ALTHOUGH he came on as a substitute for St Johnstone there earlier this season, Michael O’Halloran’s main memories of Celtic Park date from the times when youth players were allowed to play there at the end of the season.
These slightly eerie occasions in a deserted stadium won’t have much in common with tomorrow, when O’Halloran returns to the ground as a likely starter for St Johnstone in their Scottish Cup final appointment with Dundee United. He has taken the long route back after taking those formative steps as a youngster at Celtic, before making the brave decision to continue his career south of the Border at Bolton Wanderers.
“At the end of the season we used to get to play at Celtic Park,” the 23 year-old recalled yesterday. “They’d let us run about on the pitch having a game but there were no fans there, the place would be completely empty.
“The first time I played there properly was with St Johnstone [in a 3-0 defeat in February] although this weekend it will be even better.
“It’s amazing how many fans we’re taking to the game and they’ll make a great atmosphere. I’m happy the game is at Celtic Park because it generates a great atmosphere, especially in the big games.
“At Hampden the fans are maybe a bit too far away from the pitch but at Celtic Park the fans are right on top of you. You get a great atmosphere there and that’s what it will be like on Saturday.”
O’Halloran was only 16 when he left Celtic, the club where his father, also called Michael, still coaches at Under 16 level. “It was difficult because I was a Celtic fan but I wanted to join Bolton,” explained O’Halloran.
“It helped me mature as a person and develop as a player. Going away from my family at that age makes you grow up.”
He was never actually coached by his father at Celtic, although, as expected, O’Halloran senior was a significant factor in his son becoming a footballer. He’s been there a long time but he’s never taken me for training because I was never in his age groups,” said O’Halloran. “It was good having a dad who coaches because he was full of advice when I was younger. He took me for extra training and kept my head going, telling me what to eat and how to conduct myself. So he’s been a very big influence on me.”
Although still young, O’Halloran, who joined St Johnstone in January after three years and just two first-team appearances at Bolton, has already played in an end-of-season showpiece occasion.
He was on loan at Sheffield United when the Bramall Lane club reached the League One play-off final against Huddersfield Town in 2012.
The winger came on as substitute and scored one of the penalties in an epic shoot-out that came down to a battle between the two goalkeepers, who were both forced to take kicks. Current Rangers keeper Steve Simonsen missed his, and Huddersfield won 8-7, after a 0-0 draw.
It was, O’Halloran said, “a good experience of handling pressure”, although St Johnstone won’t necessarily want tomorrow’s contest to come down to penalties, after losing a shoot-out against FC Minsk in a Europa League qualifying tie at the start of this season.
“We’re not nervous, we’re a confident group of lads,” said O’Halloran, who is set to feature in Tommy Wright’s first XI tomorrow, after showing up well when replacing the injured Lee Croft in the semi-final win over Aberdeen.
“Maybe on the day there will be a few butterflies but we’ll be fine. We have a good record against Dundee United and that gives us confidence.”