All Time Best XI

Celtic have historically had some phenomenal players. A star-studded side lifted the European Cup in 1967, while Martin O’Neill’s side clawed themselves into a European final. Players like Paul McStay and Danny McGrain are littered from era to era. I’m Stephen Russell (@SJRussell23) and the writers we have discussing this will be Matt Evans (@SkylandsCSC) and David Flanigan (@davflan).

An ‘All Time Best XI’ is a topic that breeds debate from club to club. With Celtic, however, it’s perhaps too easy a decision. The Lisbon Lions are the only Celtic side to win a European trophy, and selecting the entire XI there wouldn’t be unreasonable – perhaps with the inclusion of Henrik Larsson – so for this piece, we have had to add rules for our writers to abide by.

  • Only one Lisbon Lion can be included.
  • Only one Seville player can be included.
  • Exactly one current player must be included.
  • No more than three players that debuted under the same manager.

The formation used will be a flat 442. Our writers have been given this as to pick their squad tactically rather than position by position.

GK:

EVANS: Artur Boruc (Strachan). Number one. An absolute lion between the sticks, and a man who saved his best for the biggest stages. My goalkeeper needs to be arrogant and gallus as fuck, and I believe that if you look through the long annals of Celtic history, you won’t find a better all-round keeper than the Holy Goalie. The worst thing you can say about Boruc was that occasionally he lost his concentration, but playing behind the back four included in this squad, he’ll find his defense quite a bit more capable than he was used to in his years at Celtic.

FLANIGAN: Artur Boruc (Strachan). When compiling a Best Celtic XI, a few names immediately spring to mind as absolute certainties, this is one. Celtic may never have had a goalkeeper so consistently capable of producing match-winning moments, his penalty saving (and scoring) antics are borderline legendary – a 90thminute spot kick save from Louis Saha to see out Celtic’s 2007 Champions League victory over Manchester United serving as arguably the most memorable of them. As a maverick, an icon and quite simply a ludicrously talented goalkeeper, the Holy Goalie’s place in this side would be assured, his penchant for irritating Rangers fans en masses serving as merely a bonus.

LEFT BACK:

EVANS: Kieran Tierney (Deila). Number two. This might have been the toughest selection for this eleven, and there may be some recency bias at play here. In this team, Tierney would have a fairly tough shift to put in, with Nakamura in front of him at left mid offering little in defence. But that’s why I chose him. When healthy, his youth and pace would be a massive asset to all facets of the team. Instead of the tactic used by the 2016/17 Invincibles squad, where Tierney and Sinclair would overlap on the wing, I would look to Nakamura to move inside, permitting Tierney to cross from the top of the box, or beat his opponent and cut it back for a forward to put hime.

FLANIGAN: Kieran Tierney (Deila). With his sale to Arsenal still raw and after almost six months since his last consistent run in the Celtic side, it’s almost easy to forget how pivotal Tierney was almost immediately after breaking into the team in Ronny Deila’s second season. Hard in the tackle, tremendous one vs one and capable of hitting the opposition byline with breakneck runs, Tierney’s rise to the best full back in Scotland was made all the sweeter by his relationship with the fans and humble demeanour. Although clearly overplayed, it’s easy to see why, Tierney remains the platonic ideal for a modern full-back.

CENTRE BACK:

EVANS: Billy McNeill (McGrory – Lisbon). Number five, and of course the captain. Every good team needs a tough, experienced spine and Billy McNeill will be the stay-at-home, clear-your-lines, commanding centre back I envision Billy’s defensive and positioning nous to allow Virgil more free rein to move forward, setting off on those mazy runs he does so well. Even the best of opposing forwards will need to have a serious and effective game plan to beat McNeill, in the air and on the ground.

FLANIGANBilly McNeill (McGrory – Lisbon). There are countless metrics to determine what makes a great footballer: ability, drive, character, Billy McNeill ticked every box and then some. Our all-time appearance holder, our greatest ever captain, the greatest ever Celt, Cesar was more than these, Cesar was Celtic. Billy gave 60 years of his life to Celtic as player, manager, then ambassador, winning an unprecedented 31 trophies in the process. He represented not just what every fan through the ages aspires to be as footballers, but what they aspire to be as people; the deluge of grief following his death earlier this year from all corners of football attest to this. There’s only one King Billy, and that’s McNeill.

CENTRE BACK:

EVANS: Virgil van Dijk (Lennon). Number four. A Rolls-Royce of a defender. Virgil was ticketed for stardom probably midway through his first year in hoops. The Celtic scouting network deserves massive kudos for beating Ajax to (IMO) one of the top five Dutch defenders of all time. Virgil is a shutdown defender at the back, but would make exciting, marauding runs through the midfield – he memorably beat six defenders before sticking it in the net against St Johnstone in 2013. He’s also a massive set-piece threat. His goal-scoring record for Celtic and Liverpool (on average, a goal every 10 appearances) is an excellent return for a centre-back.

FLANIGAN: Virgil Van Dijk (Lennon). It’s admittedly near-impossible to view the now-unanimously agreed current best centre half in world football’s time at Celtic entirely without revisionism. An archetypal ball-playing centre half, Van Dijk waltzed through his two seasons with Celtic with the ease of a fighter in a weight class below, forming Celtic’s most reliable centre half partnership in over a decade with Jason Denayer. A few hairy moments in Europe aside, his careless red card in the San Siro chief among them, it was clear that Van Dijk’s stay would be a brief, albeit fruitful one for both he and Celtic.

RIGHT BACK:

EVANS: Danny McGrain (Stein). Number three. In a 4-4-2, especially with (spoiler alert) attack-minded left and right mids, this XI is going to need two strong fullbacks capable of bombing up and down the wing, contributing quality crossing and assists to the attack and being resolute in defence. McGrain never shirked a 50/50 and opposing left wingers, no matter how quality they are, would have second thoughts about taking him on one-to-one. Although extremely defensively sound, Danny in his prime had the pace to beat anyone, and I’d look for his offensive contribution to be getting upfield and putting in crosses for the striker pairing.

FLANIGAN: Danny McGrain (Stein). There’s something to be said for players for whom Celtic wasn’t their first love, but their last, and such is the case for Danny McGrain. A boyhood Rangers fan, McGrain was signed a fortnight prior to the European Cup victory in Lisbon A progenitive attacking full-back, Danny McGrain was as renowned for his fierce tackling as he was for his marauds down the right flank, showing remarkable consistency across 17 years at Celtic, despite several significant injuries and a diabetes diagnosis in 1974. McGrain was a legitimately world class full-back and Celtic’s greatest ever in that position without question.

LEFT MIDFIELDER:

EVANS: Shunsuke Nakamura (Strachan). Number ten. Three words: free kick threat. Possibly the classiest left foot ever to step on the Celtic Park turf, Nakamura was capable of scoring from almost anywhere, and like Boruc, seemed to save his very best for the big stages. With the central midfield being so two-way capable, Naka’s relatively small stature and defensive liabilities would represent less of an issue, allowing him to stay forward and unlock defenses with his incisive passing and world-class creativity. 

FLANIGAN: Lubomir Moravcik (Vengloš). Infamously initially derided by the press upon signing as little more than Dr Jo Vengloš’ countryman pal, a “monkey” bought for “peanuts”, Lubo’s four seasons in Scotland were characterised by timeless moments of brilliance and a catalogue of unbelievable goals. Extraordinarily two footed, Lubo was one Celtic’s all-time great entertainers, playing a starring role for Martin O’Neill’s 2001 treble winners and cutting Juventus to ribbons in Celtic’s famous 4-3 Champions League win the next season. Oh, and he trapped a ball with his arse once. If only the Gift from God had come 5-10 years earlier.

CENTRE MIDFIELDER:

EVANS: Paul Lambert (Jansen – Seville). Number six. Lambert was simply an absolute star. Winner for his country, winner for his clubs. In a move that would never, ever happen in the modern age, Lambert came to Celtic after two magical seasons at Borussia Dortmund where he starred in a Champions League final – imagine Fabinho or Jordan Henderson coming to Celtic this year. He would be the steel in the midfield of this team, allowing the fleet Burns to influence the attack.

FLANIGAN: Paul McStay (McNeill). Loyalty is a subject of much recent discussion around Celtic in the last 8 months or so following a couple of high profile departures. It would be ludicrous to reduce Paul McStay’s almost peerless contribution to the club down to his refusal to trade carrying one of the least successful Celtic sides in living memory for countless suitors around Europe, but such was his talent that his commitment must be noted. Almost unmatched for touch, vision, and technical finesse, The Maestro is unquestionably one of Celtic’s finest ever midfielders, and the light in the dark of one of the club’s darkest periods.

CENTRE MIDFIELDER:

EVANS: Tommy Burns (Stein). Number eight. Burns makes this team for his heart and desire as well as his talent. He joins Tierney in this team as Celtic fans who pulled on the shirt, and his versatility, drive and talent would serve this eleven well. Tommy would play further forward than his midfield partner Paul Lambert and I would look to him to provide service to his very talented forwards; he also had the ability to beat his defender and get the shot off. He also had a bit of a temper, which I’d like to see in this otherwise mostly calm eleven.

FLANIGAN: Scott Brown (Strachan). Brown arrived at Celtic in 2007 as a talented but undeniably raw 23 year old, and his evolution from a whirlwind box-box runner into the snarling sitter he is today has coincided with him maturing from the most easily wound-up player in the league to the foremost wind-up merchant in British football. Renowned nowadays more for the intangibles he brings rather than his footballing ability, it’s testament that Brown has consistently played alongside more technically gifted players who cannot match him for heart, spirit and drive, serving almost a decade as Celtic’s beating heart. Six more words: El Hadji Diouf, there’s yer dinner.

RIGHT MIDFIELDER:

EVANS: James Forrest (Lennon). Number seven. Besides being arguably the best player in the current Scottish Premiership, I needed someone nominally right-footed, and from the current team. Jamesy brings speed, guile and goals, everything you want out of a classy winger. Like many of the Celtic squads he’s played in, he won’t be asked to pitch in too much in defense – but he’ll offer more than Nakamura, and hey – he’s got Danny McGrain behind him.

FLANIGAN: Shunsuke Nakamura (Strachan). Another perhaps controversial entry with stiff competition out wide through the years, no-one could question Nakamura’s inclusion on the basis of the volume of moments of individual inspiration he delivered in a Celtic jersey. It’s harsh to brand Gordon Strachan’s Celtic as merely a functional team, but in a side often sparse with sheer technical ability, Nakamura was the jewel in the crown, a natural match-winner and of course a legendary free kick specialist. Scorer of one of the greatest Celtic goals against Rangers of all time and along with Boruc, delivering one of the greatest individual results of Celtic’s modern history with his sublime free kick against Manchester United in 2007, Nakamura was an icon for the post-Seville generation.

STRIKER:

EVANS: Moussa Dembele (Rodgers). Number eleven. Odsonne Edouard was knocking on the door here as well, and if I had been writing this two years from now, the decision might well have been different. Like VVD, Celtic were very lucky to beat other clubs to Dembele’s signing, and he paid dividends almost immediately. In this team, he would play in a big man/wee man front two. I would look to him for holdup play and being able to play passes off to his strike partner. His success since his big-money move to Lyon only serves to underscore that the sky’s the limit.

FLANIGAN: James McGrory (Maley). There is one glaring omission from the 2002 fan voted Greatest Celtic XI, the club’s all-time record goalscorer. McGrory boasted a farcical goal return, and an outrageous aerial prowess for a man of his stature (around half of his 472 Celtic goals were scored with his head). His eight goal salvo in a 1928 demolition of Dunfermline remains an unmatched British record. “I felt McGrory of Arsenal did not sound right. It wasn’t like McGrory of Celtic” is a recently unearthed quote from Jimmy following Kieran Tierney’s move to Arsenal that while accurately reflecting his commitment to Celtic, only reflects his status as one of football’s most prolific forwards of all time by suggestion alone.

STRIKER:

EVANS: Kenny Dalglish (Stein). Number nine. It was a very tough call between King Henrik and King Kenny, but I needed Paul Lambert running the midfield. Dalglish needs absolutely no introduction. I envision his role in this team exactly as it was in the setup next to Dixie Deans in the glory years of the early 1970s, with Dembele in the Deans role (albeit with a totally different physical makeup). Averaging a goal every other match during his Celtic career, Kenny would be an impact presence up front. His cleverness combined with his strike partner’s strength would give opposing defenses nightmares.

FLANIGAN: Henrik Larsson (Jansen). I would struggle to write a more redundant paragraph in my life than one to justify the King of Kings’ inclusion in a best Celtic XI with any sort of statistical or emotional plea, so we’re here’s this instead. There’s an early-2000s Only an Excuse sketch in which a Rangers fan listening to an Old Firm on the radio breaks the radio in frustration when Larsson scores from Celtic’s goal-line, only for it to almost immediately repair itself and for the radio commentator ask “Larsson’s fixed the radio – is there anything this man cannot do?!”. No, there was nothing Larsson couldn’t do.

SUMMARY:

EVANS: It’s hard to find any weaknesses in this team, frankly. This eleven is suitable for a number of different tactics and formations, and is full of leadership, ability and strength. The one issue I would stress in the prematch talk would be how to beat something akin to a high press from the opponent, where Tierney and McGrain would be hemmed into their own half. I would still fancy the midfield to be able to provide service more centrally, but my main concern would be that stifling the fullbacks would also lead to less effective performances from Forrest and Nakamura on the attacking wings. But you have to trust in a centre midfield of Lambert and Burns, don’t you? 

This eleven has goals galore, and opponents would rightly be concerned about facing either Dalglish or Dembele on their own, let alone together. Sorting out their individual talents to make a solid partnership might take some time and a relaxation of the ego, but in this team I believe they would work together splendidly. Other offensive contributions could come through either Nakamura or Forrest, either of whom create goals out of nowhere. Nakamura is, arguably, one of the most talented dead-ball specialists in recent football history, and Forrest can beat you in a different way with his pace and a bit of trickery. 

At the back, McNeill and van Dijk combine to make 3.8 meters of imposing centre-back, and it’s hard to imagine them getting beat in the air. They are both strong in the tackle, and bring intelligence and awareness to their game – if anyone’s lunging in on an opposing forward it’s probably going to be Boruc. 

With 3 debutants under Stein, 2 each under Strachan and Lennon, and a signing each under Deila, McGrory, Rodgers and Jansen, Matt’s squad will be managed by Jock Stein.

FLANIGAN: I wanted this side to incorporate players from as vast a span of Celtic’s history as possible and this brings up some interesting quirks. Firstly, this team contains more leaders than a UN conference. Whilst Cesar is the clear choice for captain, there’s almost three decades of combined Celtic captaincy in the team out-with him and this is a side overflowing with serial winners and natural leadership. Almost every player brings a wealth of character and this can only be seen as a positive. 

Secondly, with 700-strong Celtic goals between the front two alone this is enough to give the most accomplished defensive unit the skitters, and with two master technicians out wide creating the supply line, the thought of the sheer volume of barnstorming diving headers alone the strikers would score in this side is enough to make the mouth water. This is before considering the potential of Larsson paired with Celtic’s most potent penalty box forward.

Conversely, the formation used is one that, a couple of major success stories in pre-Rat Leicester and Simeone’s Atletico Madrid aside, is largely disregarded in modern football, and as a result this midfield is precariously narrow by 2019 standards and is one likely to be constantly outnumbered. Although blessed with a truly formidable centre half partnership and two full backs who relish one-on-one defending, the lack of defensive instinct from wide areas whilst carrying a man less in midfield is an obvious deficiency, despite both Naka and Lubo being hard workers in their own right.

With 3 Strachan debutants and one each from Deila, McGrory, Lennon, Stein, Vengloš, McNeill, Maley and Jansen, David’s squad will be managed by Gordon Strachan.

CONCLUSION:

Both of our writers chose the exact same back 5, which isn’t the biggest shock with all factors considered. There isn’t too much competition for the goalkeeper spot, and none of which who won our hearts in the same way that Boruc did. Tierney, as our most expensive export, deserves a place when Cesar takes the Lisbon Lions spot. For another centre back, it surely has to be the one who went on to win UEFA’s Men’s Best Player Award 2019 – Virgil van Dijk. Danny McGrain takes the right back spot with no contest.

Midfield becomes more of a battle. It’s difficult to say any one player deserves a guaranteed spot, with only Nakamura appearing in both squads. With David saving the Seville spot, Brown and McStay make his midfield to play Matt’s Lambert and Burns. A very difficult choice, with two of my favourite ever Celtic players being McStay and Burns. As a winger pairing with Nakamura, David chose Moravcik on the left while Matt chose Forrest on the right.

While David saw Larsson’s place as a given, Matt had already used his Seville place on Lambert and chose a tactical pairing of Dalglish and Dembele. It’s hard to question how fantastic a partnership that would be, but compared to Larsson and McGrory – who knows?

Here are the finalised teams, decide who wins and let us know in the comments or on Twitter @90MinuteCynic!

Want to weigh in on the debate, or just have some ideas you’d like to put forward? Talk to us in the comments below, on the Patreon app or on Twitter @90MinuteCynic or @SJRussell23. For hours of podcast audio, covering every aspect of Celtic from every angle, subscribe to our Patreon service at www.patreon.com/90minutecynic.


Despite growing up, and now studying, in England, Celtic have always been a huge part of my life. I first watched the team with my dad; I fell in love and then there was no turning back. Torn between a statistically enhanced footballing style and a good, old-fashioned get-it-in-the-mixer-and-score style.


'All Time Best XI' have 1 comment

  1. September 13, 2019 @ 10:48 pm Davie Kirwan

    Sorry both teams wrong…..how the hell can our greatest ever player, Jinky not make either team?.
    Boric, McGrain, Elliot, Van Djik, Tierney, johnstone, McStay, Burns, Dalgleish, Larsson, McGrory.

    Reply


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