Tom Campbell with A Celtic State of Mind – The Enigmatic Harald Brattbakk

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Enigma Variations

Some players are unlucky in respect of the reputations they enjoy, reputations that are often undeserved. Football fans can be cruel and one mistake by a player (especially if it is shown on TV, and repeatedly) remains the abiding image of his career.

Such a player was Harald Brattbakk, the Norwegian striker for Rosenborg and Celtic. Even the Celtic Wiki describes him as “a penalty-box blunderer”. Hardly fair for a striker who scored 28 goals in 66 appearances for Rosenborg in European competitions, and 4 goals for Celtic in 9 such matches … and, of course, he scored twice for Rosenborg when the Norwegians defeated Celtic at Trondheim in a Champions’ League fixture in 2001 … and don’t forget that he played 17 times for his country and scored 5 times … nor should you forget that he is very close to being the all-time leading scorer in the Norwegian Premier League.

One leather-lunged critic – and a man who sat behind me at Celtic Park – hated Harald and with a vengeance. He attributed the striker’s misses to nerves: “He jist goes to pieces in front of goal. He’s too nervous.” Strange that ‘his nerves’ did not stop him after retirement from training as a pilot (in Florida), nor from flying regularly out of Trondheim for a commercial company. Norway, it might be remembered, is a mountainous terrain, interlaced with fjords, subject to freezing temperatures in winter, and prone to Arctic gales … perhaps not the ideal conditions for a pilot who suffers from ‘nerves’.

Listen to JOHN BARNES with A Celtic State of Mind here:

Harald Brattbakk, already a Norwegian internationalist, was signed by Celtic from Rosenborg near the end of 1997, and arrived with an impressive goal-scoring record. He seemed an earnest, clean-cut young man, more like an accountant than a footballer especially when spotted wearing glasses; an intelligent young man, articulate in more than one language … precisely the sort that any father would like his daughter to bring home as a suitor. The cynic in the seat behind me would consider that “…because he couldnae score there either.”

On the pitch, things were promising: he was fast and hard-working, he could find space. On February 21st 1998 (as Celtic’s challenge for the league appeared to be in earnest) he made what was hoped to be the breakthrough; against Kilmarnock at Celtic Park he scored all Celtic’s goals in a 4-0 win (although it was noted that in a couple of one-on-ones he had been foiled by the Kilmarnock goalkeeper.

However, misses (when presented with clear opportunities) became a feature of his game. It was hardly ‘nerves’ and I, as a season-ticket holder who travelled to home and away games on the Edinburgh No 1, noticed a particular trait. When given the chance to shoot, he rarely snatched at it; instead, he preferred to control the ball completely, to take the time to ease it into the best position before shooting. Unfortunately, this deliberate style meant that defenders frequently had the chance to catch up and jostle him as he shot.

He was a frustrating player, and almost everybody was tolerant of his misses; the supporters wanted him to do well, at times almost willed it to happen. The Celtic Wiki described it thus: “…it was impossible to feel any animosity towards a guy who was so clearly hard-working, honest and an all-round good egg, although by God he did test our patience.” In fact, when Rosenborg visited Glasgow to play Celtic in 2001, Harald Brattbakk came on as a substitute; he was accorded a standing ovation.

All his misses would be forgiven, however, on the last day of the 1997/98 season when Rangers were going for the ‘ten-in-a-row season’. The climax arrived when Celtic faced St Johnstone, and a win would give Celtic the title. During the week prior to the match, not too many Celtic supporters could claim to have enjoyed a good night’s sleep; the tension was just too much.

Henrik Larsson did his best to ease that tension by scoring in the second minute, cutting in at speed from the left and curling a long-range effort past the St Johnstone keeper. However, Celtic did not capitalise although remaining in command … Rangers had moved into the lead at Tannadice … and that one-goal lead at Celtic Park was becoming nerve-wracking.

With about twenty minutes left, Simon Donnelly was replaced by Harald; the exchange was met with rapturous applause although it was unclear if the approval was intended for Simon or Harald. It was probably a sign of solidarity, that the supporters would encourage every man in green-and-white, and would back him as he gave his 100%.

I made a point recently of watching (and re-watching) footage of this match on the internet: Tom Boyd halted a St Johnstone raid and, despite being encouraged by nervous spectators to thump the ball downfield, decided to advance with it for about twenty yards on the touchline … he released a pass to Jackie McNamara ahead of him on the right wing and who had got behind the full-back … Jackie scampered down the wing and, in the middle, Harald Brattbakk was racing through and desperately signaling for the pass … he may have had an undeserved reputation for missing easy chances, but the Norwegian was not the man to hide … over came the ball, almost the ideal pass, and Harald Brattbakk met it perfectly to clip the ball into the net.

Celtic Park erupted again, the din was deafening. Brattbakk turned away, heading towards the left-wing corner-flag to celebrate with the supporters, and the first player to reach him was Henrik Larsson who leaped on to his back and pointed down to his fellow Scandinavian, as if to say to any doubters: “He’s the man!” It was a reminder that the same Henrik Larsson had pointed out on occasion that ”Harald is an exceptional striker. He creates space intelligently, and is an ideal partner.”

Tom Campbell

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