Arriving at a big club to low expectations can set the stage for a wonderful surprise, and this was certainly true of Ľubomír Moravčík’s Celtic career.
In autumn 1998, Rangers had resumed their dominance of the domestic game and Celtic were struggling to defend the Scottish Premier League title they had won earlier in the year. Celtic’s league winning manager Wim Jansen had left after just one season and in had come 62-year-old Slovakian Dr. Jozef Vengloš, best known in the UK for a brief spell as Aston Villa boss in the early 1990s.
With the Bhoys trying desperately to stay in the hunt for the SPL championship, Vengloš turned to a countryman for help, to much sneering from many in Scotland. Moravčík arrived in Glasgow at the age of 33, unknown to most after spending eight years in France and a very brief and unsuccessful spell at Duisburg in Germany.
A quick bit of research would have indicated that someone who had a combined total of 74 caps for Czechoslovakia and then Slovakia must have a decent pedigree. Still, at the age of 33, would this playmaker have what it takes in the rough and tumble of the Scottish game? At a press conference following Moravčík’s unveiling, Vengloš faced some tough questions from a press pack seemingly keen to ridicule the Celtic boss for bringing in ‘one of his own’.
The Herald ran an article in October 1998 with the headline stating that ‘Dr Vengloš defends his signing’ and the intro claiming that Vengloš would make Moravčík fight for his place “even if the two have an association that stretches back more than 11 years”. The line is a clear indication of the press’ attitude towards the move – a clueless manager signing up an old friend as a favour.
Others were less restrained, with Hugh Keevins writing in the Sunday Mail: “I don’t know what I find more laughable; the fact that Celtic cannot find £500,000 from their biscuit tin to sign a proven talent like John Spencer, or the fact that they then spent £300,000 on one of Dr. Jo’s old pals, the unknown Ľubomír Moravčík!”
John Traynor, another journalist with an apparent lack of knowledge of the European game, wrote: “If anything, the signing of Ľubomír Moravčík at a cut price has merely caused them further embarrassment.”
Keevins, Traynor and several others in the Scottish press would soon be made to look foolish when, just over three weeks later, Moravčík scored two goals and turned in a sublime performance as Celtic thumped Rangers 5-1 at Parkhead. Not only did it demonstrate that this was not some has-been in Glasgow for a final pay cheque, it also highlighted that this was a player with the temperament for the big occasion.
Another player who scored a double on that day was Henrik Larsson and their partnership was to prove fruitful for years to come. For almost four years in the East End of Glasgow, Moravčík lit up the Scottish game with his gifts. He was one of those players who seemed to have more time on the ball than those around him. He dribbled superbly despite limited pace and scored many spectacular goals from distance with both feet – a rare talent indeed.
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Moravčík’s career had been a slow-burner and he had never reached the top level of the game, despite his obvious gifts. His early years were spent in the Czechoslovakian league with FC Nitra but the collapse of communism in 1990 opened new horizons.
Moravčík played for Czechoslovakia under Vengloš in the 1990 World Cup in Italy and made it to the quarter-finals before being beaten 1-0 by eventual champions West Germany. Moravčík’s final act of the campaign was to be shown a red card for an act of dissent after having a penalty claim turned down.
After the World Cup, Moravčík moved to Saint-Étienne in France at the age of 25. While Saint-Étienne were the biggest name in French football in the 1960s and ’70s, this was not a team in the same class. They had failed to win a league title since Michel Platini inspired them to the championship in 1981 and had since been relegated after financial problems, before returning to the top flight.
As such, Moravčík stood out as a quality player in a mid-table side. This was a golden age of sorts for French football as Marseille, Paris Saint-Germain, Auxerre and Monaco all performed well in European competition. Marseille were runners-up to Red Star Belgrade in the 1991 European Cup before defeating AC Milan 1-0 in the 1993 Champions League final. PSG reached the semi-final of the Champions League in 1995 and lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1996.
There were rumours that other sides were interested in Moravčík, with Marseille owner Bernard Tapie linked with a move for him in 1992. Popular rumours suggest that none other than Zinedine Zidane was also a big admirer when his career in Ligue 1 was gaining momentum at Bordeaux. But the Slovakian remained at Les Verts until they were relegated in 1996. Rather than a move to one of France’s bigger teams, Moravčík headed to the island of Corsica to join Bastia. Another two mid-table finishes followed before Moravčík left France and signed for Duisburg in the Bundesliga.
Things didn’t work out in Germany and Ľubo was soon on his way to Celtic when his former boss Vengloš came calling. At the time, little was known about Moravčík in the parochial world of Scottish football so his arrival was generally met with reactions ranging from scepticism to contempt. The profile of French football had been high throughout the ’90s but only for those clubs in European competition. Moravčík hadn’t even had that exposure so assumptions were made about his quality. But, as followers of Matt Le Tissier’s career will tell you, absence from European competition does not make you an average player.
Moravčík’s glorious spell at Celtic started as he helped to dismantle Rangers three weeks after signing. But it took time thereafter for the team to become successful. Vengloš left the Bhoys after finishing second in the SPL, six points behind Rangers, while also losing to their bitter rivals in the Scottish Cup final.
Much fanfare greeted the arrival of the inexperienced John Barnes and Celtic hero Kenny Dalglish as the new management team in the summer of 1999. But, after a promising start, the wheels soon came off. Larsson suffered a serious injury in a UEFA Cup tie in Lyon in October, putting him out for most of the season, and Celtic’s performances soon went from bad to worse.
When First Division Inverness Caley Thistle came to Celtic Park for a Scottish Cup tie in February, they inflicted one of the biggest humiliations ever suffered by the Glasgow giants. Caley won 3-1 and Barnes was soon shown the door, with Dalglish tasked with steadying the ship.
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The Hoops ended the season with a trophy after defeating Aberdeen 2-0 in the League Cup final, with Moravčík heavily involved in the build-up to both goals. But Celtic finished the SPL campaign a massive 21 points behind Rangers and seemingly further away than ever from shifting the balance of power back to Glasgow’s East End.
Change was coming, however, as Dalglish left and Martin O’Neill arrived and immediately created a revolution that would finally see Moravčík earn the kind of success his talents deserved.
In the first Glasgow derby of the 2000-01 season, Rangers visited Celtic Park and were blown away in an incredible opening spell, with Moravčík featuring prominently. His corner broke to Chris Sutton who prodded home the first goal after two minutes and another Moravčík corner was headed home by Stiliyan Petrov after just eight minutes.
With just 11 minutes on the clock, Moravčík then provided the kind of assist that summed up his talent. Taking the ball in the inside-left channel, his swift turn saw him lose Fernando Ricksen, the covering defender. The turn was so swift, in fact, that Moravčík lost his balance but he quickly got up, looked up and teed the ball up for the incoming Paul Lambert, who rifled home the third from the edge of the box.
In a game that came to be called the ‘Demolition Derby’, Celtic eventually ran out 6-2 winners and the signs were good for O’Neill’s men.
Moravčík finally got his chance to play in European competition again after a 12-year absence, having played against FC Köln when still at FC Nitra. He scored twice against Luxembourg’s Jeunnesse Esch in the UEFA Cup opening round and then netted the first goal of the second round second leg against Bordeaux at Parkhead. The Slovakian had been substituted by the time the French side hit back and eventually won the tie after extra time but, once again, he had shown his appetite for the big stage.
Despite the setback of a 5-1 defeat to Rangers in November, O’Neill’s Celtic were eventually unstoppable. They retained the League Cup as Larsson’s hat-trick saw off Kilmarnock in the final and then clinched the league title with five games to spare.
This set the scene for what many fans consider to be Moravčík’s finest hour in a Celtic shirt. Over the years of Rangers dominance over Celtic in the 1990s, it had not been uncommon for Celtic’s only victories over their rivals to come once the title race had been settled and there was little to play for.
The boot was on the other foot in April 2001, with Celtic travelling to Ibrox with nothing but bragging rights to play for. But, for O’Neill and Celtic, this was an opportunity to make a statement. It was not enough that they had already sensationally won a title they had lost by 21 points the previous year. The Bhoys wanted to humiliate the team that had tormented them for the best part of a decade and Moravčík and Larsson had a ball on the pitch as their supporters partied off it.
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After an hour, Moravčík collected an excellent lay-off from Larsson, burst into the Rangers box, holding off the challenge of Barry Ferguson, and rolled the ball past Stefan Klos for the opening goal. Soon after, he collected the ball in space on the left and, in a move similar to the one he had executed in the first Old Firm clash of the season, Moravčík turned inside Ricksen and this time made space for himself and smashed the ball past Klos for number two. Larsson notched a late third to add gloss to the scoreline as Celtic hammered home their new-found superiority, with 35-year-old Moravčík very much to the fore.
Reflecting on this game in a 2015 interview with Celtic FC’s website, Moravčík said: “This game was special for me because it was almost my last chance to confirm my quality, especially away from home at Ibrox. When you score once in this derby game, people might say, maybe he was lucky. If you score twice, then people can see it’s not luck and you can see in my face that I was very happy.”
The Hoops added a Scottish Cup final victory to seal a domestic treble and well and truly knock Rangers off their perch.
The following season saw Celtic beat Ajax to qualify for the Champions League group stages for the first time. At the age of 36, O’Neill sensed Moravčík was perhaps not the right man at European football’s top level. After Celtic lost 3-2 to Juventus in heartbreaking circumstances to a controversial last-minute penalty in Turin, they beat Porto and Rosenberg at home to top the group after three games.
But Moravčík didn’t see any of the action until O’Neill’s men were chasing a lost cause in a 3-0 defeat in Porto. A 2-0 defeat in Rosenberg followed, leaving Celtic needing to beat Juventus at home in their final group match and needing Porto to drop points at home to the Norwegians. Finally, O’Neill turned to the Slovak genius and Moravčík didn’t disappoint. A signature bit of twisting and turning made space to fire in a cross that was headed home by Joos Valgearen to equalise Alessandro Del Piero’s opener. Chris Sutton then nodded in Moravcik’s corner to make it 2-1 before David Trezeguet levelled matters again.
A Larsson penalty and a spectacular Sutton strike put Celtic 4-2 up before Trezeguet added his second. But the home side held on for a famous win over a high quality Juventus side, with Moravčík playing a key role. After the game, Juventus’ Czech legend Pavel Nedvěd said, “I was fortunate to play at Celtic Park in the same game as Ľubo, but not fortunate with the way he played against us!”
Unfortunately, Porto’s victory over Rosenborg meant Celtic had to settle for dropping into the UEFA Cup, despite an impressive nine-point total. Moravčík became a somewhat more peripheral figure in his final season at the club but still featured in 23 league games, scoring six goals.
Celtic won the league title again in 2002, leaving Moravčík with a fifth winner’s medal from his three-and-a-half years with the club. After years spent in mid-table in France, Moravcik had found a fitting stage for his talents though his only regret was not having arrived in Glasgow sooner, telling celticfc.net: “Now, years after leaving Celtic I realise I was a bit unlucky, because I joined when I was 33 and I should have come when I was younger and played more for Celtic, a few more seasons and some more important games.”
The fans would share that feeling as they were left with the sentiment that they had been fortunate to have seen such an entertaining talent in the flesh. Moravčík proved many people wrong, particularly the Scottish media, and he contributed much to Celtic’s renaissance under O’Neill.
Celtic went on to enjoy many famous Parkhead victories in the Champions League over the next 10 years, culminating in the most memorable of them all – a 2-1 win over Barcelona in 2012. Unfortunately, the team has gone into decline in recent years, leaving fans to yearn for the days when they witnessed one of the most gifted players to grace Celtic Park.
By Paul Murphy. Follow @PaulmurphyBKK