On the cold winter’s evening of the 8th February 2000, Referee Dougie McDonald blew for half-time, signalling for the boos to swirl around Glasgow’s east end. Eric Black bounced to his feet and flew down the tunnel. He was furious with what he had just witnessed. Celtic were losing 2-1 to Inverness Caledonian Thistle, but that didn’t tell the whole sorry story.
Black was assistant to John Barnes and he knew that he was going to need to be more of a man than the manager. The manager wasn’t drowning, he had already drowned. The January break to Portugal had confirmed that. It was meant to heal divisions, not build further walls. It was meant to see the squad become all for one, but entrenched both camps even more.
“What would Alex Ferguson do?” he thought. Memories of numerous diatribes delivered with such venom they stung for days sprung to mind. When words would take hinges from doors, strip paint from walls and cause water to disappear back into taps. The target had to be right, though. Who would react well to a shouting?
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At that point, the hulking Mark Viduka sat down looking like he had not a care in the world. He had a laid-back attitude and exerted just enough effort to ensure that his unquestionable talent got him by. He had admitted as much in an interview with Croatian TV when he played for Zagreb when he said he didn’t fancy British football as he didn’t like to run. “Well, if he fancies the money he needs to fancy the effort,” was Black’s conclusion.
He fixed his gaze on the Aussie and let rip. Lazy, effortless, mercenary, doesn’t know he was born, how thousands want to pull on that jersey, and how he was treating it with disdain and always had done. Black’s rant had stopped all the other shouting that was going on between the players. All their eyes focussed on the red-faced Black and darted to the striker, whose breathing was getting sharper and sharper as he lifted his head and looked round the dressing room at his team-mates.
He fixed his glare for a few moments on those he thought deserved to be called out. He had tried with no service, had a shot cleared off the line and was the only talent in that room that would amount to anything. He stared at Black who was now ranting incoherently. Black started to slow down as he was the target in Viduka’s stare. A stare that was going darker and darker as the words bounced off its target. Black realised that he had picked badly. He was going to get a reaction, just not the one he wanted.
With the speed of a boxer, Viduka flew from his seat, swinging an aimless punch. Black backed off, hitting the treatment table, sending the half-time drinks and training tops on to the floor. He clattered into the tactics board as the striker was almost on top of him before Vidar Riseth and Tom Boyd got in between them. There was pushing and shoving, bodies being pulled away then heading back in to the chaos. Jonathan Gould threw his gloves at Eyal Berkovic and called him out on his arrogance and attitude. The pair were separated before Gouldy could do any damage to Celtic’s most expensive signing. Terry McDermott and other match-day staff were calming things down and dragging players back to their seats.
John Barnes looked on from the corner of the room, helpless. He was a farmhouse being picked up and tossed about in a testosterone-fuelled hurricane of shouting, swearing, shoving, accusations, poor punches and egos. He couldn’t find any words. Didn’t have any words. Didn’t want to say any words. He closed his eyes and wished he was anywhere else in the world. That perfect Liverpool dressing room where all he had to do was play. He just wanted to play. He was jolted from his dream by a loud thud and the shout, “I’m not going back out!”
Viduka had sat down. His large hands took off his boots without unlacing them. With the accuracy he was capable of, he threw the boots into a bin with such strength that the bin banged and rocked from side to side. Eric Black was relieved that none of the punches had that strength or accuracy.
Ian Wright was laughing at the scene. The veteran striker had not got involved and had stood up on his seat to get a better view. “This is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen,” he thought. He didn’t care and had his mind on a media career, and realised how this tale would be great on the after-dinner speakers’ circuit.
Barnes was annoyed at this. He knew that he had lost the dressing room but expected support from his old mate that he had given a lucrative contract to. A rage built within the acceptance of his fate and he spoke for the first time since the half-time whistle went and just as the buzzer to signal the start of the second-half was piped into the dressing room.
“I don’t know what you’re laughing at, Wrighty, you’re going on…”
David Sutherland was trying to break the embrace of his fellow board members. His mind was racing. It had just received the adrenaline shot of the team that he helped to form barely six years ago – Inverness Caledonian Thistle – beating Celtic Football Club at Celtic Park.
Not just beating Celtic Football Club at Celtic Park but deservedly beating them. Comfortably beating them. Actually, playing them off the park, so much so that the scoreline flattered them.
He wanted to get on the pitch as he bowled out the director’s box and attempted to get past a steward, down to the lower part of the main stand. The steward tried in vain to stop him but was always destined to fail. A couple more stewards saw this suited man flying down the stairs screaming “Stevie, Stevie, Stevie,” trying to attract the attention of Inverness manager Steve Paterson. He wanted to grab the manager and drag him over to the jubilant 4,000 fans that had made the long, long journey. A journey not just that night but a journey six years in the making.
He wanted to show them that they were right all along to merge Caledonian FC and Inverness Thistle. He knew some of the doubters would be there watching. Those who shouted the loudest that it was all just about money.
That was true.
From the first phone calls from the Scottish Football League letting the board members know that a joint bid from the city would be warmly welcomed and voted through, to the local enterprise companies saying that they would only fund a joint bid, the dream was sold to fans about league football and riches. The older fans were bribed to ensure the votes went through. The younger ‘rebels’ were besmirched in the local press as standing in the way of progress.
Some would be in attendance.
Some Thistle and Caledonian fans now would be Celtic season ticket holders. They never were really Caley or Thistle. Some of them would be celebrating as they were now Rangers season ticket holders. Those who now watch Ross County would be sick with jealousy.
He wanted to get on that pitch and laugh in John Barnes’ face. Barnes, who a few weeks ago had gone up north on a scouting mission then left at half-time proclaiming that he had seen enough. “He had seen enough now,” Sutherland thought.
The Celtic players were trudging from the pitch, as Charlie Christie shook their hands. He saw a lost look in their eyes. He saw some that didn’t care and others who cared too much. He looked up in the stand for his family. He was a Thistle man like his dad, and had played for Thistle. He truly believed that the merger was for the good of the city even if it had become more of a Caley takeover. That was the fear at the time and it was hard not to feel sad that it had come true as he looked down at his kit now mainly Caley blue.
As David Sutherland ran back up the stand, he was stopped by Celtic CEO Allan MacDonald, who shook his hand. Sutherland hardly noticed that MacDonald was chalk white but did feel the handshake was half-hearted and that his mind was elsewhere.
His mind was elsewhere.
It was in the dressing room, wondering what was going on. Before he took his seat for the second-half, he was stopped by a club official and told about a number of disagreements. He was told that our star striker was refusing to play. He was told that our manager had lost the dressing room. The second-half was no surprise to him.
MacDonald turned around and walked down the stairs, past the hospitality lounges that were full of seething fans wanting answers, straight down the corridor, nodding politely and solemnly to those who walked past him. He closed the door of his office and took a deep breath. As he walked to his desk, he fumbled the mobile phone from his trouser pocket and laid it down. Slumping into his seat, he began to think about how this wasn’t in the job description.
He was feeling the pain of a fan first and foremost, as he was one, but he had to make a phone call that he never thought he would need to make. He was thinking about the awkwardness that he was finding when dealing with Viduka, and whether Barnes really did stand a chance. Picking up the phone, he punched in the number and listened to that long international flat dial tone. “Voicemail,” he curses, as he left the message:
“Kenny, it’s Alan… you need to come home.”
He stood up and put the phone back in his pocket, knowing that he wouldn’t get a return phone call that evening. He needed to find out what went on in that dressing room before he got that call back.
Allan MacDonald poured himself a glass of sparkling water, carefully not spilling any on the oak table in front of him. The rest of the Celtic board were around the table apart from the major shareholder whom they were all waiting on. Held up in London traffic, probably.
MacDonald was feeling chuffed with himself, as he flicked open the folder in front of him and started thumbing through the documents it contained. There were graphs, financial projections, a synopsis and key performance indicators of the project – The Guus Hiddink project.
There had been months of meetings with the successful Dutchman in his luxury Seville hotel. There had been many hours of discussions with his representatives. He wanted to come to Scotland. More importantly, he wanted to come to Celtic and resurrect the fortunes of the club. He wanted to take on and beat fellow Dutchman, Dick Advocaat. It would take money. A lot of money.
He would have to sell it to the other board members; that they would have to spend and borrow big, but it was a safe investment as the borders in the football world were changing. The Dutch were right behind the Atlantic League and Sky was clamouring for Celtic to be included in a re-branded Championship. The financial restraints of Scotland were soon to be left behind. Project Hiddink would prove to everyone that Celtic should be a major player in any future developments.
The door of the nondescript conference room opened and in walked Dermot Desmond looking as sharp as a razor and oozing effortless charm from the off. “Gentlemen!” he said and, as he said it, MacDonald had a feeling in the pit of his stomach like he had just been thrown from the top of a building.
“I want to introduce to you the new manager of Celtic Football Club, Mr Martin O’Neill.”
In walked a small in stature man, with hair destined to look unkempt no matter how hard he tried, spectacles perched precariously on the bridge of his nose, behind them sat a pair of sharp eyes and an even sharper mind.
MacDonald watched on as the Ulsterman went round the room shaking hands and greeting the other board members while Desmond grinned maniacally as he took his seat.
He closed the folder in front of him and became a lost soul as his mind drifted back to that night in February that led to this moment. “Everything happens for a reason,” he mused, as he knew then he would be forever remembered as part of the failed dream team. Desmond had made that clear.
As Martin approached, MacDonald rose from his chair and put out his hand. In all his years of business, he knew that it was important to give a great first impression no matter the inner turmoil that you were feeling.
“Martin, pleased to meet you.” he said, shaking Martin’s hand.
On shaking his hand, he became Allan, the lifelong Celtic fan, and not Allan MacDonald, the Chief Executive Officer of Celtic Football Club. There was something in Martin’s shake and he had brought something into the room that Allan, the lifelong Celtic fan, hadn’t felt in a long time.
It was going to be alright.