Wim Jansen's Celtic legacy: A footballing Buddha dubbed Willy Wonka by unconvinced players who left his lasting mark

The ultimate demonstration that what truly endures in football is not shaped by length of service but making such time count was provided by Wim Jansen and his Celtic association.

Former Celtic manager Wim Jansen has died at the age of 75.
Former Celtic manager Wim Jansen has died at the age of 75.

The Dutchman, who has died at the age of 75 following struggles with dementia, spent only 10 months and seven days at the helm of the club, following his universally-panned appointment on July 4, 1998. Yet, across that period he was not just responsible for delivering Celtic from their decade-long title wilderness but delivering them their greatest modern-day performer in Henrik Larsson. An astonishing double-play that effectively redrew the entire landscape of the Scottish game, and which assures his iconic status in the annals of Celtic’s history is utterly unimpeachable.

Jansen, who I worked with for five tumultuous months at the club in that era, understandably will be forever elevated by the Celtic support for ‘stopping the 10’ straight championship quest of Rangers. However, acquiring Larsson for the larcenous fee of £650,000 - through a clause in the Swedish striker’s contract that followed his move to a Feyenoord side then reeling from losing Jansen as manager - was his most outstanding contribution to the Parkhead club’s cause.

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A curious, inscrutable character, just as he had fallen out with the powerbrokers at the Rotterdam club, so his relationship would quickly break down with Celtic owner Fergus McCann. It led to him making official his long expected resignation only two days after he had led the club to a title success considered an impossibility when he took over the previous summer with the squad in disarray.

Celtic head coach Wim Jansen celebrates his side's Coca Cola Cup final win over Dundee Utd in 1997.

Yet, his diffident, gnomic ways, while maybe not making him an easy man to handle for business executives at football clubs the old school footballing sort viewed with suspicion, were precisely the traits that allowed him to plot a wholly unexpected path to the title. The former full back might have been a World Cup finalist with the Netherlands in 1974 and 1978 - and notably boasted a European Cup winners’ medal from Feyenoord’s success over a certain Celtic in 1970 - but was wholly modest and unfussy in personal dealings. And was the possessor of a gentle, winning smile that could often make him appear a kind of footballing Buddha.

In the utterly bonkers, febrile environment that was all-consuming as Walter Smith’s team sought to eclipse the nine-in-a-row record set in Celtic’s Jock Stein era, Jansen stood apart. His ability to retain his equilibrium in the face of any number of brouhahas was absolutely central to his Celtic team finding theirs despite enduring the most horrendous opening month to his tenure.

Following a difficult spell with Japanese club Sanfrecce Hiroshima in season 1995-96, the Scottish Sun greeted his arrival in Scotland with a despicable, tasteless headline that proclaimed he was “the second worst thing to hit Hiroshima”. He shrugged it off, and never became caught up in anything so gauche as a mission to prove detractors wrong. He simply didn’t allow himself to give headroom to detractors, or distractions. Indeed, when I asked him how he felt about that headline, only minutes after the 2-0 home win over St Johnstone that secured the league championship for Celtic for the first time since the club’s centenary season, his response was typically humane and completely devoid of bitterness. Maybe it shows that people should be given a chance before judging them, was the basic thrust of his reply.

No-one - from we in the media, to the Celtic fanbase, to the very players working under him - were of a mind to give Jansen the benefit of the doubt when Celtic lost their opening two league games of the season. Within the squad, certain unconvinced players were then dubbing him Willy Wonka because of his, somewhat detached, eccentric manner and his curly barnet. It can be forgotten now, but Celtic football under him could be functional and pragmatic, with the demand that players subsumed egos, and the fancy-dan, to operate within a disciplined, defensive structure.

Henrik Larsson celebrates winning the championship alongside Celtic manager Wim Jansen after a 2-0 win over St Johnstone on May 9, 1998.

It seemed an approach destined for disaster, Jansen’s early weeks overshadowed by Jorge Cadete and Paolo di Canio working their tickets with dubious ‘verbal agreement’ claims for warranting salary increases following the flair-filled, failing football under the recently dispensed-with, and beloved Celtic man that was predecessor Tommy Burns. However, backed by David Hay’s keen scouting eye that allowed such as Craig Burley, Marc Reiper and Paul Lambert to be recruited as the squad was comprehensively reconstructed, Jansen quietly moulded his personnel, and made them recognise the worth of his instructions. The League Cup triumph in November 1998 proved the launch pad for Celtic, at times, grinding their way to the top of the table ranged against Ibrox rivals who had splashed out a UK summer transfer record sum of £16m to guarantee - in the minds of all - they would be unstoppable in a journey to the 10.

Celtic’s assurance frayed towards the end of that maelstrom of a league campaign. Rangers, though, were too flaky themselves to take advantage…subsequent to a much earlier telling announcement that came with owner David Murray decreeing the season would be Smith’s final one in charge. Yet, as it became a very real possibility Celtic could mess up in May - despite the league crown having appeared their destiny two months earlier - Jansen kept his head, kept trusting that, in such as Larsson, he had the talents to drag his team over the line. He was proven so right on that score… and every instinct he had as to the splendour of Larsson would betray masterful judgement across the further six seasons the striker was central to a slew of silverware successes. Jansen then, even if only in charge for one unforgettable campaign that alone earns him a place in the pantheon of crucial club figures, should really be considered a Celtic man for many seasons.

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Celtic manager Wim Jansen (centre) is mobbed by his backroom team on the final whistle as Celtic clinch the league title in 1998.
New Celtic head coach Wim Jansen (left) at his unveiling with general manager Jock Brown.

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