Unfinished Brattbakk Business
“He’s bringing on that fucking half-wit. I canny believe it,” said Jonnie.
His nerves had been disturbed. He had the false anger of a football fan. His concentration was broken while shakingly trying to roll a joint without anyone noticing. He was completely oblivious to the fact that everyone was watching him; that his constant smoking had left a pungent aroma around us.
“We would have won the league last week if he hadn’t dropped Jackson,” he commented with all the authority of someone who once scored for his primary school team.
There it was… the inner Hibee coming out in him.
His Dad was a Hibee. Leith born-and-bred but moved away for work. He wanted Jonnie to be a Hibee, but his firstborn son was having none of it. Always a contrarian was our Jonnie. Jonnie told us that he hated going to visit his grandparents and family who still stayed there. Said it was horrible and that they had no time for Celtic. Absolutely hated them. Petty jealousy dressed up as principles. So when his dad left his mum for a barmaid, Jonnie’s revenge was going to Parkhead and one Christmas asking his grandfather why he didn’t boycott Hibs when they tore down the shamrock of his father’s land?
He hadn’t seen his family for years but was the only Celtic fan over the moon when we signed Darren Jackson. Jackson was one of those players that you loved to hate. He was generally annoying and played with the lack of ability chip on his shoulder. He was always on the wind-up and seemed to have a permanent scowl. He was a trier, though. You had to admire that but you always thought, rightly or wrongly, that your team could do better. Jonnie’s brother had a baby and named it ‘Darren’, after the player. Two days after the birth was registered, Jackson signed for Celtic. His brother was distraught and the poor wee boy is now called by his middle name of ‘Mark’. How bitter is that?
No matter our thoughts on Jackson, as soon as he became a Celtic player he became our problem and one that we would defend. The reception he got when he came on as a sub after his brain injury showed that we are decent sorts. That July day when both he and Henrik Larsson were introduced to the press seemed so long ago. It was now the 9th of May and it was a sticky afternoon. I was unsure whether it was the heat or the tension or Jonnie’s smoke that was making me struggle to breathe. It was 4:15pm and we had a slim 1-0 lead. It felt like we had held that lead since that day in July. Harald Brattbakk was getting stripped to come on. Wim Jansen was giving him his final instructions.
I couldn’t have dreamt of this scenario when Tommy Burns left. We all thought that Bobby Robson would be the manager but, instead, we were introduced to a curly-haired wild-eyed Dutchman that no one had heard of. Well, apart from the old guy who stayed across the road from me. He remembered the player from the 1970 European Cup final, as he was in Milan. He had a spare room full of old football magazines and found a World Soccer that had a colour picture of Jansen in a Netherlands kit. His wild curls tamed with Brylcreem, a youthful freckled face looking every inch of a 17th-century Dutch prince. Jonnie pointed out we didn’t like Dutch princes. His playing record spoke for itself and Johan Cruyff said he was a decent manager. We had to hang on to anything hopeful and good, no matter how strange.
But we now found ourselves here.Listen to the latest episode of the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind with PROFESSOR PHIL SCRATON here:
I looked across at the dugout wondering what instructions Jansen was giving the striker. The striker was looking like he had been dropped into an oversized kit with it’s oversized diamonds. The fashion for baggy kits didn’t suit the slight players. Simon Donnelly and Jackie McNamara also suffered from that unflattering fashion. Darren Jackson didn’t. His top seemed to fit him.
That we were in this intense situation was partly down to the man giving the instructions. He was pragmatic. He was the opposite of Tommy and maybe that’s what we needed all along. The proof was there for all to see.
We were 30 minutes away from winning our first league title in ten years. This was the closest we had ever been. We had ten years after countless failed attempts. Laughed at up and down the land. Tommy failed with one of the best sides I have seen. But now we were the best team in the league. Craig Burley and Jackie McNamara had won the national player of the year awards. We had Paul Lambert. A superb partnership in Stubbs and Reiper. The cults of Mahe and Annoni.
But, in typical Celtic style, we were now on our last pair of underpants. We couldn’t put teams away. That was due to the cautious nature of the manager. Our forwards had all gone through spells of losing form and, going into the last game, it was fair to say we were struggling in front of goal.
Our nerves had been settled by Henrik. A great time to score his first goal since that wet night in Kilmarnock. That was four games ago and now the manager was turning to Brattbakk to settle this game. It was a bold substitution. One that my Celtic DNA was welcoming. None of this pragmatic Dutch style. If we were going to win this league, we were going to do it by attacking. That the player who was coming on hadn’t scored in nine games wasn’t featuring in my thoughts. His last goal was against Dundee United in the Scottish Cup and, during that spell, he had scored eight goals in nine games.
What instructions do you give a striker that you’ve dropped and hasn’t scored in nearly two months?
My mind went back to a conversation that we had on the way home from the Scottish Cup tie against Dundee United. Jonnie drove up and had a stinking hangover. On the way home, he took the wrong turning and we ended up in Fife. He decided that he wanted a smoke and a pint. We stopped in a wee village, left our colours in the car and went into a small boozer on the main street. It was busy with guys watching football and playing pool. We got the usual looks. We were being sussed out with ears listening for the strangers’ accents.
The barman’s inevitable question of, “What brings you in here?” was answered that we were out for a drive and fancied a pint. The barman looked at us as he poured the drinks. A smile broke over his face as he asked if our pal was feeling a bit rough as he pointed at Jonnie. Jonnie looked like he survived on a diet of Quavers, cannabis, lager and nicotine. Which he did. We all laughed and made some over-the-top jokes about it being a rough night and needing to clear all our heads.
We found a table in the corner where we could keep an eye on Newcastle v Barnsley on the TV that was beside the bar. Jonnie returned in from his smoke, looking refreshed, and commented after a few moments of watching the TV:
“Dalglish should be our manager; someone who knows the club”.
“Like Tommy and Lou?” I asked.
“He knows players, unlike Jock Brown, wasting that money on Brattbakk. Look, he signed that Andreas Andersson from AC Milan, AC fucking Milan, for three million quid. Only a couple of hundred grand more than we spent on that full-time accountant, part-time footballer,” came Jonnie’s riposte.
“Give the guy a fucking break,” I replied, sharply. “He’s scored eight goals in nine games, just forced a last-minute winner there and you’re still moaning. The guy hasn’t got a chance with guys like you. You read too many papers”.
“I know what I see and I see an utter bomb-scare who misses more than he scores,” concluded Jonnie.
He had a point. A few weeks back, Brattbakk had scored four goals against Kilmarnock but should have scored eight. He had two one-on-ones with Andy Goram in the New Year game and hit the fat goalie with both of them. He was struggling to settle and had commented in an interview that he wasn’t used to playing with his back to goal. I offered that Jonnie had to take all of that into account.
“That’s just an excuse. He won’t do. Darren Jackson is a better option,” continued Jonnie, unabated.
“When did Darren Jackson score the winner against Real Madrid in the last six months?” I challenged.
“He hasn’t, but…” Jonnie’s argument was running out of steam.
I then reminded him of that goal and how excited he was that we were signing a guy who was scoring goals in the Champions League, a competition that we hadn’t got anywhere near since it had come into existence. We were talking about a guy who had scored four goals in the group stages of the Champions League; winners against Porto, Real Madrid, and a double against Olympiacos. A far better record than Darren Jackson.
“A left-foot half-volley from the edge of the box, left Bodo Illgner helpless. You loved that goal. Said we had a player,” I reminded him.
“Would rather he scored against Rangers than Real Madrid…” was Jonnie’s meek reply.
There was no talking to him and we got back into the car in almost silence. I felt for the player. The press was constantly on his back. They seemed to take a dislike to his clean-cut, intelligent look while loving the hard-drinking fast-living wife-beating and cheating type that Rangers had. I liked to think that they were scared of Harald. Scared of his intelligence, but more importantly scared of his ability. Scared that he was the missing piece of the jigsaw that would see us win the league. He had started to link well with Henrik. He made good runs and, when he didn’t take that one or two or three extra touches, could finish. He just needed a run in the team and to build his confidence.
As we headed for home, we were listening to Ian Brown’s new album, Unfinished Monkey Business. It was his first one since The Stone Roses had split up. It was lo-fi, taking its cue from Beck and The Beta Band but it still had that Mancunian swagger and attitude. While the music and quality of the songs were all over the place, from the high of My Star to the low of the last song Unfinished Monkey Business, you could tell it was honest and what he wanted it to sound like. Even if his interviews had become bizarre, I liked it. It reminded me of Brattbakk. A gem of a player who was capable of missing a beat or a note every so often, but he was honest with it. Likeable even. I told the others in the car about my theory. They didn’t stop laughing until we got home.
And now we were here.
A run and the confidence of goals hadn’t happened. As we were strangled by the pressure of what was at stake. Everything was burned by magnification. Poor touches, anonymous games and a lack of goals were all due to him being a poor footballer. Nothing else was considered.
So, Simon Donnelly ran off and Brattbakk came on. We knew that Rangers were winning at Tannadice. We knew that the week before we had lost a late equaliser, and we knew that we had a major let-off as George O’Boyle headed a great chance over the bar.
Jonnie sparked up another joint and I gave him a dirty look as Tom Boyd picked up the ball. He played the ball to Jackie McNamara who did what he had done all season and forcefully went down the right-wing with attitude.
It was then I looked into the middle and saw Brattbakk in space and running like a swan heading for its unguarded cygnets. All head up and knowing where he had to be. What he had to do. He was doing what came naturally to him, facing the goal, predicting where the ball would be passed into, on the blindside of defenders; defenders in his slipstream, and being confident that, if all things fell as he had seen in his mind’s eye, then he was scoring. As Jackie put the ball over, I closed my eyes and awaited the outcome. I knew one way or another at 4:28pm on the 9th of May 1998, my and Harald’s future was being written. One was a fairytale and the other our worst nightmare.
The noise signalled the fairytale.
As we hugged, jumped and screamed, I looked over to the corner flag where the Celtic players were celebrating. Harald was the calmest person in the stadium. He fist-pumped the main stand on his way back to the half-way line with the look of a man asking the world what they were all worried about. He had this all along. He could see clearly through his glasses while we were clouded by others’ opinions. At 4:28pm on the 9th of May 1998, he scored a goal bigger than scoring the winner against Real Madrid. Two goals in a season that would see him bestowed with legend status at two clubs in the same season.
That is a fairytale.
Jonnie was on his hands and knees, looking for his dropped joint. The woman along from him was on her hands and knees, crying through relief. I was slumped back into the hard green plastic seat that was now feeling like the most expensive couch in the world.
“What are you saying now Jonnie?” I asked, still elated.
“Should have been done last week,” a resolute Jonnie replied.
“Oh, get to fuck,” I said as I grabbed him like a drowning man grabbing a life belt.
“Champions,” he whispered.
We both hoped that we would say that more often over the next ten years.
Kevin GrahamWatch Sophie Millar’s stunning rendition of ‘Come Back Paddy Reilly’: