When we clinched the league title on the last day of the season at Celtic Park on 9 May 1998, it was a hugely emotional day because it was the first time we had won the league in ten years. All the players were caught up in the euphoria of the occasion, and we didn’t think to make a big deal of the fact that we were asked to change into Umbro t-shirts for the presentation of the league trophy.
When I look back at the photos now, it is always a regret of mine that we weren’t wearing the hoops. We stopped Rangers from winning ten-in-a-row that day and we should have had the hoops on to lift the trophy. Not that it takes away from what we achieved that season, and it might be because I am a Celtic supporter that I notice the absence of the famous jersey when I’m looking through old photos from that memorable occasion.
The home jersey we changed into to lift the 2001 Scottish Cup was a special shirt for so many reasons – we won the treble that season and I was honoured with my Testimonial match against Manchester United. With that level of success, there is an inevitable fondness for the jersey we wore, but I clearly remember that the home shirt was not well-received by supporters when it was first unveiled.Listen to the latest episode of the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind
There is always a reluctance among Celtic fans to allow radical changes to their sacred hoops, and they were not happy with the white panels that ran under the arms and down the sides of the shirt. As far as Celtic fans were concerned, these white sections broke up the continuity of the hoops, and I remember it caused a fair bit of debate at the time. Had we not won everything in sight, the headlines may have read, “Hoopless and Hopeless,” but thankfully we didn’t have to worry about that. When fans look back to that season now, they will remember the incredible success we achieved, not the two white panels that appeared on the sides of the jersey.
I am sure that I speak for all Celtic fans when I say that the hoops should never be changed, but I also felt that Celtic should never have had numbers on the backs of their jerseys. There was always an added individuality and uniqueness to Celtic when we had the numbers on the shorts instead. The club crest and Umbro logo had been introduced over the years, but having numbers on the back of the hoops just didn’t look right when they were worn in European matches after 1975. This matter was eventually taken out of Celtic’s hands in 1994 when they were forced to introduce a numbering system on the shirts for domestic games. It is now normal practice, but back in my early days we only had the numbers on the shorts, and Celtic were renowned for that.
There are certain numbers that will forever be associated with individual players: number seven evokes memories of Jimmy Johnstone and Henrik Larsson; number eight reminds fans of my old team-mate ‘The Maestro’ Paul McStay; and number five is undoubtedly synonymous with the leader of the Lisbon Lions – Billy McNeill. When Billy sadly passed away last year, it sparked a debate around whether Celtic should retire the number five jersey in memory of their greatest ever captain. When Billy’s illustrious career is considered, then it would be safe to say that no other player would ever be able to fill his jersey. In fact, anyone tasked with wearing the number five for Celtic in the future could be faced with an added level of pressure because of the stature of the man who made it famous.
After everything that Billy McNeill achieved for Celtic and Scottish football, I think it would only be fitting to retire the number five jersey in memory of the greatest man who ever wore it.
Celtic’s Ambassador, Tom Boyd, was speaking to Paul John Dykes for the author’s long-awaited forthcoming book, The Celtic Jersey.Watch Kevin McKenna with A Celtic State of Mind