Easter Road, August 1997. Celtic’s attempt to prevent Rangers winning ten-in-a-row was declared over having barely begun.
Two new signings tried to interlink. Henrik Larsson sought to pass to Darren Jackson but Chic Charnley got in the way. “Henrik slighted me on Soccer AM last week,” says Jackson, now 51. “I texted him: are you still blaming me for that pass?!”
The Celtic support massed behind Gordon Marshall’s goal could barely believe what they were seeing. Charnley’s goal flashed in to give Hibernian a 2-1 win. But all’s well that ends well.
This was the case for Jackson as well as Celtic, who stopped Rangers in their tracks with a last-day win over St Johnstone. As for Jackson, he battled back from hydrocephalus, a condition by which fluid accumulates on the brain, to claim a league winner’s medal and wear the No 10 shirt for Scotland against Brazil in the opening match of that summer’s World Cup finals.
“People say was your time at Celtic successful?” he ponders. “Yes I won the league but not as successful as I would have liked. You need a run in the team to show what you can do.”
Brattbakk and Larsson, Harald and Henrik were manager Wim Jansen’s chosen pair. “Harald was a finisher,” says Jackson, admiringly. “He was lightning quick. A great boy. Magic.”
He’s in touch with many of his team-mates from across his playing days. He was Michael O’Neill’s best man. “I am good at texting, keeping in touch,” he says. “I did not win a lot. But memories, friends…” He will be gathering with some of those pals in Dundee tomorrow night and Glasgow next month to commemorate this championship win 20 years on. Former team-mates Alan Stubbs, Tommy Johnston, Simon Donnelly and Jackie McNamara will join Jackson on stage.
The season was a profoundly bittersweet one for him personally. It started with a call in the early days of mobile phones after training with Hibs on Gullane beach.
“I was walking back with Keith Wright. It was 11th July. The phone went. ‘We have agreed a fee, you are going to Celtic’.”
He signed on a Saturday and went out into Celtic Park and embarked on a lone training session, running up and down the stairs of the main stand. The first player he met was Tommy Johnson. “We have been unbelievable pals ever since,” he says.
But the player he spent most time with, initially at least, was… Paolo Di Canio. They were room-mates at a pre-season tournament in Dublin. “Unfortunately, this was while he was having his running ‘debate’ with Fergus [McCann]. He was an angry man in the room at times. But he was magic to play with.”
Jackson is admirably frank about how he was perceived by supporters of other clubs. “I always played the game where I played for my team. That was my only concern. I was not really liked by away fans and probably not a lot of away players.”
He was not a fool. He knew the concerns of the Celtic supporters. They were still pining after Pierre van Hooijdonk, who had left to join Nottingham Forest that summer. New manager Jansen’s first signing was a 31-year-old player from Hibs.
“I always had abuse [from away fans] at Dundee United, Hibs, 100 per cent no doubt about it. And I did not grow up a Celtic fan. But when they saw what I gave every game, in the end they appreciated what I was doing for the team.”
He remembers feeling he had won them over after a friendly against Parma. “Lilian Thuram played and was awesome. He got a standing ovation from the Celtic fans. I remember getting a good reception that day. They saw what I was prepared to put into a game.”
Attitude alone would have earned him the respect of the Celtic faithful. But there was further need to salute his remarkable spirit. After five competitive appearances and two goals, he fell ill prior to a European tie at home against Tirol Innsbruck. “I thought it was just a headache. I came down and Wim named the team – I was in it. I was on the bus and thinking this does not feel right. I went down the front and said ‘I am not feeling great’. Jack Mulhearn, the club doctor, had had the same thing. He was right on it.”
Jackson underwent brain surgery within days. Within nine weeks, he was back in the side, coming on as a replacement for Donnelly for his first taste of an Old Firm fixture. The reception he got will stay with him forever. Stubbs scored a late equaliser. Paul Gascoigne, another good friend with whom he played at Newcastle, was sent off. There was slapstick when Jackson got his boot tangled in the net and fell over in his rush to retrieve the ball after Stubbs’ goal. But what, after all he had endured, was a little embarrassment?
l Tickets for the Dundee event at the Whitehall Theatre this Saturday are still on sale from www.dundeebox.co.uk