If Celtic’s great teams are measured in terms of trophies won, the 1995-96 side should have quickly become a distant memory.
It is difficult to imagine parents and grandparents regaling children with tales from the season when Tommy Burns’ Celtic lost just one league game but still failed to win the league or any, in fact, any other trophy. Jock Stein’s 1967 Lisbon Lions, Billy McNeil’s 1988 Centenary double winners and Martin O’Neill’s 2001 treble winners feature more often when looking back at the great Celtic sides of the past 50 years.
However, the 95-96 vintage did something extremely important – they restored belief and, for the first time in eight years, Celtic made a serious challenge to be champions of Scotland.
In eras of dominance, it becomes easy to forget harder times but Celtic Park was a dark place in the early 1990s. Between 1966 and 1988, the Bhoys had been Scottish champions 15 times in 23 seasons. From 1989 to 1995, they didn’t just fail to win it, they didn’t even make the runners-up spot.
Rangers had assumed control of the domestic scene with an influx of big money buys. Celtic were being left behind by a failure to match their Glasgow neighbours on the pitch and gross mis-management off it. Neglect pushed them to the brink of bankruptcy early in 1994 before Scots-Canadian businessman Fergus McCann came to the rescue. He saved the ailing club, but inherited a team failing on the pitch and a crumbling stadium.
McCann’s impact was instant. After a season in which Celtic finished 4th and just 10 points above the relegation places, out went manager Lou Macari and in came club legend Tommy Burns, who had made an impressive start to his managerial career at Kilmarnock. McCann also addressed the issues around the stadium. Hampden Park was leased for a year and the builders moved into redevelop Celtic Park.
There followed what fans chillingly refer to as the ‘Hampden season’. This carries with it memories of an eerie lack of atmosphere and poor quality football.
It also featured what many identify as the nadir of the early 90s – the League Cup final defeat to Raith Rovers. After a six-year trophy drought, a cup final against a lower division side seemed like an open goal. But the Hoops were in poor form going into the final and Raith eventually prevailed 6-5 on penalties after a 2-2 draw.
The scar the defeat left on the psyche of the Celtic support was huge. Despite progress off the pitch, success on it seemed further away than ever. To add insult to injury, the League Cup final came when the Hoops were in the middle of a record 12 league games without a victory. They eventually finished in 4th again, behind champions Rangers, Motherwell and Hibs. The points total was 51, one more than the previous season.
While the failure to challenge Rangers, the League Cup humiliation and the poor performances made it a disheartening experience for fans, there were some important moments in 1994-95.
- For the first time since 1988, Celtic had the upper hand over Rangers in league encounters. They won 2-0 at Ibrox in an early season false dawn and then thumped them 3-0 at Hampden in an end-of-season dead rubber.
- The Bhoys recovered from the League Cup final defeat and reached the Scottish Cup final against Airdrie. This time they delivered, Pierre Van Hooijdonk’s early header sealing a 1-0 triumph.
- The signing of Van Hooijdonk early in 1995 was a coup. For the first time in many years, Celtic had found the resources to spot and sign a player of genuine quality.
The Scottish Cup triumph ensured a dismal season ended on a high and the club was boosted by the return to Celtic Park for the 1995-96 campaign. They also secured another important signing in the attacking talent of German Andreas Thom from Bayer Leverkusen.
Celtic kicked off the league season with an unimpressive 1-0 victory at newly-promoted Raith Rovers. They had to face Raith again days later in the League Cup and again emerged victorious, this time 2-1. While these were prosaic wins, they partially exorcised the demons of the League Cup final defeat and were important in establishing morale and momentum.
It was in the next league game in Aberdeen on September 10th that fans started to believe that this season may be different.
Aberdeen had fallen even further than Celtic since their glory days under Alex Ferguson in the early 80s. The Dons had finished 9th the previous season, narrowly avoiding relegation. However, a trip to Pittodrie was usually a challenge for the Glasgow side and Aberdeen took a two-goal lead in the first 10 minutes.
At this point, even the most optimistic Hoops fan could have been forgiven for assuming that another season of misery lay ahead. But this was not the same Celtic. An incredible strike from John Collins started the recovery before goals from Thom and Van Hooijdonk put the visitors 3-2 in front before half-time, a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.
The manner of the victory and the performances of all three goal scorers suggested genuine cause for hope.
A title challenge was still considered unlikely and a home draw with Motherwell followed before a 1-0 League Cup quarter-final defeat to Rangers.
But there was another confidence booster when Celtic hammered Hearts 4-0 at Tynecastle – the kind of result that the team hadn’t been achieving for years.
The acid test of Celtic’s progress arrived at the end of September when Rangers visited Parkhead. While the home side had been strengthened with the arrival of a former German international in Thom, their rivals had signed Paul Gascoigne for £4.3m, a Scottish record at the time. In what would become a familiar pattern when this pair faced off over the next couple of years, Celtic failed to turn early dominance into goals and Rangers struck twice in the second half to take the three points. After an indifferent start to his Ibrox career, dogged by disciplinary issues, Gascoigne’s goal kick-started the better side of his game and he had a huge influence on the outcome of the title race.
Unlike in previous years, Celtic recovered quickly from the setback and remained unbeaten in the league until the sides met at Ibrox in late November. The visitors attacked from the start and this time got the goal as Thom’s thunderbolt gave them the lead. Brian Laudrup levelled matters before half-time but the Hoops regained the lead through Collins’ penalty.
Ally McCoist struck a second equaliser for Rangers before Andy Goram denied Van Hooijdonk with a miraculous save from point-blank range. In 2009, Van Hooijdonk recalled this pivotal moment and told the Daily Record
I was certain I had scored. I had done everything right but somehow Goram saved it. It was magnificent reflexes – the best save I think I’ve ever seen.
Soon afterwards, Tosh McKinlay’s own goal gave the champions the lead and the Bhoys were expecting another hard-luck story before Van Hooijdonk headed home to make it 3-3.
This was perhaps the day that suggested that we may have a title challenger on our hands.
Celtic then rattled over four victories in succession but Rangers were also in fine form before the next clash of the top two and they thumped Hibs 7-0 days before the New Year Derby.
After the excitement of the previous encounter, the game at Parkhead was a more sterile affair as Rangers soaked up pressure while Celtic tried to find a way past Gers keeper Goram. The visitors were indebted to their number one and Burns cursed the influence of the opposing custodian, saying:
If anyone gets round to doing my tombstone, it will have to read: ‘Andy Goram Broke My Heart.’
But Celtic refused to go away and won eight of their next 10 games to go into the final Old Firm derby of the season at Ibrox just three points off the pace. Beyond this match, there were another seven games to go but many Hoops fans saw victory in this fixture as crucial if they were to win the league.
In a tense affair, the home side took the lead through Alan McLaren just before half-time. Celtic pushed for an equaliser in the second half but when Hoops full-back Jackie McNamara was sent off with just over 10 minutes remaining, it looked as if the visitors’ challenge was over.
But, once again, this Celtic side showed what they were made of and, with just three minutes remaining, defender John Hughes headed in a superb equaliser.
Burns highlighted the importance of the point as he said:
The most important thing for us today was not to lose. We are now in the same position as we were before the game.
As it played out, Celtic’s failure to win against their great rivals would prove pivotal. The following weekend, they drew again, away to Motherwell, to fall five points behind. Luck also seemed to be deserting Celtic as Van Hooijdonk’s late strike was wrongly ruled offside
Rangers then got out of jail with two penalties required to defeat Raith Rovers 4-2 away, after being 2-1 down with 15 minutes remaining. This was followed by a virtuoso Celtic performance in a 5-0 victory at home to Aberdeen, featuring a debut goal from Portuguese striker Jorge Cadete. When Cadete scored, the cheers were so loud that the noise blew BBC Radio 5’s commentary off air.
The Glasgow clubs locked horns for the sixth and final time in the season in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden. Cadete was unavailable due to a registration controversy and goals from McCoist and Laudrup helped Rangers to a 2-1 victory, Van Hooijdonk replying for Celtic.
There was to be one final twist in the title race as Rangers lost 2-0 at home to Hearts. Unfortunately, Celtic failed to take advantage, drawing 1-1 with Kilmarnock.
Both sides won their final four games and Rangers ended the season on 87 points to Celtic’s 83. The previous season, the sides had ended on 69 points and 51 points respectively.
Many of the heroes of 1996 had moved on by the time Celtic’s wait for a title finally ended two years later. Collins left for Monaco that summer, while Van Hooijdonk, along with Cadete, moved on the following year. Midfield maestro Paul McStay retired after persistent injury problems in 1997, and Peter Grant, another long serving midfielder went to Norwich City in the same year.
Of the side that lost just one league game in 1995-96, only Tom Boyd, Jackie McNamara and Simon Donnelly would be integral members of the side that prevented Rangers from making it ten-in-a-row in 1998. By that time, Tommy Burns had been replaced by Dutchman Wim Jansen and a certain Henrik Larsson had arrived from Feyenoord.
The gift that the 1995-96 squad gave Celtic fans was not a trophy but renewed hope and self-respect that had been missing for several years. There aren’t many losing sides that go down in history but Celtic’s class of ’96 deserve to be remembered as the team that punched above its weight and laid the foundations for a renewed period of dominance in the years ahead.
More credit should also go to Burns for the achievement. His management career stalled after this but he returned to work at Celtic Park in a coaching role before his tragic, premature death from cancer at the age of 51.
Burns the player won six league titles and five Scottish Cups in a more competitive era for Scottish football. Burns the manager deserves more than to be remembered as the man who couldn’t stop Rangers reaching nine-in-a-row. He was arguably the man who lifted Celtic far enough from their slumber to ensure that their deadly rivals wouldn’t make it ten.