The Season Book Years – 2002/03
Beginning the season book years series, remember that the one rule I set myself here was that I could only pick a game that was on the season book that I actually went to. As such, they’re all home league games. I might mention other games from that season to put it into the context of the season, but the main focus will be on that one home league game. So, with that in mind…
Celtic 6-2 Dundee, 14th May 2003.
Larsson 14, Thompson 27, 30, Maloney 52, 63, Mjallby 77. Smith 26, Mair 90.
Having spent the previous season on the waiting list, 2002/03 was exciting for me from day one. Little did I know it would take me to my first cup final – which we lost – and even a European final – which we also lost. Sadly, for all this was a momentous season, we finished it without any silverware. But when you look back over this season’s league matches, you get a very odd symmetry between Celtic and Rangers and just where the teams dropped points.
Both teams lost at Fir Park to Motherwell. Both teams drew at Rugby Park against Kilmarnock. Both teams drew at Pittodrie against Aberdeen. Both teams drew at Dens Park against Dundee.
Ultimately, the difference came down to Tynecastle. Celtic dropped three points to Hearts thanks to a late winner when we’d been chasing one ourselves. Rangers on the other hand won on both occasions – once in February thanks solely to an own goal – and that one difference in the two sets of results was enough to cancel out Celtic’s two wins to Rangers’ one in the games between the two – the fourth game being a 3-3 draw.
That all meant that the end of the season became a chase for goals. At one point, Celtic were ahead on goal difference after a 4-0 win away to Motherwell, and that goal chase pretty much continued for the rest of the campaign. Following that win at Motherwell, Rangers had moved back ahead of us on goals after a weekend where we’d narrowly beaten Hearts 1-0 at home only for them to go out and pump Kilmarnock 4-0 at home the following day. But with a UEFA Cup final coming up just a week later, our home game against Dundee was moved forward from the weekend to the Wednesday night – a gesture kindly offered by Dundee themselves.
So, fully in the knowledge that goals were important as well as points, Celtic set about trying to bang in as many as possible. Henrik Larsson got the ball rolling after quarter of an hour, while Alan Thompson added a couple after Barry Smith had pegged us back to 1-1. Shaun Maloney got in on the act with a couple of goals himself in the second half before Johan Mjallby made it 6-1 with eleven minutes remaining.
But the sting in the tail came in the final minute when Lee Mair scored with more or less the last kick of the ball. Or in his case, head of the ball.
It was a four goal swing in Celtic’s favour, but it meant that Celtic were only two goals better off than Rangers. Sure enough, Rangers beat Hearts 2-0 that weekend to tie everything up. 94 points each, +68 goal difference each, and Rangers ahead by virtue of the fact they’d scored 95 goals to Celtic’s 94. Sadly what happened next was that we not only lost to Porto in extra time in the UEFA Cup final, but despite thumping Kilmarnock 4-0 at Rugby Park – our biggest win there for a long time – Rangers 6-1 win over Dunfermline Athletic at Ibrox meant they took the title, adding it to the League Cup they’d already controversially won against us in March, and went on to add the Scottish Cup against Dundee.
Trebles are just a little easier to win when the officials give you vital decisions rather than denying you them. Decisions like flagging John Hartson as offside when he clearly wasn’t. I know, I was there, I even had the same view as the linesman and saw at the time he was onside.
That last ditch goal from Lee Mair wouldn’t actually have made a difference to the title as Rangers would still have taken it on goals scored, but it would definitely have raised a few more eyebrows that Rangers got a late penalty so dodgy for their sixth goal that even former Rangers player Nigel Spackman on Sky Sports claimed it was a poor decision. But regardless of fact, it was the consolation of late goals that season that felt like a real kicker – whether it was to Hearts at Tynecastle or to Dundee at Celtic Park.
That 6-2 win over Dundee was a microcosm of the season. For all the goals we had scored and all the excitement we had witnessed from the stands, it was slackness at the back that ultimately cost us.