Mista wheeled away in celebration, leaving Rab Douglas disconsolate on the goal line. The Spaniards’ penalty had just fired Valencia into the fourth round of the 2001 UEFA Cup and, for the 20th year in a row, Celtic were out of Europe before Christmas.

It was a case of history repeating for Martin O’Neill, who had carved out one of the brightest footballing reputations in Britain. He had secured a stunning domestic treble in his debut season, winning another title in his second year, but success on the European front had eluded his team.

In 2000, Lilian Laslandes’ Bordeaux had knocked them out of the UEFA Cup’s early rounds. The next year, a glorious 4-3 victory against Juventus in the Champions League had secured another UEFA Cup place, only for it to be ruined by Valencia and Mista shortly after. That they were even competing in the same competition a year later was due only to their defeat by Basel in the qualifying round of the Champions League.

Still, nobody was unduly concerned when they were drawn against FK Sūduva in the first round, with Celtic’s side bursting with quality, strength and experience. Goalkeeper Rab Douglas commanded a fearsome backline, with Bobo Baldé, Joos Valgaeren and Johan Mjällby proving a brick wall for most attackers. On the left prowled the sculptor’s boot of Alan Thompson, while the sprinters’ pace of Didier Agathe rendered most full-backs irrelevant. Both were fed by Champions League-winner Paul Lambert, who shared the midfield with an underrated Neil Lennon and the dynamic Stiliyan Petrov. Up front, Chris Sutton and John Hartson would bury any chances that the swaggering Henrik Larsson managed to miss.

Miss he rarely did, kicking off Celtic’s European adventure with a hat-trick at Parkhead. The hapless Lithuanians conceded five more before Tomas Radzinevičius scored a consolatory strike. Two more goals from David Fernández and Alan Thompson in the return fixture secured passage to the next round and a tie with Blackburn Rovers.

“Yes it is spicy because it is Celtic. I cannot deny that. I am looking forward to it.” Graeme Souness could barely hide his delight.  The former Rangers man and then Blackburn manager had built a decent side in Lancashire, qualifying for Europe by virtue of winning the League Cup.

They would finish sixth in the Premiership in 2003, with Brad Friedel making the PFA Team of the Year, while Damien Duff was putting in the kind of performances that would earn him a move to Chelsea the following season. His deliveries fed the dimmed yet still-formidable duo of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, and it was clear they would be no pushover. Far from it.

For some fans and media outlets, the game was a litmus test for the notion of Celtic in the Premier League. With a massive fan base, impressive stadium and dominance of Scottish football, many were confident that the Glaswegians could be a considerable force south of the border. This was a chance to show that the claims were far from spurious, in what the papers were imaginatively calling the ‘Battle of Britain’.

It would be the Scots that drew first blood. After a nervy game in which both keepers needed to be on top form, Henrik Larsson popped up six minutes from time to secure a 1-0 advantage for the second leg at Ewood Park. The result flattered Celtic, who had struggled to keep up with an assertive Blackburn performance that was full of threat and purpose.

In the throbbing return fixture, Rab Douglas had to keep out Andy Cole in the seventh minute, before a slip from Craig Short let Henrik Larsson in with 15 minutes gone. The Swede had built a career on not missing chances. This was never to be the exception.

Blackburn now needed three goals, but in truth they never looked like repeating their impressive performance from the first leg, with Celtic putting themselves about from the off.  It was former Blackburn hero Chris Sutton who headed the second, securing the first victory for a Scottish team over an English club in Europe for ten years.

O’Neill named an unchanged line up for the game against Celta de Vigo in the next round on 28 November 2002. The Galicians were a quality side, boasting former Arsenal full-back Sylvinho as well as the skilful Gustavo López and Aleksandr Mostovoi. It was the Brazilian who created the games’ first chance, Valgaeren’s mistake allowing him to cross to López who should have forced a better save from Douglas in the Celtic goal. After Dider Agathe wasted a decent chance shortly after, both sides went in at half-time frustrated.

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Read  |  Henrik Larsson and the cult of a genius

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It would be Celtic, however, who seized the initiative shortly after the restart. Steve Guppy swung the corner in, with Henrik Larsson finishing off a Bobo Baldé knockdown to put Celtic ahead.

Two weeks later in the Balaídos stadium, Celtic would rely on the away goals rule to finally stay in Europe beyond Christmas for the first time in two decades. John Hartson’s strike was bookended by goals from Jesuli and Benni McCarthy, but it was enough to see O’Neill’s men into the next round and the prospect of an awkward tie against Stuttgart.

The Germans were a dangerous outfit, having qualified for the UEFA Cup through the arduous Intertoto route. Felix Magath would finish second in the Bundesliga with the Swabians that year, his team boasting the exciting talents of Kevin Kurányi and future Arsenal and Barcelona winger Aleksandr Hleb. If Marcelo Bordon and Fernando Meira let any shots away, the agile Timo Hildebrand was a fearsome deterrent in nets.

It was Celtic who gained the upper hand, with Bordon being sent off after 17 minutes for a professional foul. It was an advantage the home side were reluctant to take, Kurányi nodding home a Krassimir Balakov cross ten minutes later, before Paul Lambert levelled matters with a well-taken goal. Just before half-time, Shaun Moloney stumbled a finish past Hildebrand to give O’Neill’s men the lead at the break. With Celtic’s one-man advantage beginning to show in the second half, it was Petrov who added gloss to the scoreline, firing home from an improbable angle.

Things would get better before they got worse. In the return leg at the Gottlieb-Daimler Stadion, Didier Agathe added end-product to his pace by delivering a fine cross for John Hartson, whose touch enabled Alan Thompson to score another vital goal. A magical first 15 minutes was complete when Chris Sutton delivered the second. Celtic were home and hosed.

That is until Christian Tiffert headed in a consolation goal for the Germans just before the end of the first half. Celtic fans, who had crossed the channel in their thousands for the game, started to sweat just a little when Hleb scored a second 15 minutes from time. Michael Mutzel completed the comeback on 87 minutes, but in truth it mattered little to a Celtic side that had already done the hard work to set up a historic tie against Liverpool.

If the game against Blackburn was the Battle of Britain, then this would be a battle of conscience for Celtic’s Irish fans, who more often than not tended to follow Liverpool’s fortunes south of the border. They were two clubs united in their links to the Irish diaspora, as well as being pious clergy at the church of Kenny Dalglish. More poignantly, Parkhead had been the first stadium visited by Liverpool after the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. The Scottish fans had cheered every one of Liverpool’s four goals, in a game that showed supporters of both clubs that they would never walk alone.

For all the camaraderie, however, there was a European trophy at stake. Liverpool had just finished second behind Arsenal in the Premiership, with Gérard Houllier looking to cement another title bid by splashing out on Senegal’s World Cup hero El Hadji Diouf. Sami Hyypiä led one of the meanest defences in England, while local boys Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard were the linchpins of a dangerous Reds team that had more than enough to derail Celtic’s European steam train.

“It’s a real treat to be here. What an atmosphere,” admitted Channel 5 commentator Johnathan Pearce as the sides walked out to deafening noise in Glasgow. Hartson, Larsson and Sutton all started in a signal of O’Neill’s intent.

A hundred seconds into the game and Henrik Larsson opened the scoring. A bobbling cross-shot from Thompson was slid in by the opportunistic Swede, who was making his first appearance for the club after returning from a month out with a broken jaw. Martin O’Neill exploded from the turf, bouncing on the touchline like a man possessed, pumping his fists in the air.

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Read  |  Kenny Dalglish: a king among men

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The celebrations wouldn’t last long. In the 17th minute, Emile Heskey profited from great work by John Arne Riise to power home a left-footed finish. In an enthralling game, both sides traded blows in front of the deafening Celtic crowd. Jamie Smith, given the biggest start in his youthful career, was a particular torment to the Liverpool defence. In the end, however, the spoils were shared, Diouf’s spitting into the Celtic crowd only part of the reason why the Senegalese would be so despised when he eventually joined Rangers some years later.

The second leg at Anfield will be remembered as one of Celtic’s greatest European nights. On the verge of half-time, Alan Thompson struck an arrowed free-kick under Gerrard’s legs and into the helpless Jerzy Dudek’s net. It was a game dominated by John Hartson, who put in an outstanding shift of strength and aggression that was typical of his team’s approach.

Less than ten minutes from the final whistle, he skipped away from Didi Hamann’s half-hearted block and walloped a shot into the top corner. Celtic were through to a first European semi since Atlético Madrid had eliminated them in 1974.

Boavista were the unlikely roadblock to the final. Whilst being a relative unknown to most football fans, they had won the Portuguese top-flight and finished runners-up in the preceding two years. In the 2001-02 season, they had bested Dynamo Kyiv and Borussia Dortmund to reach the second group stage of the Champions League, where it took Manchester United and Bayern Munich to put a stop to their progress. Further motivation arrived in the possibility of playing city-rivals Porto in the final. Led by top scorer Elpídio Silva, they were a team not to be trifled with, even if they were suffering poor form domestically.

The first leg at Celtic park demonstrated their quality, where they frustrated the home side with a resolute defensive performance before taking the lead in the 49th minute courtesy of a Joos Valgaeren own goal. Less than a minute later, however, their concentration slipped and Larsson equalised for the home side. It would be a mixed bag for the Swede, who went on to miss a late penalty against future England nemesis and gloveless wonder Ricardo in the Boavista goal. A pragmatic game finished one-one, but O’Neill remained confident of his sides’ chances to progress: “I feel exactly the same way as I did against Liverpool. We are capable of scoring in Portugal and I believe we will.”

It was a game that wore the mantle of semi-final uncomfortably. Boavista’s stadium was being renovated for Euro 2004, lending the ground an industrial feel that mirrored the laboured football on display. The home side only needed a 0-0 draw to progress and they looked entirely content with that fact as commentator Barry Davies waded through footballing treacle.

Finally, to the chagrin of insomniacs and relief of Celtic fans everywhere, Larsson shot straight through a flapping Ricardo on 80 minutes to give the Glasgow side the advantage. Boavista had no reply. As the final whistle blew a delighted O’Neill turned to embrace his coaching staff as the fans began throwing their scarves onto the pitch. Celtic and its ecstatic support were through to the UEFA Cup final and a match against Porto.

Back then, the name José Mourinho meant nothing to the casual football fan, but the former Barcelona man had been building a formidable team in northern Portugal. After replacing Octavio Machado as coach the previous year, Mourinho had promised the title to the fans within 12 months, and had signed a number of players who would go on to form the backbone of his Champions League-winning team.

Paulo Ferreira, Nuno Valente, Derlei and Maniche had all arrived in the close season, joining captain Jorge Costa and Portuguese international goalkeeper Vitor Baía. By the time his squad faced Celtic on 21 May 2003, he had already delivered on his promise in the league, throwing in the Portuguese Cup to boot. Mourinho’s men had dispatched with Roberto Mancini’s Lazio in the semi-final and O’Neill’s men would have to be at their very best to beat a side that was drilled, hungry and motivated by Europe’s brightest young manager.

For Celtic fans, the game brought a carnival-like atmosphere. The numbers vary, but most reports suggest that around 80,000 supporters made the trip to Seville for the final, many in planes specifically chartered for the event. As reported by the Telegraph at the time, one Irish bar in the area had sold 300 barrels of beer to a Celtic fan base that was thirsty not just for glory.

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Lions at Celtic Park

Read  |  The Lisbon Lions: Celtic’s most worthy heroes

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Celtic’s in-house TV channel had been building the game up all day, interviewing fans and sampling the atmosphere of a city under a green and white siege. Even Rod Stewart was there, having flown directly from Los Angeles for the occasion. It seemed like history was about to be made and we were all invited to the party. Maggie, it seemed, had finally woken up.

O’Neill remained faithful to the team that had brought him all the way to Seville. With John Hartson injured, Chris Sutton partnered Henrik Larsson in attack. Lambert, Lennon and Petrov were flanked by Thompson and Agathe, while Rab Douglas would rely once more on the towering triumvirate of Baldé, Mjällby and Valgaeren.

Mourinho, meanwhile, started with the same back five that would go on to beat Monaco in the Champions League final a year later. They would be supported by a trident of Costinha, Maniche and Alenichev in midfield, while Deco and Derlei added customary flair up front alongside future Rangers winger Capucho.

Derlei would break the deadlock first, smacking home from the right hand side after Douglas had parried Alenichev’s volley. Celtic’s equaliser after the break would sum up everything that made Henrik Larsson a world-class footballer. A hopeful punt from Didier Agathe was met by the Swede, who headed a ball from an incredible angle, coaxing it past a hapless Baía and sending the green and white fans ballistic as the ball went in off the post.

If Celtic expected Porto to wither, they were wrong. It was the Portuguese who took the lead again, Deco sliding a lovely ball with the outside of his foot through to the veteran Alenichev, who used his experience to slot the ball home underneath the advancing Celtic keeper.

Larsson – yet again – would be Celtic’s goal-scoring hero. His 44th of the season was another header, this time planted from an Alan Thompson corner. The fans erupted once more.

Any momentum they had was quickly erased by Bobo Baldé. A foolish lunge on Derlei resulted in his second yellow card, with the Guinean being captured on the tunnel camera shortly afterwards with his head in his hands.

Derlei would deliver the final nail in the coffin with five minutes left. After Rab Douglas had expertly smothered Marco Ferreira’s chance, the forward reacted quickest, evading Jackie McNamara before powering a deflected strike past a despairing Celtic defence. It was all over.

Celtic had defeated all comers in a glorious campaign, one that proved Scottish football could still mix it with the big boys. Though their hearts were broken, the rest of the footballing world fell in love with the Hoops once more. The behaviour of fans throughout the tournament – and especially the final – had receiving glowing tributes and awards from the footballing community.

The media, meanwhile, had been less kind to Porto, whose triumph had been marred by accusations of gamesmanship throughout. Celtic fans booed every Porto player as they collected their winners’ medals, the reward for 120 minutes of exaggeration, skulduggery and timewasting. Meanwhile, Celtic players lay smote on the turf, depressed and empty. They had given their all, and it was a bitter end to this most romantic of footballing odysseys.

Still, Scottish football fans will forever remember the ‘Bhoys from Seville’. They brought colour, passion and romance to a tournament that had so often lacked all three, and in doing so came closer than anybody to winning a first European trophy since 1967. Like their glorious predecessors in Lisbon, it was a campaign that turned men into lions, and turned sport into gloriously bittersweet memory. They didn’t bring home the trophy, but they reminded the world that this was indeed a grand old team to play for.

By Christopher Weir. Follow @chrisw45