I’ve still not watched the 2003 UEFA Cup final back in its entirety.
I’ve seen snippets of it over the years, of course, but never the full game. There have been times when I’ve been flicking channels, and I’d stumble upon a rerun of it. I’d watch about a minute, but that was all I could ever manage.
We came so, so close.
I occasionally think about things I may have done differently if I could do it again. But then every vanquished coach does exactly the same. Sir Alex Ferguson once said the same thing to me about the 2011 Champions League final, when Barcelona beat Manchester United at Wembley. He replayed all the possible outcomes in his head over and over.
But despite the loss, the journey to get there is still being described by Celtic fans 20 years on as an epic voyage – not just the final in Seville, but also the games that paved the way. And amazingly, even though we ended the season without a trophy, our supporters talk about that year as being one of the most memorable in the club’s history.
In an early round we were drawn against Blackburn Rovers, who were flying high in the Premier League at the time. The tie drew the usual comparisons and contrasts between English and Scottish football, so we felt a little pressure to do well. Rovers played particularly well at Celtic Park and were unfortunate to lose to a late goal, but in the second leg at Ewood Park our players and the supporters were absolutely magnificent as Chris Sutton haunted the club where he had achieved incredible success some seasons earlier.
"That evening is still tinged with sadness for me because of how close we came"
And so we marched on, beating Celta Vigo and Stuttgart to reach the quarter finals, where Gérard Houllier’s star-studded Liverpool team awaited us. And what a two-legged tie that turned out to be.
The noise generated at Celtic Park in the first leg could have been heard all over Glasgow. A 1-1 draw at Parkhead meant that we had to score at least once Anfield, and once again the team rose to the occasion – wonder goals from Alan Thompson and John Hartson gave us an incredible 2-0 victory (below). That really was a tremendous night. Henrik Larsson then scored in Boavista in the semi finals, to take us to the final in Seville.
We faced José Mourinho’s Porto in the final. Some 75,000 Celtic fans descended upon Seville for that match, and the atmosphere around the place was just sensational.
That Porto team was a very fine footballing side. Nine of the starting XI on the night went on to win the Champions League final the following year. Deco, Ricardo Carvalho, Derlei, Maniche, Paulo Ferreira. These were top players. It was a real challenge for us.
We could and should have won that game. Henrik Larsson had another sensational night, and his two goals sent the game to extra-time. But for Bobo Baldé’s sending-off in extra-time, I think we would have done it. But it just wasn’t to be.
"the fact that Peter Taylor thought I was management material really meant a lot to me"
That evening is still tinged with sadness for me because of how close we came to a European trophy – what would have been Celtic’s first since the great Jock Stein won the European Cup in 1967.
Naturally, it’s a major regret.
Funnily enough, I had never actually considered management when I was a player – even though I spent a long time working under one of the greatest managers of all time, in Brian Clough.
Then by chance, one day after I’d retired, I met Peter Taylor, Brian’s assistant at Nottingham Forest. I actually wanted to avoid him since we hadn’t really got on so well as player and assistant manager.
But he spotted me. And he said something that entirely changed my thinking.
“You disappoint me,” he said. “I thought you would go into management.
“You had the two best teachers going. You had me and Brian Clough.”
"these were normal people with day jobs who were only going to be convinced by someone who won games"
That was true. And the fact that he thought I was management material really meant a lot to me. If Peter Taylor thought that, I knew there must be something in it.
Almost immediately, I started applying for jobs.
I didn’t have any luck early on, though. Down in the lower leagues and non-league at the time, there was a rise in player-managers. Chairmen were seeing the chance for a two-for-one type deal with high-quality players who were coming to the end of their careers and looking for their first management job. That wasn’t an option for me, though, because of the injuries that ended my career early. As a result, interviews were difficult to come by.
I was given an opportunity by Grantham Town, who were a long way down the football pyramid at the time. It was two nights a week and a match at the weekend, and I absolutely loved it, although not every moment was a glamorous one.
I was enthusiastic at Grantham because I enjoyed it so much, and it was a huge test for me. My playing career meant nothing down there – these were normal people with day jobs who were only going to be convinced by someone who won games. Luckily, I managed to achieve that.
A couple of years later, a chance meeting with commentator Alan Parry, a director at Wycombe Wanderers, changed the course of my career.
Not long after that meeting, I became their manager. They were a Vauxhall Conference club striving to break into the Football League.
"I’m not sure even the most die-hard Celtic fan would have expected the speed at which our fortunes changed"
People sometimes say that in management it’s best to make your mistakes when you’re lower down the pyramid and learn from them. Well, I don’t agree with that at all.
I knew how fraught with risk life was down there. I’d seen how hard it was to get a job at a bigger club. Failure at Wycombe would most likely spell the end of my managerial career.
So, I moved my family from Nottingham to Buckinghamshire and put my heart and soul into the club. The sacrifices that my wife and daughters had to make paid big dividends in the end.
Wycombe Wanderers became a Football League club in 1993, which was a really proud moment for me as manager. Beating Preston the following season, in the playoffs at Wembley. to secure promotion to League One continued our rise up the leagues.
This success at Wycombe then gave me a short-lived period at Norwich City in 1995, before moving to Leicester City at the end of that year.
The early days at Filbert Street, when victories were hard to come by, were naturally none too pleasant! Thankfully, I was able to turn fortunes around and promotion to the Premier League was achieved at the end of that season. There followed a golden period in Leicester’s history, with four consecutive top-10 finishes and two League Cup victories, which brought European football to Filbert Street.
In 2000, Celtic came calling. It was an opportunity that was difficult to turn down.
"I didn’t think so at the time, but looking back I really do believe that it was a seminal moment for the club"
Having been born in Northern Ireland and brought up as an Irish nationalist Catholic, there was a fairly decent chance that I’d grow up supporting Celtic. Never did I think I would have the chance to manage the club, however.
It was a daunting task when I went in, to be honest. Rangers had won 11 of the last 12 Scottish Premier League titles, and in 1999/2000 they’d finished 21 points clear of Celtic at the top of the table.
My initial remit was to just get closer to Rangers. I’m not sure even the most die-hard Celtic fan would have expected the speed at which our fortunes changed. I think just closing that 21-point gap to something more respectable might have been deemed successful at first.
Nobody could have foreseen what would happen in that first season – perhaps including me!
I inherited some really good players, but the group itself had lost a lot of confidence.
Mark Viduka left for Leeds United, so I used that money to buy Chris Sutton, who was a really, really fine footballer. Although Chris was having a tough time at Chelsea, he had been brilliant at Blackburn Rovers when they won the Premier League. So, although we’d lost an excellent player in Viduka, replacing him with Chris was a real statement of intent. He would go on to be pivotal in the success that followed.
I brought in some other very fine players, such as Joos Valgaran, Alan Thompson, Didier Agathe and, a few months later, Neil Lennon. With each passing victory, confidence levels rose dramatically within the squad.
"A 5-1 defeat to Rangers in November was the only blemish on a near-perfect season"
Five games into the season, things were going well. We faced our first Old Firm game with both us and Rangers having won all four of our opening league games.
There were 60,000 people in Celtic Park, and it was absolutely rocking. We scored three goals in the first 11 minutes and went on to win 6-2.
It was a vitally important game to win for our hopes of success that season, but the manner in which we won made it even bigger than that. I didn’t think so at the time, but looking back, I really do believe that it was a seminal moment for the club. Suddenly, everyone at Celtic knew we could compete with and beat Rangers again.
When you start to win games – particularly games such as that – footballers start to believe in you and your methods. The mood at the club had visibly changed, and we went from strength to strength.
I set the team up to maximise Henrik Larsson’s ability up front. He could score goals from any situation, so I knew if we gave him quality service, he’d score plenty. I set the team up in a 3-5-2 – like I did at Leicester – with proper width from the wing-backs, who were almost like wingers who defended when required. The thinking was that the more crosses we could whip in, the more goals Henrik would score, with Chris Sutton being the perfect foil for him. Alan Thompson and Didier Agathe attacked down the flanks and put in quality crosses, and as a result Henrik scored a phenomenal number of goals – 53 in 50 games in all competitions, to be precise.
It worked brilliantly. A 5-1 defeat to Rangers in November was the only blemish on a near-perfect season. We didn’t lose another game in any domestic competition until the league was won, and we ended up winning the title by 15 points, as well as winning the League Cup and Scottish Cup, too. The treble had been won. It was the first time since Jock Stein’s side had done so more than 30 years previously.
"Within 15 months of me starting at Celtic, we were playing Champions League football"
In my first season at Celtic, we had achieved what many people had thought totally unrealistic. Celtic were back at the top.
Of course, coaching the players was important. Trying to help very good players become even better with drills on the training ground played a decent part. But every manager will tell you man-management is absolutely crucial. Pep Guardiola, one of the best coaches of all time, would vouch for that.
Keeping players happy is a difficult part of the job. I know when I was a player, if I wasn’t in the team, I was really unhappy. It’s about creating an environment where players can thrive, and also where people know that if they do well, they will be rewarded.
After winning a domestic treble, going into the following season, I felt that motivating the players wouldn’t be difficult – simply because we had the Champions League to look forward to. John Hartson arrived at the club from Coventry, and his contribution over the next couple of seasons would prove invaluable.
We beat a brilliant Ajax team over two legs in a qualifier early in the season. Within 15 months of me starting at Celtic, we were playing Champions League group-stage football.
We had some incredible nights. We faced Juventus, Porto and Rosenborg in our group, and we won all three home games – but we lost all three away games. It was almost unbelievable, but we were knocked out with nine points, which was really tough to take. The defeat to Juventus, where they were given a really dubious last-minute penalty to beat us 3-2, still irks to this very day! But it was an exciting campaign for us considering that we were novices in the Champions League.
"Sometimes I think I dwell on the disappointments rather than the achievements"
Meanwhile, our domestic league form was certainly not suffering in any way, and we proceeded to win the title with 103 points.
Then came the 2002/03 season, and that wonderful UEFA Cup run. One of the craziest things about the final was that, after we’d played such a draining game in Seville on the Wednesday, lost in extra-time, and only got back to the hotel at something like 3am, we had to play our final game of the league season on the Sunday. It wasn’t just any end-of-season game, though. We were level on points and goal difference with Rangers, with one game left.
Emotionally, that was a hell of a lot to contend with.
We had Kilmarnock away; Rangers had Dunfermline at home. We had to outscore Rangers to win the title.
We’d played 11 more games than Rangers, so we were tested physically and mentally as we neared the end of the season. It was a lot to ask of the players.
We scored four goals and won 4-0. But Rangers won 6-1. They won the title by a single goal.
"Celtic have reigned over Rangers for the last 20 years, and I think the tables turned back then"
And that’s how we ended 2002/03 empty-handed.
My assistant manager, John Robertson, tells me that in the changing room afterwards at Rugby Park, I told the players we’d win the league the following season by a distance. Perhaps bravado on my part, but we did. By a considerable margin. Full credit must go to the players for overcoming those disappointments and bouncing back in the manner in which they did.
I loved just about every minute of my time at Celtic. Sometimes I think I dwell on the disappointments rather than the achievements, but that just might be my upbringing rather than anything else. Beyond the trophies we won, that period built the foundations for real, lasting success.
Celtic have essentially reigned over Rangers for the last 20 years, and I think – and a lot of people say – the tables turned back then while I was in charge. I think that 6-2 win over Rangers was a huge moment in that shift.
It was a real honour to manage Celtic Football Club. In those five years we turned the tide, built a brilliant squad, brought a lot of joy to the Celtic fans, and had some great successes. The players that I worked with during that time deserve enormous credit for making it all possible.
Author: Ali Tweedale