The Season Book Years – 2005/06
Continuing 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 1-0 Heart of Midlothian, 6th April 2006.
For as long as I could remember, Rangers had been the team to beat in Scotland… at least from our perspective. Until Martin O’Neill had come along that was the case for everyone else too, but then it was us and life was good. But ultimately it was still up to us to beat our nearest challengers – Rangers. Then O’Neill left and Gordon Strachan replaced him. How would we fare with a new manager for the first time in five years?
Not great to start with! The humiliating defeat to Artmedia Bratislava was followed by another defensive horror show at Fir Park. That spelled the end of David Marshall and, arguably more importantly, Stanislav Varga at Celtic. Neither played under Strachan again* and things started to improve. By New Year we were narrowly top of the league… ahead of Hearts.
Rangers had collapsed under Alex McLeish. The financial basket case they had been under Walter Smith and Dick Advocaat was coming back to haunt them and belts were being tightened. Rangers couldn’t handle it and were trailing in third place. Indeed, they would finish there as Hearts boomed through their own early financial basket case moments.
The New Year game at Tynecastle was the turning point of the season as Celtic came from an early 2-0 deficit to win 3-2 thanks to two last gasp Stephen McManus goals. Goals that had me bouncing around my flat like a complete lunatic and doing something resembling the “Ronny Roars” at the television.
Okay, so they were more “GIRFUY” than that!
That turned a possible one point lead into a definite seven point lead and Celtic never looked back. By the time the two teams met again, Celtic were ready to clinch the title officially if they could beat Hearts in a midweek match at Celtic Park.
Unsurprisingly, Celtic Park was packed that night. Or at least that was the plan. I managed to get in through the turnstiles just in time for kick off, but many more were still standing outside when John Hartson fired home after just three minutes. My dad was among them, and no doubt many fans cursed their luck as that solitary goal ensure Celtic clinched the title.
Not that it was an easy game. Artur Boruc, the new Celtic goalkeeping hero, was arguably the busier of the two goalkeepers that night. They even had an equaliser chalked off for an offside… rightly, but only just. Hearts even claimed for a late penalty but all that caused was their manager – Valdas Ivanauskas – to be sent to the stand. Much the the derision of the delighted home support.
I distinctly remember refusing to chant along with the rest of the stadium as the minutes ticked down though. Having been one of those prematurely celebrating at Ibrox the previous season, I wasn’t ever going to preempt the “championees” chant again. I still don’t – to the point I wasn’t even singing it this season at the Friday night game prior to clinching the title. It’s also one of the reasons why I don’t join in with another favoured chant currently – “here we go, ten in a row”. Some scars never heal.
But at full time I burst into song myself. With the League Cup already in the trophy cabinet, the SPL title was added to Strachan’s first season double. The Scottish Cup had been the other blot on the season with a woefully embarrassing defeat away to Clyde, and it was Hearts who would go on to lift that trophy against another of Scotland’s financial basket cases – Gretna.
As for Rangers? Well, they finished third. Outside of the top two for the first time since 1988, when Hearts also finished second to Celtic. Trophyless, it was the end of the road for Alex McLeish.
But if ever a season pointed to the boom and bust problems with finances in Scottish Football, it was this one that was the warning sign. Gretna would be gone altogether within the next couple of years, funded way beyond their means by one man who would take ill and leave the club unsustainable. Rangers were starting to struggle, and while they’d try and fight it for a while longer and even spend a few more times despite what some would have you believe, these insane days would ultimately come back and kill them off once and for all too. Hearts came perilously close to going under themselves, but a fall into the the second tier and fan ownership after administration was just enough to save them from the brink.
Compare that with Celtic and imagine we had tried to spend our way out of losing a legend like Larsson. Yes, maybe that would have prevented Black Sunday in the short term, but in the long term it’s clear that Celtic bounced back anyway. Crucially though, we bounced back without breaking the bank. We may have suffered short term, but longer term it paid dividends for us. With a little better management you can smooth out even the bad times.
Makes you wonder if the attitudes of Gretna, Rangers and Hearts was really worth it in the end.
* It’s since been pointed out to me that both David Marshall and Stanislav Varga did play under Strachan again. Marshall played just three more games for Celtic, while Varga played another eleven. But neither featured to the same extent that they had done in Martin O’Neill’s final season.