In a regular column, our resident historian Graeme McKay delves into Celtic’s rich history and take a closer look at the players, coaches and teams that makes up the tapestry of the club. In this edition, he explores the a summer that was anything but sunny.
It felt fairly underwhelming. The real goodbye had happened at the end of the Dundee United game and this whole thing felt a bit forced. Plus Sevilla had played spoiling tactics of which friendly games were not meant for. It was a drab, low-key match and it was followed by a forlorn and low-key coda: the end of an era; the end of an epoch that some fans had only known. But as He left the field the end was met with a beginning: the pre-season of our discontent.
In April 2004, Henrik Larsson had made a u-turn on international retirement and there was a flurry of belief, especially after Martin O’Neill expressed his desire to have a new contract signed, that he would also re-evaluate his club career and sign-on as a Celt for life. But the decision taken in 2002 was to remain and he would move on a Bosman, eventually signing for Barcelona.
Celtic fans were in mourning, but assumed that the club would be prepared for the aftermath. It had, of course, been a couple of years in the making. Our talisman was moving on and was leaving behind him 29-year-old John Hartson and 31-year old Chris Sutton. But the board knew about Larsson leaving for so long and they also knew that Hartson and Sutton were coming to the autumns of their careers, surely there would be plans in place: a pre-season of activity to usher in a new team of Celtic heroes?
And it was not just the Celtic forward line that was in need of younger blood: it had never been Martin O’Neill’s style to use squad rotation and a core of players had been asked to go to the well continuously over the previous few seasons with a sizeable percentage of those players on the wrong side of 25. Stanislav Varga was almost 32, Jackie McNamara and Alan Thompson almost 30, and Johann Mjallby and Neil Lennon were 33. Bobo Balde and Didier Agathe were young at 28. Stillian Petrov was the exception and Stephen Pearson was not good enough to progress this team forward. The squad was at the end of a cycle…
What complicated matters somewhat was the fact that unbeknownst to most supporters, the club had begun a campaign of downsizing. In the previous season Celtic had spent less than a million on bringing in Stephen Pearson from Motherwell and a season loan for Michael Gray of Sunderland. The year before that it was a couple of million on Ulrich Laursen and Magnus Hedman. In fact, the club hadn’t spent big money on a signing since John Hartson had joined in August of 2001. O’Neill had been backed financially at first, but that money dried up very quickly and the squad was running on fumes. It could be argued, of course, that funds were made available and O’Neill concentrated that money on contract renewals for his tried and tested. Either way, Celtic were about to be caught on their heels and with no real plan on how to develop the club.
Another factor was in play that would have an impact on Celtic: Geraldine O’Neill’s battle with lymphoma. This would ultimately lead to O’Neill handing in his resignation at the end of the 2004/5 season so that he could spend time with his wife.
When Henrik Larsson’s contract came to an end and he joined Barcelona on the 30th of June, 2004, he was quickly followed out the door by Liam Miller, who had opted to join Manchester United on a Bosman. Liam Miller had been a great hope for Celtic fans and had done remarkably well in his maiden season. His loss was a bitter blow to a squad that needed youth. Johann Mjallby went with Larsson to Spain as he joined Levante, also on a Bosman. Jamie Smith would leave on a free a few weeks later and Celtic supporters prepared themselves for the revitalisation of the squad.
And when Celtic reported back for pre-season training the supporters were still preparing themselves. And when Celtic played Fulham in a friendly at Craven Cottage on the 18th of July the supporters were thinking it was going to be any second now. Surely O’Neill wasn’t going to go with Hartson and Sutton upfront? That just didn’t seem plausible. But when the squad flew to Washington to play Chelsea in the Seattle Seahawk’s stadium, they were still without re-enforcements. With Craig Beattie… yes, Craig Beattie… scoring a brace for Celtic in a 4-2 defeat, fans were perhaps wondering if the club was going to attempt to replace the King from within.
The next fixture on the pre-season tour was in Connecticut against Liverpool. Celtic lined-up with Marshall in goals, a defence of Valgaeren, Scott Cuthbert, Varga and Laursen, a midfield of McGeady, McNamara, Thompson and Pearson and a strike-force of Hartson and David Fernandez. It was unremarkable to say the least and Liverpool cruised to a 5-1 win. Anecdotally speaking, Celtic looked done. They were slow and predictable and the fans were not taking it too well. I watched the game in a bar in Ibiza and when Liverpool scored their 5th a few Celtic fans were thrown out for kicking furniture over. It was bizarre that a pre-season defeat was causing such rage and frustration. During the day in Ibiza we were looking at the pictures inside the Spanish newspapers, Marca and AS. Henke was settling in nicely, it seemed.
On the 5th of August, 3 days before the beginning of the SPL season, Celtic made their first signing of the transfer window. The Henrik Larsson replacement; the 1.5m loan signing; the star of such clubs as Wolves and Neuchatel Xamax; Henri Camara. 20 days later he was joined by Juninho and that was Celtic’s rebuilding job done: the journeyman Camara (who would go on to play for a total of 18 clubs) and the 31-year-old Brazilian. Both players scored a combined total of 9 goals for Celtic and neither would see out the season. It was the beginning of the end of the Martin O’Neill era: a season that was bookended by the loss of the King and the loss of Black Sunday.