The boots came off and went straight into the bin. The home dressing room had descended into chaos. Ian Wright was in the twilight of his career and had seen nothing like this; now, he was preparing to replace the boot thrower as the clock ticked down to the end of half-time.
Coach Eric Black was incredulous, questioning the effort of star striker Mark Viduka, but the hulking, bootless Australian was adamant that if his efforts weren’t appreciated, his game was over. Perplexed head coach John Barnes watched on. He had enjoyed a promising start to his first season in football management with Celtic, but now the wheels had come off in spectacular fashion.
Kenny Dalglish was Celtic’s director of football operations at the time and had plucked the inexperienced Barnes from Liverpool’s coaching set-up in 1999 with the financial backing of new chief executive, Allan MacDonald. The three were driven to end Rangers’ powerful stranglehold on Scottish football. Dalglish had experience of managing in a goldfish bowl when he took the reins at Liverpool 15 years earlier, and Graeme Souness repeated the trick just 12 months later in Glasgow when he became player-manager at Rangers.
Dalglish staked his reputation on the appointment of Barnes, yet as a man with his record of success, the Scot didn’t see appointing Barnes as a risky move. In fact, Barnes had enjoyed the best start as a Celtic manager since the days of Jock Stein. However, the cracks in that Celtic side’s foundation had begun to appear after Christmas.
An unglamorous exit to Lyon in the UEFA Cup forced Celtic to reset their focus on domestic triumphs. When Hearts turned around a two-goal deficit to win at Parkhead in the first weekend of February, Celtic had slipped ten points behind leaders Rangers – an impossibly wide gulf in any league, let alone the Scottish Premier League. A home Scottish Cup third round tie with First Division side Inverness Caledonian Thistle was a welcome distraction and a chance to get their season back on track.
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For the Highland club, it had been a six-year journey to this point, emerging from a painstaking merger between two of the region’s biggest sides. When the SPFL decided to increase the number of teams in the league pyramid by two, it was suggested that the best way for a Highland League side to make the jump was by combining powers and forming one northern Scottish club.
The three clubs were Caledonian, Inverness Thistle and Clachnacuddin, although the latter quickly fell out of the race. The two remaining clubs had been attempting to join the league since the 1970s, and it made sense to put the decision in the hands of its supporters, staging a vote.
Predictably, anger spread throughout the fans as many Caledonians wanted their club to go it alone. They were the bigger outfit with better infrastructure, and the fans felt they were strong enough to succeed without the need to merge with their rivals. The vote came back in favour of the merger – 54 percent to 46 – with a surprising number of older fans voting in favour of it, perhaps seeing it as the only chance they would have to see their team at the top. Younger fans hit out at the results, some even going as far as burning their season tickets.
Now, in the six years after the merger, Thistle had made it as far as the First Division, gaining their first promotion in 1997, and were faced with the chance of capturing an Old Firm scalp in the Scottish Cup. The original match was rearranged and Thistle’s first trip to Celtic Park would be under the floodlights, battling the elements as rain and sleet descended on Glasgow.
Eyal Berkovic, Celtic’s headline £5.75m signing, started in midfield while Henrik Larsson and Paul Lambert missed out through injury. Caley Thistle adapted well to the conditions, attempting to counter Celtic with sharp, zipped passes, working the ball into wide positions. After 14 minutes, a whipped cross from the left was met by Barry Wilson who flicked a header past Jonathan Gould to put the Highlanders ahead.
The goal sparked Celtic into life and Larsson’s replacement, Mark Burchill, restored parity almost immediately, an attempted pass rebounding back to him with his follow-up wrong-footing Jim Calder in the Jags’ goal. A turning point in the game came when Viduka broke free and almost put the Bhoys ahead, the Antipodean rounding Calder but seeing his shot cleared off the line. The natives were getting restless and anxiety engulfed the fans in green and white as a customary Caley Thistle break resulted in a corner to the visitors.
An in-swinger caught Celtic off guard with Bobby Mann beating his marker to get his head on the ball. In a desperate attempt to block the effort, Ľubomír Moravčík lunged at the ball only to divert it past Gould and put the Highlanders back into the lead.
The visitors had Calder to thank for turning a Viduka shot around the post before touching a Stéphane Mahé drive against the woodwork as the underdogs went into the break ahead. The Parkhead faithful booed their team off at half-time unaware of the fireworks about to go off in the home changing room.
Wright replaced the belligerent Viduka at the break, yet it was Burchill who brought the best out of Calder. It was more of the same from Caley Thistle as a quick passing move broke down before they won it back in midfield. A sharp switch of play saw Wilson through on goal before he was upended in the area by Regi Blinker, resulting in a spot-kick for the visitors. Paul Sheerin stepped up and sent Gould the wrong way, giving the Jags a 3-1 lead and causing one of the biggest shocks the competition has seen.
The result was powerful. Two days later, Barnes was sacked. Dalglish took over until the end of the season, with only the Scottish League Cup to show for the season’s endeavours. Whilst many of the new signings had little effect, Dalglish lay the blame at Barnes’ door, claiming the club only signed players that he wanted. The iconic Scot was also gone by the end of the season, replaced by Martin O’Neill who set about undoing the disastrous and short-lived Barnes era.
The positive press response acted as a springboard for the Highlanders, one tabloid printing the unforgettable headline ‘Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious’. The win propelled their popularity and acted as a sign to any remaining naysayers that the merger was the right thing to do.
In the ensuing years, Thistle made their way to the top flight, even qualifying for Europe. Twenty-one years on from the merger, they also gained their first piece of silverware by beating Falkirk 2-1 in the Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park in 2015, proving Glasgow to be a successful stomping ground when it came to the big occasion.
By Matthew Evans @Matt_The_Met