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Marching With O'Neill - 6-2 and the Treble Season
DetailStanding on the steps outside the entrance to Celtic Park’s main stand Martin O’Neill calmly surveyed the boisterous and noisy crowd which had gathered to greet him. Songs were being sung, scarves held aloft. The press and TV crews, cameramen and reporters, jostled for position as they swarmed around him.
Unfazed, O’Neill remained focused on those in the crowd. Looking like a teacher about to address a pack of over-excited school children on a trip to Alton Towers, he raised his right hand in a call for attention. As the crowd hushed he looked at them and said: “I will do everything I possibly can to try and bring some success to this football club."
A delighted crowd roared their approval. It would be a roar which would not be silenced all season.
The appointment of the Derryman was welcomed by almost all Celtic fans. An articulate, passionate and intelligent character, O’Neill had become one of English footballs most sought after talents after remarkable success at unfashionable Leicester City. Critics of the appointment pointed at a lack of big club experience, but for most Celtic fans there was a quiet optimism that the club had finally appointed the right man.
By the time the season kicked-off O’Neill had brought in Chris Sutton from Chelsea while Belgium international Joos Valgaren added an assured quality to the defence. But while these buys would prove invaluable it was the transformation of existing players which really caught the eye. Stan Petrov and Bobby Petta were unrecognisable from the disappointments of the previous campaign. Indeed the whole team seemed to have been revived by the O’Neill touch.
Celtic now looked confident and robust. They retained the club’s traditional attacking approach but had added a more physical dimension to their play. Were the days of the Hoops being bullied about to end?
That question would be answered on August 27 2000 at Celtic Park, where O’Neill would go head-to-head with Rangers for the first time. Nobody would predict what happened next. In an astonishing opening 11 minutes Rangers were engulfed by the whirwind that was Celtic. The rampant Bhoys raced into a 3-0 lead. Thrust after thrust of Celtic attacks left the defending champions bedraggled and bewildered. The Ibrox club would pull a goal back before the break but little than five minutes after the restart Henrik Larsson sealed his reputation as a world class striker and Celtic legend with a goal of sublime beauty.
After 90 frantic and furious minutes a magnificent Celtic side emerged 6-2 victors. They had gone toe to toe with their big rivals and obliterated them. Those with Rangers sympathies dusted themselves down and talked about another ‘false dawn’ for the Celts. But despite the Bhoys suffering a 5-1reverse at Ibrox in November the sun was now starting to set on a decade of almost uninterrupted Rangers success.
That Ibrox defeat aside Celtic appeared unstoppable. Even reduced to 10 men they were able to destroy Kilmarnock in the CIS Cup final thanks to a wonderful Larsson hat-trick.
The league championship would be wrapped up in April and, as Champions, Celtic returned to Ibrox where they yet again destroyed Rangers with a 3-0 victory (with Larsson hitting his 50th goal of the season) every bit as sweet as the earlier 6-2 triumph.
On a typically glorious May day Celtic wrapped up their first treble since 1969 with a comfortable victory over Hibernian. In less than 12 months Martin O’Neill had transformed Celtic and Scottish football. There would of course be failures during O’Neill’s reign. Mistakes were made and opportunities missed. But his reign is one to be celebrated by all Celtic fans and his legacy can not be counted in trophies alone.
The elastoplasts of two last gasp title triumphs can not disguise the wounds caused to Rangers’ sense of invincibility during the Irishman’s five year rule at Parkhead. After a decade of Rangers success Martin O’Neill didn’t just break the dominance of the Ibrox club. He smashed it to smithereens. So much so that eight years later they are still picking up the pieces.
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, May 20 2012, 12:39 PM EDT
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