Having narrowly eked out a win against Blackburn Rovers in the first leg of the UEFA Cup second round at Celtic Park, Celtic went into round two of the ‘Battle of Britain’ with a massive point to prove. Not only was their performance not up to scratch, but even their opponents were aware of that and made sure to let the public know.
Blackburn midfielder Garry Flitcroft famously revealed in a media conference afterwards that manager Graeme Souness had told his charges “it was like men against boys out there.” At the very least he gave Martin O’Neill an easier job to do when it came to giving the team talk at Ewood Park.
Celtic’s goal scorer on that night, Henrik Larsson, was even more knowing of the poor performance at Celtic Park in the build up to the game. The blunt Swede labelled his team’s actions on that night as ‘s**t’, despite the win, and vowed to make Blackburn eat their words for their arrogance.
Larsson was riding the crest of a wave having broken Ally McCoist’s record of the most European goals scored by a player from a Scottish team in the first leg, and he was itching to add more to his tally when they made the trip down to Lancashire.
Celtic went into the game on a domestic high having throttled Aberdeen 7-0 at home before edging past Partick Thistle on penalties to advance in the League Cup, and finished off their European preparations by defeating Dundee United 2-0 at Tannadice.
John Hartson was determined to stake his claim to start at Ewood Park during this run. The gentle giant from Wales netted four goals against the Dons and opened the scoring against Dundee United to make Martin O’Neill think twice about his preferred Sutton-Larsson pairing up top.
As the media continued to salivate over the Battle of Britain making its way south of the border, Souness insisted on throwing more barbs in Celtic’s way regarding the first leg in Glasgow.
“If Celtic score one then we can score three. Hopefully by 10pm tonight people will be saying ‘Bloody hell, that Blackburn are a good side’.”
With a good number of Celtic’s squad having made their name in the English scene, it was time for them to prove their ability on the grand stage to the prawn sandwich brigade.
One of Celtic’s famous European nights was about to beckon, and for once it wouldn’t take place in Paradise.
Blackburn Rovers: The Evil Genius Returns
With Hartson knocking on the door for a place in the team, O’Neill decided to engage in all-out war against Blackburn on their own patch.
Instead of playing Larsson and Sutton up top together, O’Neill elected to play Hartson alongside the King with Sutton floating about just behind them in a No. 10 role. Stiliyan Petrov was shunted deeper to partner Neil Lennon with skipper Paul Lambert relegated to the bench, although he would make an appearance later to shore the game up.
Johan Mjallby was still injured so the three-man defence of Valgaeren, Balde and Laursen that held out against Blackburn remained intact, with Steve Guppy preferred to Alan Thompson in the left wing-back position.
What followed next would prove to be one of Celtic’s finest away performances in their European history.
Celtic set the marker for what would follow when Hartson nearly lobbed the ball into the Blackburn net after some nice build-up play between Petrov and Larsson. The strike duo of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole continued their work from the first leg by putting pressure on the Celts defence, Cole latched onto a through ball from John Curtis only for Rab Douglas to keep it out with his leg.
Blackburn proceeded to keep the lion’s share of possession and future Chelsea star Damien Duff managed to sting Douglas’ hands after a nicely worked corner kick from David Thompson. However, from that moment on the game would swing in favour of the men in hoops and it never went back.
Chris Sutton, returning to the home of the team he won the Premier League title with in 1995, had been the subject of media attention regarding his lack of call ups for the England national team and then-manager Sven-Goran Eriksson was in attendance watching Blackburn’s English contingent. Sutton clearly had a point to prove on this night, as he was the undisputed star player on the pitch throughout the 90 minutes.
A quick pass from Sutton was aimed for Hartson only for the Welshman to slip before he could grab hold of the ball. Fortunately, Hartson’s marker Craig Short also fell at the same time. With no one around to put pressure on him, the elusive Larsson sneaked in and chipped the ball over Brad Friedel to give Celtic the vital away goal in the tie. The travelling Celtic support could hardly believe what they were seeing. Limbs went flying.
From then on Celtic had their foot on Blackburn’s throat and refused to ease off. The passing, the movement, the tempo, everything was all on point for the Scottish champions. If Blackburn had dominated the first leg, then the shoe was on the other foot for the second leg. Souness’ words had come back to bite him in the biggest way possible.
Chances from David Thompson and David Dunn threatened to bring Blackburn back into the game, but by then the Celts were too far out in front to have their confidence derailed by this point. A mazy run from Larsson after half-time against the Blackburn defence ended with a low drive that only zipped past the post.
A corner from Guppy was met by a powerful header from Sutton only for the ball to hit the side netting. This was a warning that Blackburn failed to heed as the clock ticked towards the end of the tie.
In the 68th minute, a low corner was swung in by Petrov and the Evil Genius was more than happy to latch onto it and head the ball with such ferocity it rebounded off Friedel’s hand into the Blackburn net to effectively kill the tie. Having been Blackburn’s purveyor of goals alongside Alan Shearer in the 1990s, Sutton came back to haunt them in a solo performance that was one of the best in Celtic’s road to the UEFA Cup final.
Celtic gained revenge for Blackburn’s ill-timed comments about their performance, and Martin O’Neill got his own payback on Souness for shortening his playing career.
The Battle of Britain belonged to Celtic of Scotland. It was truly men against Bhoys.
Winning the tie 3-0 on aggregate was a massive boost to Celtic’s fortunes in the European sense. Blackburn were a very good side in the Premier League at that time and to have taken their scalp in a phase of the UEFA Cup that had given Celtic issues in the past gave belief to the team and the supporters. The one-sided performance in the away leg added to Celtic fans’ optimism about their UEFA Cup journey.
It also started a theme that would permeate throughout the run to Seville. Celtic would have a poor performance at home (which goes against the reputation of Celtic in Europe), but would then turn it around in the away leg and that would be what would get them through to the next round.
Having buried the demons of yesteryear by putting Graeme Souness in his place, Martin O’Neill and his Celtic side looked towards the round of 32 draw that would be happening later that month. They received arguably one of the hardest teams in the pot to have been put up against.
Celta Vigo finished 5th in La Liga the previous season and were peeved at having missed out on the Champions League places up for grabs in the Spanish top division. They knocked out Norwegian side Viking while Celtic were dealing with Blackburn, and the battle of the Celts would be the last obstacle put in place for the men in hoops to overcome before they could reach European football after Christmas.
To do that however, Celtic were going to have to do something they had never done before in their illustrious history: eliminate Spanish opposition in a European tie…
The Road To Seville Continues…
Kieran Polland is a self-proclaimed ‘Brendan Rodgers enthusiast’ and a journalism graduate of Stirling University. You can find him on Twitter @Kieran_Polland.