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Nightmare On Kerrydale Street
With the Scottish Cup clasped firmly in his right hand Roy Aitken raised both arms high in jubilation and triumphantly thrust the trophy aloft. Season 1987-88 – Celtic’s Centenary year - had just come to the most dramatic and wonderful of conclusions.
A memorable league and cup double had been claimed during a campaign described by some as a “fairytale”. As Aitken and his team-mates danced with glee around the lush green Hampden turf the joyous mass of partying Celtic fans on the terracing were savouring every minute. As their famous club marked its 100th birthday there was a renewed sense of hope that past glories could be recaptured.
For at that moment the future looked every bit as bright as the blazing sun which had bathed the national stadium on an unforgettable afternoon. But for the followers of the Hoops the fairytale was soon to be replaced by a horror story.
Over the next few years the self-serving family-run board would steer Celtic close to financial catastrophe (more of that later). But for all the financial turmoil it was on the pitch that the most painful memories can be found.
Within weeks of season 1988-89 kicking off it had become painfully clear to the Celtic support that a lack of investment in the double winning team had allowed big spending Rangers to swiftly regain the upper hand. Celtic’s title defence had been pathetically inept. They were hammered 5-1 and 4-1 at Ibrox as Rangers reclaimed the championship with a contemptuous ease.
The Celts would win an Old Firm cup final to deprive Rangers of the treble but the momentum was now firmly with the Govan club. The gulf in quality on the pitch was notable but it paled into insignificance compared to the chasm in ambition between those running both clubs.
That point was emphatically proven when Rangers completed the audacious capture of the seemingly Parkhead-bound Mo Johnston. The signing of the ex-Celtic striker rubbed salt into the wounds of Hoops fans who could only watch in disbelief as their returning hero ditched them for their greatest rivals.
After stuttering and stumbling through the first half of the 1980s Rangers were now fully revived with Lord Marlborough and latterly new owner David Murray investing heavily in the club. Since the arrival of Graeme Souness as player-manager in 1986 they had spent big on transfer fees and wages and as a consequence were able to attract a string of England internationals such as Terry Butcher, Chris Woods and Trevor Steven. With Ibrox packed to its 42,000 capacity Rangers were a club reborn.
Rangers had thrown down a challenge to their rivals but the Celtic board lacked the vision, know-how and even the desire to respond. Consequently the Parkhead faithful were set to endure one of the most painfully miserable periods in the club’s history.
After continuing woeful results Billy McNeill would be axed and replaced by the inexperienced Liam Brady. It was sad to see McNeill depart in such a manner but in truth he had long lost the backing of the support. The Celtic job was Brady’s first managerial post. His talent as a player was immense but his knowledge of Scottish football and management was minuscule.
Brady had to work with relatively limited funds so it was important his main signings were successful. They were not. Stuart Slater, a £1.7m buy from West Ham, was a typically miserable failure while the comically inept striker Tony Cascarino was another expensive flop. Both men arrived with sizeable price-tags and expectaions but, pound for pound, would prove to be among the most miserable signings in Celtic history.
In fairness Brady’s team adhered to a neat passing game but as pleasing as that was for the football purist they were defensively shambolic and toothless up front. The Irishman quickly appeared out of his depth. His signings ill judged and his tactics naive. Domestic failure and European humiliation were the inevitable consequences.
The chasm between Celtic and Rangers was of Grand Canyon proportions. Even very limited Aberdeen, Hearts, Dundee United, Motherwell and Hibernian sides were now putting up more of a title fight than the Celts. Indeed the Bhoys now struggled to narrow the gap in league points with their city rivals to single figures.
Brady resigned in October 1993 and was replaced by former Celt Lou Macari. As a player Macari had wowed supporters in Hoops sides containing the likes of Hay, McGrain, Dalglish, Connelly and Deans. As a manager he fielded sides containing Biggins, Galloway, Byrne and Martin. If the manager could not see how far Celtic had fallen, the supporters certainly could.
Thankfully among those supporters was a certain Canadian-based businessman. Redemption from the suffering would eventually come. But not before memories of arguably the worse Celtic sides in history were burned onto the minds of a whole generation of supporters.
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