As the 1996/97 season drew to a close Celtic started to fall out the race for the Scottish title. The reality of our city rivals equalling our 9 in a row record had just about been confirmed. A small glimmer of hope remained that some silverware could be salvaged through the Scottish Cup. A semi-final replay against Falkirk at Ibrox stadium on Wednesday 23rd April 1997 would represent our last chance to maybe secure a token of success for the season.
On a night when the weather conditions were awful Celtic lost 1-0 to Falkirk which pretty much ended our season. I sat near the front of the Govan Road stand at Ibrox with my future wife Linda that night and we were both soaked through in the incessant rain. When I got home I went to sleep hoping to wake up from a bad dream.
I became unwell overnight with flu like symptoms and I deteriorated over the next few days. I was admitted to Glasgow Royal infirmary on Saturday 26th April with a suspected stroke, but after multiple tests, scans and exam- inations the doctors discovered that I had contracted Bacterial Endocarditis which was stopping my heart from functioning properly. Broken-hearted if you like.
For the next 2 weeks, I would drift in and out of conscious- ness and was given intravenous antibiotics, but it became clear that the drugs were not going to be enough to help me fight the infection. My consultants visited me around the 6th May to confirm that I would need emergency lifesaving surgery.
On the 9th May 1997 I made my way to theatre for open-heart surgery, undergoing a pulmonary valve replacement. I spent the vast majority of the day in surgery as the surgeons tried to repair the damage done to my heart.
The following day my condition worsened and I went into cardi- ac arrest, I would need to go through further emergency surgery that day to save my life. My family and my girlfriend Linda were given the news that the next few hours would be crucial.
I would spend another 10 days in intensive care as my condition slowly improved. I was moved back to a ward in the hospital 2 weeks after surgery and began my post operation rehab, it was then that I found out Rangers had equalled our 9-in-a-row record and that our coach Tommy Burns had been sacked as Celtic manager.
I was discharged from hospital in early June to continue with my recovery; thankfully I had a big family and supportive girlfriend to see me through those early months.
On the 3rd July the Scottish sports writers started to make some noise on the radio suggesting a new manager was on his way to Celtic Park, I took a trip to the stadium with my brother Benny to see Wim Jansen unveiled as the new boss. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of him as a player or a manager.
Plenty of players came and went over the course of the next few months, Paolo Di Canio left for Sheffield Wednesday, we made some new signings like Craig Burley and Darren Jackson. However, it was the arrival of a forwardfromWimJansen’sformerclubFeyenoordthat helped spark the team.
A slow start to our league campaign meant we would have play catch up on our rivals. A battle of Britain UEFA cup-tie against Liverpool seemed to lift the players and the club but it wasn’t enough as we lost the tie on away goals.
A last-minute header from Alan Stubbs secured a draw at home against Rangers, a result that would prove incredi- bly valuable at the end of season. November ended with a League Cup Final visit to Ibrox, the scene of our defeat to Falkirk earlier in the year and where my serious illness seamed to start.
My brother George managed to secure me a ticket for the match and I watched on as Celtic beat Dundee Utd 3-0 to win the League Cup for the first time in 15 years. The euphoria of winning that day reverberated around the Ibrox stands; a trophy that had been out of our grasp for so long was coming back to Celtic Park, but our main aim must be to stop Rangers reaching 10-in-a-row.
Every match had the feeling of a must-win game, none more so than the traditional New Year derby with our city rivals. My brother-in-law gave me his ticket for the match that day. Celtic controlled the match from start to finish and we were rewarded with a fine two nil victory, both goals superb and both coming from new players signed by Jansen. Celtic had won their first New-Years Day derby since 1988 and were back in the race for the title.
As the league season came to an end, the pressure on both teams was beginning to tell. On the second last weekend of the season Rangers lost to Kilmarnock at Ibrox, a result that gave Celtic the chance to win the title with a win the following day against Dunfermline.
The tension got to the law- yers and we could only earn a draw losing a goal in the last few minutes. The match finished 1-1. The League title would be decided one week first anniversary of my life-saving heart operation.
I didn’t have a ticket for the match against St Johnstone and in the age before wall-to-wall TV coverage, my dad and I were left listening to the radio for updates.
All Celtic had to do was win the match at home and we would be Scottish Champions for the first time in 10 years.
Within the first three minutes of the radio commentary we were celebrating the news of a goal for Celtic through Henrik Larsson. However nerves on the pitch meant that Celtic struggled to add that 2nd goal that would give us some breathing space.
News came through from Tannadice that Rangers were winning against Dundee Utd. If Celtic slipped up the league would be lost to our biggest rivals.
I’d had enough and couldn’t listen anymore, so went to my room and hoped for the best, I was switching the radio on and off checking for the score and turned on the radio just in time to hear the commentator describe Harald Brattbakk scoring the 2nd goal for Celtic securing our first championship in 10 years.
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Martin Donaldson is a Glasgow East End Bhoy, He made my first trip to Celtic Park in 1983 for a 0-0 draw with Brechin City & thankfully that never put him off going back. He now sits perched high in section 409 of the North Stand with his 2 kids making memories along the Celtic Way.
He loves picking out those matches from yester-year to find out much more about the legendary names & faces that have graced the Celtic Jersey over the years. He is a keen fundraiser for The Celtic Foundation & The British Heart Foundation as they both strive to make a difference and to change peoples lives all over the world.