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Martin O’Neill had transformed the face of Scottish football. As manager of Celtic he had smashed the stranglehold of Rangers and in just four years and installed the Bhoys as the country’s leading club.
The Irishman had inspired his Celtic side to a UEFA Cup final and they were the dominant domestic force. By the start of season 2004/05 a fourth title in five years seemed inevitable. But without the magic of Moravcik and the genius of Larsson the team had lost its creative inspiration. The squad was also ageing and the energy and drive from previous campaigns seemed absent.
O’Neill’s Celtic had once ruthlessly swept opponents aside with an intoxicating cocktail of pace, power and no little panache. But they were now somewhat one dimensional, over reliant on physicality and the direct ball. Concerned supporters questioned a perceived lack of investment in the team. New signings such as Henri Camera and Juniniho were brought in on loan or for free and failed to provide much needed invention to the mix.
As a consequence Celtic were content to grind out wins. But the assurance and confidence of past campaigns was lacking. Too often the Bhoys looked nervy and during the course of the season they would drop vital points through conceding crucial late goals.
In January the last-gasp transfer deadline loan signing of Craig Bellamy from Newcastle would belatedly reignite the Hoops. The Welsh international brought a new dimension to Celtic’s play. His blistering pace could devastate defences and coupled with a fiery determination and eye for goal he seemed the answer to Celtic’s prayers.
The championship lead would switch hands several times during the early months of 2005 but when Bellamy inspired Celtic to a 2-1 victory at Ibrox in late April the champions were five points clear with four games remaining. It seemed only a matter of time before a second successive title was delivered.
But with Bellamy out injured Celtic were destroyed 3-1 at Parkhead by a youthful Hibernian side. The pace and enthusiasm of the Easter Road team ruthlessly exploited the flaws of the lethargic Hoops. With a resilient Rangers on a winning streak the championship race would be going down to the wire.
Both title challengers would be on their travels on the final day. Celtic to Motherwell and Rangers to Hibs. Nothing but a win would do for the Ibrox side, and even then they needed O’Neill’s team to drop points.
Celtic were the masters of their own destiny and the support were optimistic that at the vital moment the experienced Hoops side would not be found wanting.
Motherwell had regularly provided stern opposition for visiting Celtic sides and in manager Terry Butcher they were led by a man who would enjoy nothing more than depriving the Hoops of the title.
Celtic jogged out on to the typically muddy Fir Park pitch to a rapturous response from the large travelling contingent who had infiltrated every area of the stadium.
Bellamy began the match in a lively fashion and from the off his speed was causing problems for the home side’s defence. Celtic forced a corner within 30 seconds and would create a number of half chances as they cranked up the pressure.
As the half-hour mark approached Celtic were dominant. There were occasional moments of danger when Well broke forward on the counter but on the whole the visitors looked comfortable and in control. It was no surprise then that when the deadlock was finally broken it would be the Hoops who were celebrating.
Alan Thompson’s drive across the goal had only been parried by Well keeper and ex-Celt Gordon Marshall. Marshall’s intervention had prevented the ball reaching Bellamy at the back post but he had spilled it into the path of the onrushing Chris Sutton who poked in the opener from eight yards. A thunderous roar of relief and joy echoed around Fir Park. The stalemate broken the Celts were now truly in pole position and when half-time came without further incident in either game a happy ending was just a brief period away.
The second-half saw a brief flurry of pressure from the home side and after surviving a scare from an inswinging corner Celtic regained their composure to and once more controlled the play. John Hartson and Bellamy would forgo opportunities to double the Bhoys lead with Marshall in fine form for Well. On the hour news came through from Edinburgh that Rangers were ahead.
The Hoops pressed forward in search of a killer second goal but frustration was now creeping into the stands and on the pitch. Anxiety seemed to be creeping into Celtic’s play. Despite holding a goal advantage earlier optimism had now been replaced by a sense of fatalistic unease. Over in Edinburgh it seemed Hibs were happy to settle for a 1-0 defeat. Only goal difference could cost them a UEFA Cup slot and with this in mind both sides appeared satisfied to accept the status quo.
At Fir Park the game entered its final five minutes. A tepid conclusion here was not so likely. There was now no room for error. Each passing second should have been a moment closer to triumph. Instead a seemingly inevitable moment of doom appeared to be creeping ever closer. The moment came on 88 minutes.
As Celtic struggled to clear their lines a miss hit shot found Motherwell striker Scott MacDonald just inside the box. With his back to goal, he controlled an awkward bouncing ball on his chest before instinctively hooking it over his left shoulder. From the moment it left his boot its destination was never in doubt, although its journey into the back of the net took an agonising age.
While the goal appeared to be a tauntingly slow-motion moment, its impact on the Celtic support was painfully sudden. Stomachs churned, throats dried and hearts broke. The title was gone. McDonald’s deflected second goal just a minute later obliterated hopes of a Celtic comeback. By then most in green and white were too numb to feel the pain. Rangers were champions and a Celtic era was drawing to an ill-deserved end.
Within days it would be known that Martin O’Neill would be leaving Parkhead to offer more support to his ill wife. The events of Fir Park and that final season would momentarily cloud the many achievements of the O’Neill era, an era which for all but the most jaundiced should provide abiding memories of significant success and the re-establishment of Celtic as the top club in Scotland.
A Scottish Cup win couldn’t stop the events of Black Sunday from haunting Celtic supporters throughout the fo;;owing close season. For many even reclaiming the title the following campaign could not heal the wounds. It would take an exorcism at Tannadice before all the ghosts and gloaters were finally banished.
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