“I did a pirouette” – Paul McStay on the turn that preceded his pass to Chris Morris, January 2, 1988.

THAT THE DEFINITIVE MOMENT OF CELTIC’S 1987-88 centenary season could be described in balletic terms is remarkable when one considers what had gone before that year. Celtic, whose greatest competition in the late ’70s and early ’80s had come not from Rangers but from Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen and Jim McLean’s Dundee United, were now faced with the prospect of a resurgent Glasgow rival with seemingly endless funds.

With English clubs banned from competing in Europe after the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985, the lure of Scottish football and Rangers’ newfound wealth was proving irresistible to a host of big names from south of the border. Rangers’ 1987-88 squad boasted England internationals Trevor Francis, Terry Butcher, Chris Woods and Ray Wilkins; Richard Gough and Graeme Souness, arguably two of Scotland’s finest-ever players, had come home to join the likes of Ian Durrant and Davie Cooper in a formidable squad.

The 80s had been boom time for Scottish football. That season, the Scottish Premier League contained not only a strong Rangers, but a Dundee United team that had reached the UEFA Cup final the previous season and had a squad packed with talent, including Maurice Malpas, Eamonn Bannon, Paul Hegarty and the youthful duo of Billy McKinlay and Kevin Gallacher. Meanwhile Aberdeen, though reeling from Ferguson’s departure to Manchester United in 1986, would continue to put in an almost yearly challenge for the league title before fading as a force in the early-90s.  At their disposal that season were players of the calibre of Jim Bett, Stewart McKimmie and Charlie Nicholas, as well as the Cup Winners’ Cup-winning legends Alex McLeish, Willie Miller, John Hewitt and Jim Leighton.

Celtic, by contrast, had haemorrhaged talent from the previous season, with Alan McInally, Maurice Johnston, Murdo MacLeod and Brian McClair all having left. When you consider the clubs this quartet went on to play for with distinction – Bayern Munich, Nantes, Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United – it seemed to represent a loss from which Celtic could barely be expected to recover. In addition, the talismanic figures of Davie Provan and Danny McGrain had left the club, casualties of illness and age respectively, while manager Davie Hay – another Celtic legend – had been handed his jotters by the club hierarchy after a trophyless 1986-87 season.

To replace these men, Celtic brought in some unheralded names: Chris Morris from Sheffield Wednesday, Billy Stark from Aberdeen and Andy Walker from Motherwell joined the ranks. All three would have a major impact in the centenary season, augmenting the only players of genuine class that remained: McStay, Mark McGhee, Roy Aitken and Tommy Burns. A cursory glance at the rest of the squad throws up names like Pierce O’Leary, Derek Whyte, Anton Rogan and Owen Archdeacon, hardly players that would strike fear into the hearts of the infamous Rangers hard men, Souness, Butcher and Graham Roberts.

If they were lagging behind their rivals in terms of talent, the one thing Celtic’s squad didn’t lack was passion for the club. “Most of us were supporters,” said Aitken, the captain, a phrase unlikely to be uttered by a Celtic skipper of the current era. Of the centenary squad, the likes of McGhee, Aitken, Burns and Peter Grant had been Celtic fanatics as children, while McStay was steeped in the club: the grand-nephew of former manager Jimmy McStay, his brothers Willie and Raymond had also pulled on the famous green-and-white jersey. Celtic’s foundation as a charitable institution for the Irish Catholic poor of Glasgow’s East End meant that the significance of its centenary would not be lost on Republic of Ireland internationals Morris and Mick McCarthy.

In terms of gravitas and presence, the void left by Provan, McGrain and Hay was filled by the appointment of the iconic European Cup-winning captain Billy McNeill, who was entering his second spell as manager. McNeill had endured a miserable time in the previous season, which he ended as the unfortunate answer to a pub quiz question, having managed both Manchester City and Aston Villa in a season in which both clubs were relegated. He returned to Scotland wounded and with a point to prove. While he displayed a shrewd eye for a player in his first season back, with Stark and, later in the season, Frank McAvennie two of his most eye-catching signings, his mere presence in a dressing room full of Celtic supporters was guaranteed to have a motivating effect.

The Old Firm derbies would define the season. The first, on August 29 at Celtic Park, was settled for the hosts through a classy finish from Billy Stark; Rangers player-manager Graeme Souness responded by scything through the Celtic goalscorer who, having lost a boot in a previous exchange, had just played a smart inside pass with his stocking. Souness reacted as he tended to when he’d fouled someone severely: he feigned concern for his victim. Referee David Syme didn’t buy it and sent the former Liverpool star packing, but the midfield adversaries had set the tone for the remaining derbies of the season. They would be brutal affairs punctuated by rare moments of skill.

Stark’s goal was also interesting in that he was a Protestant. In 1987, such a situation on the other side of the divide – a Catholic scoring the winner for Rangers – would not have been possible. Rangers’ discriminatory signing policy had been in place – unofficially, of course – for decades, and the club would not sign a Catholic of Irish extraction until the following season, when Maurice Johnston was pinched from under the noses of their greatest rivals. In the days when sports teams were boycotting tours of South Africa, apartheid employment policies were alive and well in Scottish football. Celtic fans, overwhelmingly Scots of an Irish Catholic background, burned at the injustice of it all, seeing it as emblematic of their treatment in society in general; the Rangers fans, with their chant of “We Are the People”, revelled in their perceived superiority.

And so, it seemed, did some of the Rangers players. Ray Wilkins, the wonderfully gifted English midfielder, came to Rangers after spells at AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain. He recalls his shock at the dressing-room culture he found upon his arrival at Ibrox:

“I’d just come from Italy and France, which are Catholic countries, very warm and friendly, and here I was in Glasgow with some of my teammates hating Catholics. I just couldn’t understand it and frankly found it ridiculous.”

All this enmity was to spill over when the teams next met at Ibrox in October. Celtic, galvanised by the signing of Frank McAvennie from West Ham United two weeks previously, had gone 1-0 up through Walker when what would become known as the ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ incident took place.

Chris Woods, in goal for Rangers, picked up a routine ball in his penalty area before being confronted by the blond-haired McAvennie, arriving late. “I liked to go intae goalkeepers,” McAvennie would later admit. An altercation ensued that saw both Rangers’ England goalkeeper and Celtic’s new star striker ordered off. With central defender Roberts in goal, Rangers were quickly two down through an own goal by Butcher that Grant celebrated with a lightning-fast sign of the cross in front of the Celtic end. Butcher joined Woods for an early bath after flattening stand-in Celtic keeper Allen McKnight. Celtic, now playing ten and against nine, looked home and dry.

Remarkably, Rangers rallied. Ally McCoist pulled a goal back and, with Celtic retreating further and further on McNeill’s orders, Richard Gough slid in an improbable equaliser in the 90th minute. As Andy Walker put his head in his hands and pulled out a clump of hair in frustration, Roberts played the role of conductor, waving his arms ostentatiously as The Billy Boys poured down triumphantly from the terraces, the lateness of Gough’s equaliser making it feel like a winner to the Rangers supporters.

McAvennie (Goldilocks), and Woods, Butcher and Roberts (the Three Bears, a reference to Rangers’ Jockney rhyming-slang nickname, ‘the Teddy Bears’) ended up in court, charged with breach of the peace. Butcher and Woods were found guilty, though none of the Bears were asked to do porridge, with Roberts being found not proven and the other two receiving fines. McAvennie, to his eternal glee, was found not guilty: “We even beat them in court that year.”

Amidst the melee of these first two games, Paul McStay had gone about his business in midfield as unassumingly and conscientiously as ever, steering clear of the flashing limbs of Souness and Roberts and trying to impose his cultured, intelligent game on the fractious proceedings, without much success.

All that was to change on January 2, 1988. As Celtic entered its centenary year, the majority of the 60,000 crowd lustily wished their club many happy returns. McAvennie, another boyhood supporter, was keyed up for the game like never before in his career and found himself caught up in the emotion:

“When all the Celtic supporters started singing Happy Birthday, Celtic, it was incredible … I was nearly in tears.”

After an opening in which Celtic threatened to overrun their great rivals, Rangers began to come back into the match thanks to their quite stunning midfield quartet of Cooper, Wilkins, Souness and Mark Walters. Walters, an Englishman of West Indian descent, saw his every touch elicit shameful monkey chanting from sections of a Celtic support suddenly unaware of their own ancestors’ travails. The second half was held up while bananas were cleared off the pitch – any arguments that the fans in Celtic’s famous “jungle” section had simply moved away from pies and macaroon bars as a standard source of nourishment should be treated with scepticism.

As the game ebbed and flowed before half-time, a lovely shuffle by Andy Walker on the halfway line allowed him to feed Paul McStay in the centre circle. It was then that all the gladiatorial exchanges of the previous games melted away in the face of pure football brilliance.

Taking the ball, McStay was confronted with two European Cup winners in Souness and Trevor Francis, who’d come on for the injured Cooper. Deciding he didn’t fancy trying to beat them both, McStay looked for space elsewhere.

“I did a pirouette, a nice wee turn.” McStay’s bit of ballet gave him the room he needed to get his head up and, with trademark poise, he feigned a pass before spotting Chris Morris haring up the touchline. This was nothing new that season – many of Celtic’s victories had been built on the tireless overlapping runs of Morris and Anton Rogan from full-back – and many in the crowd would have been urging McStay to feed the Irishman.

What no-one had anticipated was quite how McStay would play Morris in. With Gough and Roberts sucked towards McAvennie and Walker, a gap opened up between Gough and Stuart Munro, the Rangers left-back. Munro and Mark Walters, who was hurtling back in panicked pursuit of Morris, would have been expecting a ball over the top, which would have been much easier to defend. McStay suggests this pass before playing the ball fast and flat through the gap between Gough and Munro, the ball travelling fully 40 yards on the floor and falling perfectly into Morris’s path, the Irishman not having to break stride as he looked up to pick his cross.

Not for nothing had the Celtic fans nicknamed McStay “maestro”; seldom has a single pass so dramatically changed the tempo of a game. With Morris already in full cry, roaring up the right with Walters panting in his wake, McStay’s through-ball released McAvennie and Walker like greyhounds from traps. With Gough, Roberts and Munro hopelessly fooled by the disguise on the pass, Morris just had to sling the ball in for McAvennie to stroke past Chris Woods; if he had missed it, Walker, standing two yards away, would have finished it instead.

In the second half, McAvennie would put the finishing touch on a 2-0 win, nodding a Morris free-kick past Roberts, who had again been forced to pull on the goalkeeper’s jersey after an injury to Woods. The victory put Celtic seven points clear in the days of two points for a win, and they finally killed off Rangers’ challenge with a 2-1 win at Ibrox in March. Celtic went 1-0 up that day through another virtuoso piece of skill from McStay, who volleyed past Woods from 20 yards with his left foot before producing one of the great Celtic celebrations, clutching his face in joy as he collapsed before the away end, a supporter celebrating with fellow supporters.

A McAvennie-inspired Scottish Cup win would complete the double and set the seal on a fairy-tale centenary year for Celtic, but it is McStay’s dismantling of the Rangers defence that cold, bright January afternoon that defines the season.

Celtic would go into decline in the years that were to follow, hamstrung by a board bent on running the club into the ground and an arch-rival able to lure footballing superstars from all over the globe, but McStay, the Maestro, stayed composed throughout, even after missing a crucial penalty against Raith Rovers in the 1994 League Cup final that would have ended Celtic’s five-year trophy drought. When that barren spell finally ended with victory in the 1995 Scottish Cup, the relief and joy on McStay’s face were those of a man who had carried his people to the Promised Land.

By MJ Corrigan. Follow @corriganwriter