A traditional Celtic trait that Frank McAvennie has detected being revived under Neil Lennon leads him to believe Aberdeen could be fated to suffering a closing-minutes coup de grace in Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi-final.
Since Lennon was appointed interim manager following Brendan Rodgers’ switch to Leicester City six weeks ago, the treble-treble chasing Parkhead side have lacked authority.
However, they have compensated for that with a perseverance that has allowed them to post significant wins courtesy of last-gasp goals – Rangers, Dundee and Hearts all vanquished in such fashion.
In that respect, McAvennie believes that the current Celtic side are demonstrating the spirit of the club’s centenary team of 1987-88, when the indefatigability of Billy McNeill’s squad’s fuelled their drive to land a historic league and Scottish Cup double when celebrating their 100th year in existence.
That season they became so adept at conjuring up turnarounds as time up approached, it became almost an expectation they would be able to dig themselves out of any hole, however few seconds remained.
The classic example of their footballing escapology came 31 years ago this week at Hampden when they found themselves in a chasm in trailing Hearts by a goal with only 90 seconds of the 90 remaining in the club’s Scottish Cup semi-final. There then ensued one of the most dramatic denouements in the annals of the competition. Substitute Mark McGhee carving out an equaliser was only the start of it, with Celtic then finding a way to win it through an Andy Walker added-time goal, both these efforts owing everything to the butter fingers of Tynecastle keeper Henry Smith.
“It was probably one of my worst games for Celtic,” said McAvennie, a classic footballing lovable rogue. “When we were getting beaten 1-0 with minutes to go I remember the Hearts fans all celebrating. Unfortunately for them – and fortunately for us – we scored two late goals to win.
“In the final [against Dundee United] after we equalised there were 14 minutes left. I remember late on asking the referee how long was left now and he said: ‘just under a minute.’ Wee Joe [Miller] took the corner and after I scored it took me ten minutes to get back to the half-way line. I knew they would not be coming back from that.
“Going up to lift that Scottish Cup is probably why I’m here talking to you guys. It’s synonymous with the club and that year. There were about 74,000 fans in the old Hampden and 73,000 were Celtic fans. I’m not in the photos that are up at Celtic Park. I must have been doing an interview with you guys at that time. There’s a thousand photos but I’m not in any of them. I only scored the two goals…”
The unforgettable end to the season came after Celtic had halted the Graeme Souness money-laden Rangers juggernaut in the league as if the Fates had taken the wheel for them.
“We were under immense pressure to deliver something special given the history of the club,” McAvennie said. “But what helped us was that most of the team were Celtic supporters. It had not initially sunk in with people like Chris Morris what Celtic meant but by the end of the season the whole team were fans.
“That was just a special year for us. If you look back at that Rangers team we should not have won the league. It frightens me today when you think who came up – [Chris] Woods, [Terry] Butcher, [Graham] Roberts, [Richard] Gough, [Ray] Wilkins, [Trevor] Francis, [Mark] Walters – incredible midfielders, and then you throw [Ian] Durrant and [Ally] McCoist into the mix. It was a hell of a team and there was no reason we should have won. But we just didn’t know when we were beaten and that got us over the line in the Scottish Cup.”
McAvennie believes the fact that Lennon is immersed in the ways of the club suggests a similar outcome could await this season. “Lenny’s influence on the team in the run-in will be massive. Celtic is in his DNA, it’s in his blood. He knows what the club is all about. He will have wanted to change a few things but you can’t because they are so close to the end of the season. It’s not broken so he’s just getting them over the line.
“But I’m expecting a big performance from his team on Sunday on the big pitch at Hampden. It will be a hell of a game. Derek McInnes has done a hell of a job. This is the first time in years his Aberdeen have not been in second place. That will hurt. They’ve turned over Rangers a few times in Glasgow this season but they keep falling short against Celtic.
“So they will be wanting to turn Celtic over and if Celtic play the way they’ve been playing in the last couple of weeks it will be interesting. But I’ve a feeling Celtic will turn up and turn on the style. But if it’s anything like us then fans should stay to the very end. Billy Connolly used to say: ‘How long is left? Two minutes? Plenty of time!’”