In their 102-year history up to 1990, Celtic had been managed by just six men. In the mostly bleak and tumultuous 1990s, the club would be managed by seven.
Entering the decade, the Bhoys had been the country’s top-performing team over the best part of a quarter-century. From ending a 12-year wait for a title in 1966 to the memorable centenary year double in 1988, Celtic had achieved sustained success in the domestic game, taking 15 of 23 titles at a time when Scottish clubs were also competitive against the best in Europe.
But change had been coming as Rangers’ financial strength saw them end a nine-year wait for a title in 1987 before regaining the crown from Celtic in 1989. By the end of the final decade of the 20th Century, the Gers would have won ten of the last 11, as Celtic struggled to keep up.
While Celtic improved sufficiently to compete with their bitter rivals in the second half of the 1990s, they weren’t even the second-best team in the country in the first half. The Hoops failed to make the top two from 1990 to 1995, finishing as low as fifth in a desperate 1989/90 campaign that also saw them losing more matches than they won.
Club legend Billy McNeill was in charge at the dawn of the worst decade in memory for many of today’s fans. Up against the rising power that was Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen, McNeill had helped himself to three league titles in five seasons during his first spell as manager from 1978 to 1983.
After indifferent spells at Manchester City and Aston Villa, McNeill returned to the club in 1987 and did brilliantly to put the brakes on the Rangers juggernaut by taking an unfancied Celtic side to the 1988 title. But that success papered over the cracks that had emerged as stalwarts of the 1980s like Roy Aitken and Tommy Burns were reaching the end of their careers, while the players coming through were short of the quality required to compete with a cash-rich Rangers side that could buy the best of Scottish and English talent.
A sharp decline set in and two years without a trophy spelt the end for McNeill in 1991, beginning the first of many managerial changes to take place in a turbulent decade.
Liam Brady was something of a left-field choice to replace McNeill. The Irishman had been a wonderful player for several clubs and country but this was the 35-year-old’s first managerial appointment just a year after retiring.
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But Brady had been hamstrung by the departure of Paul Elliot to Chelsea before he arrived, and his big-name signings failed to impress. The fading talent of Gary Gillespie would not prove an adequate replacement for Elliot, while striker Tony Cascarino was a big disappointment and left before the 1991/92 season was out. Attacking midfielder Stuart Slater was another big-money buy who did not live up to expectations.
A shambolic 5-1 defeat at Neuchatel Xamax in the UEFA Cup was one of the low points of Brady’s reign during a difficult start. But his first season looked like ending on a high when Celtic played the Scottish Cup semi-final on the back of a 12-match winning run. Despite having beaten Rangers in the league ten days earlier, they succumbed to a sucker punch against their ten-man rivals at Hampden.
While there were sporadic signs of promise on the pitch, there were mounting issues off it, and The Taylor Report would force the club to upgrade a stadium that had standing room on three sides. Plans were announced for a 52,000 all-seater stadium on a new site several miles from Parkhead, the board having decided that redeveloping Celtic Park would not be an option.
Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with the fans and, as it turned out, it was a proposal that the board was ill-equipped to follow through as debts were mounting.
Since its foundation, the Kelly family had played a huge role in the running of the club, but chairman Kevin Kelly and his cousin Michael were clearly complacent and out of their depth as they sought to return Celtic to their former glories.
Brady continued in charge for the 1992/93 season and perhaps the high point of his time at Celtic came on a stirring night at Celtic Park when his side overcame Köln in the UEFA Cup, a 3-0 victory enough to turn around a 2-0 deficit from the first leg.
But form was inconsistent and a Scottish Cup exit at Falkirk was another embarrassing failure when a sustained league challenge had failed to materialise. Celtic finished the campaign four points behind Aberdeen and 13 points adrift of Rangers.
Discontent with the Celtic board grew as the future of the stadium remained uncertain and seats were installed on Celtic Park’s Jungle – an iconic standing enclosure – as the club scrambled to meet the August 1994 deadline for the Taylor Report’s recommendations to be fulfilled.
Things unravelled on the pitch at the start of 1993/94 season as Celtic won just two of their first 11 league games, prompting Brady’s resignation after a midweek 2-1 defeat at St Johnstone. The following Saturday there was a demonstration following a home win over Dundee as protests against the Celtic board mounted. The formation of a well-organised supporters group called Celts for Change ramped up the pressure.
Lou Macari replaced Brady and made an immediate impression with a 2-1 comeback victory over Rangers at Ibrox marking his first game in charge. But this was as good as it would get for former Celtic and Manchester United striker, his reign coinciding with the growing campaign to oust the board, while signing the likes of average journeymen Wayne Biggins and Carl Muggleton hardly helped his cause.
There was a calamitous start to 1994 as the Bhoys lost the first three league matches of the year, then drew the next three and were dumped out of the Scottish Cup by Motherwell. Celts for Change continued to appeal to the fans to get behind them and in Scots Canadian businessman Fergus McCann, there was someone with the necessary finances to bail the club out of its financial troubles while also helping them move forward.
The end of the old regime finally came on 4 March 1994, as McCann put up the money to save the club as the bank threatened administration.
But while the club were soon on a firmer financial footing and under more competent leadership, success on the pitch would have to wait. Macari was replaced by Celtic legend Tommy Burns, who had served a brief and impressive managerial apprenticeship at Kilmarnock.
Burns would certainly be given time as a hero to the fans but Celtic had to rent Hampden Park for a year as the bulldozers moved in to the redevelop Celtic Park. Where the previous board had dallied, McCann had been decisive in investing in the future.
Despite the renewed optimism, the 1994/95 campaign would, for the most part, generally be as dismal on the pitch as any of the previous five seasons. There was the false dawn of a stirring 2-0 victory over Rangers at Ibrox early in the season, but the defeat to Raith Rovers after a penalty shootout in the League Cup final remains the nadir of a bleak period for many fans. That loss came in the middle of an 11-match run without a win in the league.
Fans who had already lived through five grim trophyless seasons had finally hit rock bottom – but fortunately things would soon turn around. The signing of Pierre van Hooijdonk in January 1995 was a hugely significant piece of business and the Dutchman scored the winning goal against Airdrie in the Scottish Cup final to end a six-year trophy drought and finish a tough season on a high.
While it had often felt as miserable as any other early 90s season in a soulless Hampden, looking back it was one of transition. Celtic were toothless in attack but had the best defence in the league. They won fewer games than Falkirk and Hearts but lost the same number of matches – seven – as champions Rangers.
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In 1995/96, back at a redeveloped Celtic Park, the Hoops rediscovered the swagger of old, as the additions of the likes of Andreas Thom and Jackie McNamara added genuine quality that only the likes of Paul McStay, John Collins, Tom Boyd and Van Hooijdonk could match. Portuguese striker Jorge Cadete’s belated arrival in the spring of 1996 further improved the squad as they came on in leaps and bounds.
Their only league defeat came at the hands of Rangers, and that would prove decisive as they finally hit the top two again, finishing four points adrift of the Gers. Burns’ men had increased their points tally by 32 in one year.
Coming so close had Celtic fans believing that they could stop Rangers matching their record of nine titles in a row in 1996/97 and the arrivals of Paolo Di Canio and Alan Stubbs added to that sense of optimism, though the departure of Collins to Monaco was a significant loss, especially with 32-year-old McStay struggling for fitness.
The club had gone from near bankruptcy to title challengers in two years and the squad looked like it may be ready to make the final step and become champions for the first time since 1988. Despite the brilliance of Di Canio and Cadete, the season was to end in disappointment as a Rangers side that included Brian Laudrup at his best matched Celtic’s nine-in-a-row record.
It might have felt like the end of the world to fans so proud of that nine, especially as the ‘Three Amigos’ – Van Hooijdonk, Di Canio and Cadete – agitated their way out of the club. But the fact that Celtic could bring in players of this quality was further evidence that the club was moving forward after the dark days of earlier in the decade.
And when heroes depart, there will always be more to take their place. Celtic’s love affair with Henrik Larsson began the following year as he played a key role in helping the club “stop the 10” and bring the Scottish title back to Parkhead for the first time in a decade.
There would be further pain in the 90s as disappointing seasons under Jozef Venglos and John Barnes saw Rangers reassert themselves, but the new millennium brought a new dawn and Celtic once again became the dominant force in the Scottish game.
Celtic may now be bidding to become the first Scottish club to make it ten consecutive titles, having sealed the 2019/20 crown, but fans of a certain age will never forget the relative hardships the club endured between their eras of dominance.
By Paul Murphy @paulmurphybkk