In the opening article of The Road To Seville series, it was explained that coming off the back of a disappointing exit from the UEFA Champions League, Martin O’Neill’s Celtic side had rebounded by slashing nine goals into the FK Suduva net over two legs in the UEFA Cup first round. While it was an easy tie to ease them into the competition, the Celtic supporters were aware that there would be greater challenges ahead.
The run to the final in May came as a shock mostly because the only objective Celtic fans had for the team to complete that season European wise was to ensure they were still playing on the continent after Christmas. Much like Brendan Rodgers’ current Celtic team sitting comfortably in position for a Europa League spot this season, O’Neill’s side needed to go further in Europe than they had before to indicate that progress was being made under the popular Irishman.
Teams such as Paris Saint-Germain (before the money came pouring in), Lazio, Anderlecht and Sparta Prague were all potential opponents for Celtic to come up against in the second round, so it could be argued that Celtic fans were relieved to see them drawn against Premier League side Blackburn Rovers.
During that time, long before the disastrous ownership of Venkys, Blackburn Rovers were a top team in England and were well known thanks to winning the Premier League in 1995, in part due to the famed SAS – Shearer and Sutton – partnership. The second ‘S’ in that partnership, Chris Sutton, would be going up against his former club in the green and white hoops.
Blackburn Rovers had qualified for the UEFA Cup by winning the English League Cup the previous season having beaten Tottenham Hotspur in the final at Wembley. They also boasted a squad of considerable talent including USA goalkeeper Brad Friedel, Irish flying winger Damien Duff (who would go on to play for Chelsea), and Manchester United’s former Premier League winning strike-force of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke.
It was their manager though that raised the eyebrows of the Scottish media, as well as the determination of Celtic fans for their team to beat Blackburn. Graeme Souness had arrived at Rangers in the mid-1980s with the club in disarray, but by the time Souness had left his managerial post he had turned the Ibrox outfit into a devastating side capable of taking on teams domestically and in Europe. His parting gift to Rangers fans was to win the first two league titles which allowed Walter Smith to carry the baton to the dreaded ‘Nine-in-a-Row’.
There was no love lost between Souness and O’Neill either as the Liverpool legend had sped up O’Neill’s retirement from his playing career with a crunching tackle in 1983.
His prickly character alone didn’t endear him to Celtic fans to begin with but his role in Rangers’ domination of the 1990s added an extra layer of intrigue to the Celtic v Blackburn tie. The architect of Rangers’ success was returning to Glasgow with the plan of throwing another spanner into the works for Celtic.
Add in the Scotland v England aspects of the tie, and you had a powder keg worthy of the title of ‘The Battle of Britain’.
Blackburn Rovers: A Slice Of Luck
In the weeks before the first leg of the Blackburn tie, Celtic and Rangers played out a thrilling 3-3 draw at Celtic Park which included Henrik Larsson’s most underrated Celtic goal. The King dragged down a ball swinging in from a cross, swivelled his body around and volleyed into the net with such power that Stefan Klos didn’t even know it had happened before he could move. The fight to retain the SPL title would power on throughout the season and we’ll be checking in on that title race as the series continues.
The first leg would take place at Celtic Park on a cold Halloween night and Souness ratcheted up the tension by allowing the Blackburn players to train at Rangers’ Murray Park complex. A man who was still idolised by the Rangers faithful, Souness would’ve liked nothing more than to fire one last arrow into the heart of the Celtic side of Glasgow.
The atmosphere was befitting of such a title as ‘the Battle of Britain’. While there was hostility towards Souness from the Paradise crowd in attendance, the overall importance of the tie brought the fans into raptures and kept the team going despite what turned out to be a tough game overall.
Even though Blackburn weren’t exactly Man United or Arsenal, they were still a very dangerous side. The game was played at a frantic pace with Stiliyan Petrov’s bullet header forcing a one-handed save from Brad Friedel after a delicious cross from Didier Agathe. Blackburn soon crept into the game with David Thompson firing a long range shot that took a deflection to send it spinning past Rab Douglas’ near post.
The veteran Dwight Yorke caused havoc amongst a Celtic defence weakened by the loss of Johan Mjallby to injury. With Blackburn in the ascendency, the away support began to chant Souness’ name. Souness, ever the wind-up merchant, took the opportunity to thank the Blackburn fans for their support mid-game causing a cacophonous cascade of boos to ring out throughout Celtic Park.
A half time change for Blackburn took place as Souness went for the kill by bringing on Yorke’s old Man United strike partner Andy Cole. Despite the efforts of Lambert, Lennon, Petrov, Sutton and Larsson, Celtic just couldn’t get a grip of the game. David Thompson was running the midfield ragged whenever he surged upfield, and even though Celtic had more possession it was Blackburn that looked most dangerous whenever they had the ball.
O’Neill went hell for leather and brought on the Welsh bulldozer known as John Hartson to drag Celtic further up the pitch. As the clock ticked by, with both teams looking for an opening goal, it was Blackburn who squandered another chance with substitute David Dunn giving Douglas something to think about with a right-footed shot.
Reportedly the Blackburn supporters began to sing, asking if Celtic were Scotland in disguise. Thus, proving the adage that you should never count your chickens before they hatch.
In the 85th minute, Hartson sent a header towards the Blackburn goal from a corner kick that was cleared off the line by Blackburn’s Thompson. Henrik Larsson then swooped in like a superhero saving the day, as he always did for Celtic, by poaching the ball into the net to send Paradise into a frenzy.
To add insult to injury, Larsson’s 22nd European goal allowed him to break Ally McCoist’s record for the most goals scored in Europe for a player in a Scottish team.
Round One of The Battle Of Britain would go to the men in hoops from Scotland.
Blackburn could consider themselves aggrieved with Celtic’s sneaky late winner. They had dominated the game despite being the away team and had it not been for resolute defending, they could’ve easily had an away goal.
So much so that Blackburn skipper Garry Filtcroft revealed to the media that Souness had told them in the dressing room it was like “men against boys out there”.
Round Two of The Battle Of Britain would prove to be a defining moment of Celtic’s road to the UEFA Cup Final.
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.