Celtic trust in beginners’ pluck

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Given Celtic’s historical penchant for leaving milestones of "firsts" and unique achievements in their wake, nobody should be astonished if the present squad mark their debut in the Champions League proper by standing on the winners’ podium at Hampden Park on 15 May. Indeed, scrutiny of their record in this regard suggests it will be something of a surprise if they don’t.

The first club to win six successive league championships - a record that stood until they made it nine under Jock Stein, winners of the Empire Exhibition Cup in 1938, the Coronation Cup in 1953 (both one-off competitions involving leading clubs from England as well as Scotland), winners of the 100th Scottish Cup final in 1985 (wouldn’t you know it?) and league and Scottish Cup double winners in their own centenary year in 1988.

That last achievement should have been, in retrospect, considered a foregone conclusion by anyone with an appreciation of the Parkhead club’s extraordinary sense of timing. When they won the Empire Exhibition Cup, beating in the final at Ibrox an Everton side that contained ten internationals from the four home countries, the trophy was added to the league championship they had secured just a fortnight earlier. But, of course, that was their golden jubilee year.

Nor have the various teams that have delivered these singular accomplishments necessarily been in possession of exceptional credentials. The one that won the Coronation Cup, for example, had just finished eighth in the league, eliminated at the group stage from the League Cup and beaten in the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup.

But the tournament that commemorated the crowning of a new queen was different. Celtic beat Arsenal and Manchester United before meeting in the final the outstanding Hibs side who had been champions in each of the two previous seasons and who would have been again in 1953 had goal difference, rather than goal average, been used to separate them from Rangers, with whom they had tied on points. Despite a glaring superiority for most of the match, the Easter Road side were beaten 2-0.

NOR could the double winning side of 1988 be said to have been the most celebrated in the land. Rangers, in revolution under Graeme Souness, won the title the season before and the nine after. But ’88, like some of the other years, had nothing to do with logic. This was kismet.

The most famous of all the firsts was, of course, the triumph in the European Cup from their initial try, in 1966-67. Then, as now, a manager with a seemingly limitless supply of magic dust had arrived to transform Celtic from a joke - only one trophy, the League Cup, between 1954 and 1965 - into the most formidable force in the country.

But Martin O’Neill’s attempt to emulate Jock Stein will be made under circumstances that could not have been imagined by those who undertook the great expedition 35 years ago.

Hardly credible now, Celtic used just 15 players to win the greatest prize in Europe, only one more than O’Neill is now allowed to employ in one match, possibly as early as tomorrow’s opener with Rosenborg at Celtic Park.

They also played only nine matches before Billy McNeill put his hands on the great trophy (this, by the way, was the first time that particular cup had been played for, Real Madrid having been given the original to keep after their sixth success the previous year). If O’Neill’s team repeat the feat, they will have played ten more.

The quaintness of the rules then could have seen Celtic play more. When McNeill headed a priceless winning goal 20 seconds from the end of the quarter-final second leg against Vojvodina in Glasgow, he saved his team from a play-of against the Yugoslavians in neutral Rotterdam.

The inconvenience of play-offs had caused a change by the time I made my first foreign trip as a reporter, covering Celtic against Benfica in Lisbon in 1969. Having won 3-0 at home and lost by the same score away, Celtic that night entered the quarter-finals by McNeill guessing correctly on the toss of a coin.

That was a match which began on Wednesday and ended on Thursday, the 9.30pm. kick-off in Portugal, followed by extra time and the drama in the referee’s room afterwards taking the eventual outcome past midnight.

But Celtic’s predilection for making history is matched by that of Alex Ferguson.

Remembering the conspiracy of circumstances surrounding this season’s Champions League - O’Neill’s first tilt, Ferguson’s last, the final in Glasgow - it would shock nobody if their respective captains ended up exchanging pennants at Hampden.

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