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Marching with O’Neill- 20 years on

14 October 2020


I suppose like everyone else the first thoughts of all of us are with people who have been directly affected by this horrific pandemic over the last couple of months. Little did we think leaving Paradise after the St. Mirren game on March 7th that we would very possibly not see the famous old ground again for the rest of the year?

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I was fortunate enough to bring over a group of young Dublin kids who attended their first Celtic match that day thanks to the wonderful Kano Foundation and the generosity of guys who contributed to the costs of the trip back in Dublin. I thought little about the upcoming weeks on the trip home, with thoughts of sleep being to the forefront of my mind if I’m honest.

It is an understatement to say you would miss the place. Being away from Paradise would remind you of how important the place is to your life, your friendships with people and even the amount of time you think about football, primarily Celtic. Recently someone asked me a question “When last were you looking forward as much to going to Celtic Park”? I paused momentarily and straightaway thought twenty years ago. June 1st 2000 to be precise with the appointment of a certain Martin O’Neill.

That last sentence is going to put a shudder up many Bhoys thinking that the twentieth anniversary of Martin O’Neill becoming manager of the Bhoys is upon us. Time stands still for none of us. Much like the historical benefits we gained on the back of the Scottish Cup Semi-final penalty shoot-out defeat at Hampden to Rangers (2012) in April 2016, which spawned the power brokers at the club to make the necessary changes in the dugout with Brendan Rodgers taking the helm weeks later, The Caley Thistle Cup debacle at Celtic Park in February 2000 was the final straw for John Barnes with serious changes necessary at the club.

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I had finished school in 1999 and began working in the civil service. My Season ticket bought with a few bob in my pocket I relished the thoughts of regular trips to Paradise as a young adult being able to enjoy the sights, sounds and action that goes with a day in Glasgow when the Bhoys are playing. My career path in the Civil Service sadly replicated that season 1999/2000, in that I hated every minute of it and could not wait to get out of the place. A successful college application in the spring of 2000 and an exciting change in direction for myself was all set for that coming September 2000.

Could the Bhoys follow suit? Many of you will remember that Guus Hiddink was strongly linked with the post, with the wonderfully informed hacks of the mainstream media in Scotland once again giving certainties regarding their “Inside information confirms it is a done deal”. Being honest on the back of successive poor appointments I craved a “Celtic Man” to take the helm, longing for the days of a Tommy Burns figure back in the dugout. A bit of passion and madness was missing from the place.

Slowly the news filtered that Guus was not a dead cert and the hottest property on the British managerial scene at the time, Leicester City manager Martin O’Neill was being mooted. Martin’s stock was so high he was deemed by many to be the natural successor to Alex Ferguson who was provisionally due to step down from Manchester United in the summer of 2002.

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Never before or since have I felt a level of excitement regarding anyone being linked with Celtic as I did with O’Neill. As a young fella in 2000 if you asked me to hand pick any manager in world football for Celtic I’d have gone for O’Neill. I remember ringing the landline home every day from the dreariness of a civil service office asking my old Bhoy to check “The page”. The Page of course was page 527 on ITV teletext, which pre Internet for most of us was the go to place to find out any of the latest news.

The only other option was to pay mad money to ring a dodgy Celtic hotline that stated they had all the latest news. Mad stuff really when you look back on it. The television in our house on the lead up to Martin’s appointment was effectively stuck on teletext and I remember my old Bhoy ringing me on the landline in work on the day O’Neill was appointed telling me the big news and I actually genuinely wanted to scream with excitement. Despite losing the league the previous season by 21 points we could dream again. We we’re marching with O’Neill.

Martin O’Neil’s appointment was greeted with great fanfare as he was presented to the faithful at the front door of Celtic Park, Martin famously saying

“”I will do everything I possibly can to bring some success to this football club.”

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It’s amazing how you remember such small details from years ago but forget something that maybe only happened a week ago. I always remember he was thrown a scarf with “In memory of the ten” written on it, which was a reference to the 1981 H Block Hunger strikers and a Celtic PR guy quickly removing it off him as he paraded it to the crowd.

It might be the fact that I watched the footage on sky news sports section, which would come on at twenty minutes past the hour every hour, for about twelve hours straight that it is stuck in my brain.  Sky Sports News was still many years away.

The summer of 2000 from a football perspective is also best remembered for Euro 2000, which was probably the best International football tournament in my lifetime in terms of excitement, drama and quality. I can give or take International football but hugely enjoy the big tournaments and wall-to-wall games on free to air TV. Yet Euro 2000 was different.

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Martin O’Neill was signed up as a pundit with the B.B.C and I know it sounds a bit silly now but so many of us were glued to the games he was covering, waiting to hear what he had to say. Martin’s time at the Euro’s is best remembered for him scouting and signing Belgian defender Joos Valgaeren, despite the joint host’s first round exit from the competition.

I was a couple of months away from starting College and moving away from home and the Celts likewise were mirroring a fresh and new adventure in my own insular world. That Summer I attended a Celtic festival in Athenry and it just seemed like every aspect of my world was focused on the season ahead. Then low and behold I go and I miss the opening home game against Motherwell, having been booked up to attend another Celtic festival in Luton, England of all places. Carefree days indeed.

Despite my own absence the Celts were up and running and the signings that summer of Joos and Chris Sutton would make an instant impact. Yet we had bigger fish to fry and we all knew it.

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While Martin O’Neill’s earliest games of his tenure are often forgotten what will never be is that faithful sunny day on August 27th 2000, the Demolition Derby. That 6-2 game when we stuffed the old Rangers (1872) was earth shattering and I firmly believe changed the landscape of football in Scotland forever.

Things were never the same after it and despite a couple of blips during the season there was an air of confidence and optimism surrounding the club that many older Bhoys and Ghirls cited had not been there since the days of Big Jock. My own college days rolled on as I forged memories and friendships that would last me a lifetime and a new career path that I am still working in today.

More importantly Martin O’Neill’s side would win our first treble since 1969. On a personal level just brilliantly mad times.  I have a lot more responsibilities now in life than I did twenty years ago and maybe that helps at times in putting football in perspective. It saddens me though to think I don’t ever believe I will anticipate any season with such fervour and excitement like I did the summer of 2000, what a time to be a Celt, and to think the fun was only just getting started then.

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Ciaran Kenny is a member of Naomh Padraig CSC in Dublin since the early nineties. Ciaran is also a regular to Paradise and beyond since 1995, he is a season ticket holder at Celtic Park since 1999. and a Shareholder and also a member of the Celtic Trust. Ciaran has worked closely with the homeless services in Dublin City working with Don Bosco Care since 2001. Ciaran is also Chairperson of the Irish aftercare network which advocates for better outcomes for young people in care throughout all of Ireland. Ciaran has contributed to Mt90M since 2008.

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