and a stone-cold classic. Its legacy shadows every single skinny-jeaned Adidas-wearing kid that now straps on a guitar. That the songs from that album can cause mass sing-alongs and attract large festival audiences from kids not alive when it was released says it stands the test of time.
The songs were delivered by a charismatic set of brothers and a band of everymen. They looked like folk you knew but at the same time, they look like nothing you had seen before. They looked out at me as often as Fergus McCann did from the pages of the press I read. Though, unfortunately, Fergus didn’t have the Bambi eyes after a two-day bender look that Liam Gallagher had.
The album sounds like it could take on a pub in a fight. Owen Morris, who produced and mixed the album in Johnny Marr’s Manchester studio, said Marr was appalled at how in-your-face it was. Morris was given tapes of three recording sessions the band had completed at Mono Valley Studios, Sawmill Studios and Eden Studios and was asked to make them sound like the band sounded live, which was loud and brash. After a few vocal and bass re-records, he did just that.
It was a heady mixture of punk, glam, pop and The Beatles delivered with a simplicity that only the great achieve. Nothing was over-complicated. The lyrics were about love, escaping and belonging. Something that us Celtic fans could relate to.
Lou Macari was sacked as Celtic manager in June 1994, three months after the rebels had won. The club turned to Tommy Burns. He was the stand-out option, though still in the infancy of his managerial career. After years of turmoil, he was chosen as the man to make us feel like Celtic belonged to us again and to escape the memories of the early nineties.
“One of the qualities I think my dad had was he could go into anywhere and bring people together.” Jenna Burns told ACSOM when she spoke to the podcast. It was those qualities that the club needed both on and off the field.
We had failed to qualify for Europe, so our first big test was at Ibrox on 27 August 1994. The league campaign opened at Brockville, a ground that had a stumbling, crumbling charm. Kick-off was delayed by 17 minutes to let in the large Celtic support, who were eager to see what Burns could bring to Celtic. It wasn’t much of a game. Brockville was perfect for bruising and frantic encounters and this one was no different. Andy Walker, Lou Macari’s last signing, scored an equaliser for The Hoops after a fine cross by Willie Falconer. It was a great header and Walker got his second spell off to a great start.
He then scored, the following week, our first goal as tenants of Hampden against Dundee United. A fine solo effort with an inside left-foot strike from just inside the box that curled into the bottom corner. It was scored with the body shape of someone neatly trying to squash him in a box that Walker seemed to have when he struck the ball. Tony Mowbray scored a last-minute winner after a horrible mistake by Alan Main to give Celtic our first win of the season.
There was controversy before the season started. The SPL wanted clubs to put numbers on the back of their jerseys to give the league a more professional look. Celtic refused and tried to get around it by putting black numbers, in a clunky font based on basic ZX Spectrum graphics, on the sleeves. The numbers looked an ironed on afterthought.
So, as Paul McStay led out Marshall, Galloway, McNally, Mackay, Boyd, McGinlay, Grant, Collins, Walker and Donnelly at Ibrox, history was made. Celtic had green numbers on the back of their kits. It was a kit that was controversial at the time. It only had three hoops, a round collar with dog ears and large Umbro logos in a dark army green within the hoops. Time has been kinder to that kit and I now look at it and think it would be a cracking retro.
Rangers had just been beaten from AEK Athens in the Champions League and the natives weren’t happy with Walter Smith. In the summer, they had spent over £6 million bringing Brian Laudrup and Basli Boli to the club and they hadn’t delivered the European success they desperately needed to match Celtic achievements. That shadow would get longer and colder and more dangerous as the years progressed.
This was Tommy’s first Glasgow Derby as a manager and, from the off, his team were on the front foot. They pinned Rangers back into their own half with the midfield winning the battle on the day. The wedge-like Pat McGinlay put in the hard yards despite him being linked with Motherwell in a swap-plus-cash deal for Phil O’Donnell.
Peter Grant was never a firm favourite. Though, you don’t play that many top-flight games under various managers if you don’t have something. He was the labourer to numerous tradesmen and artists in Celtic’s midfield. He ensured that we dominated on this occasion.
Our defence that day faced a Mark Hateley with his ridiculous hairstyle at its peak – long at the back and almost bald on top. A cross between Peter Stringfellow and a Mongolian warrior. Brian Laudrup had one of his rare quiet days and it wouldn’t be for another three seasons that these days became regular. With hindsight and less emotional baggage, I can say he was a top talent. Mowbray and McNally also ensured that Gordon Durie’s jukebox never had any credit.
The stars of the show were our two talented lighthouses during that time. No matter the storm, they shone. That Paul McStay and John Collins turned in week-in week-out for us is unfathomable now in this age of transient unfaithfulness. A backdrop of chaos and downright disappointment tinges our memories of watching the best two midfielders in the country together.
But, they had their moments.
When Celtic were awarded a free kick in the 44th minute, 22 yards from goal, everyone in the stadium knew what was coming. As the overworked Andy Goram (he had already during that first-half made four great saves – two from Collins and two from McStay – and faced nine corners) lined up his wall to ensure that its height was all on the right-hand side so it sloped like a roof, he knew what was coming.
Collins with the air of arrogance his talent deserved struck the ball with the instep of his left foot. The ball went around the wall at shoulder height. The wall jumped in vain. The wall was in vain. The ball’s trajectory before it started curling inward was wide. Well wide. It then started to turn.
Its final turn was so late that even to the last moment it looked like it was going by the post. The bulbous but agile Goram never dived. By the time he realised that he had to move; it was too late. His reaction was to stomp on his line angrily as Collins was wrestled to the floor by his team-mates while he kicked his legs in the air like a stricken beetle. One of the great Celtic goals at Ibrox.
But, his partner wasn’t to be outdone. Another of the great Celtic goals at Ibrox and his first goal against Rangers for six years. Time plays tricks on your mind and McStay was two months away from his 30th birthday when he scored this goal. I could have sworn he was at the veteran stage when he picked up a Peter Grant pass and, without thinking, struck a right-footed, low, accurate, powerful shot in off the inside of the post. The shot had such velocity that it flew off the post into the opposite side netting. If Collins strike had arrogance, McStay’s had the sleek grace that summed him up.
Three sides of Ibrox resembled a child’s primary coloured Lego fort long before the final whistle. Scarves were hurled at dugouts and Mark Owen and Robbie Williams of Take That – then the biggest band in Britain – left the directors’ box where they were invited guests. It’s not known if they vowed not to go back for good.
There was further joy a few days later when goals from Collins and Walker saw Celtic progress in the League Cup at the expense of Dundee, despite McStay being sent-off, and Rangers crashed out to Falkirk on the same evening. The travelling support was buoyant on the way back down the road. Were things really changing?
Noel Gallager said that everything that he wanted to say in a song was in ‘Rock n Roll Star’. Everything Celtic wanted was in that four-day period but it didn’t last. Our year at Hampden was forgettable as we were inconsistent. We were defeated in the League Cup final but salvation came in the form of the Scottish Cup.
The music landscape changed. Oasis pulled the world away from the despair of grunge. Kurt Cobain committed suicide while Oasis were ripping off T-Rex and Coca Cola adverts and telling us we were going to Live Forever and having a riot while doing it.
For me, that album soundtracked that season. While ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ is seen as a nod to hedonism, it’s actually social commentary. The most important line in the song is, “You’ve gotta make it happen,” and that’s what Celtic were doing. Share issues and moving to the biggest stadium in Scotland, which at the time was ridiculed. Fergus McCann aimed big just like that album.
25 years later Celtic are now further away from our dreams for the club than they were at that point. While songs from that album still feel relevant, us as a club is in the slow lane as the elite league’s hoover up the money and keep it behind security gates. That was not the case then. Our league has been strangled by TV just as the music industry has been by the internet. Oasis wouldn’t happen today just as Celtic going from nearly being bust in March 1994 to a European final nine years later wouldn’t. It was a hell of a ride.