So storied is the championship success Celtic sealed exactly 20 years ago today that there is a play currently in production entitled Bend It Like Brattbakk. It might have so easily been called Dunt It Like Donnelly.
The Wim Jansen-inspired title triumph is that oddity in being best remembered for what it wasn’t. Celtic’s obsessive drive to end a decade without a league success was framed by Rangers’ quest for a record ten-in-a-row run of titles. Jansen’s men stopped them on the dramatic final after a home victory over St Johnstone that was in the balance until Harald Brattbakk struck to make it 2-0 in the 72nd minute. The subsequent outpouring of emotion – a swirl of elation and relief – has rarely known an equal at Parkhead. Its soundtrack was Celtic fans chanting “cheerio ten-in-a-row” to register their vanquishing of what had seemed destiny for a so-long-unstoppable Rangers.
Scroll back the previous weekend, and it seemed the title was going to be annexed without any of the agitation that enveloped Parkhead on the final day. For their penultimate league game, Celtic had a Sunday jaunt to Dunfermline and knew victory would assure them the title after Rangers had lost to a 95th-minute Kilmarnock goal at Ibrox the previous afternoon.
Celtic looked like doing enough as they headed into the final seven minutes of normal time a goal to the good. A strike netted by Simon Donnelly, whose integral role in Celtic’s famous 1998 championship success has been underplayed. Put that down to Craig Faulconbridge, who netted in the 82nd minute that afternoon at East End Park to ensure it is Brattbakk whose name is synonymous with Jansen’s side getting over the line that year.
“Of course I do,” replied Donnelly when asked if he cursed Faulconbridge for his goal. “And I curse Gouldy [Jonathan Gould] too for not stopping it. It was one of these things – it could have been my goal, but maybe it was a perfect send-off to actually win the league at Celtic Park.
“I do have to say though that it felt as if every Celtic fan in the country was at East End Park. But yes Craig Faulconbridge will go down in history as the man who killed a dream for me.”
Celtic’s dream of stopping the ten seemed dead on arrival after they lost their first two league games in the campaign under a new manager and with a new-look side. Then a summer signing called Henrik Larsson hit his stride, ably aided and abetted by Donnelly. Celtic’s struggles to seal the title came after Donnelly was moved out wide following the December arrival of Brattbakk, who struggled to settle.
“It was incredible the start to that season,” he said. “Wim had come in and we didn’t know him. He’s got the wee perm and a shellsuit – but his training was great.
“Then Henrik comes in. I knew him from the 1994 World Cup, but he gives the ball away against Chic Charnley in his first game at Hibs and then we lose at home to Dunfermline in week two. We were under a pile of pressure and there were a lot of players coming in and trying to gel.
“It was the Liverpool game in Europe [a Uefa Cup tie in September lost only on the away goals rule ] that made us realise we were not bad and could compete with a good Liverpool team and that kicked us on.”
The week before the nerve-shredding climax the Celtic squad didn’t spend time kicking themselves that they had put themselves in such a fraught situation.
“We went out on the Tuesday night!” Donnelly said. “It’s well documented that we were a social team and out every Tuesday and Saturday. We decided – rightly or wrongly – to go out on the Tuesday night. Nowadays we’d all have been caught on mobile phones. We had the Wednesday off and then worked hard on the Thursday and Friday. The most nerves I had was when I was taken off for Harald. At least on the park you can do something. I just then became like a fan and for the final 30 minutes that was when the real nerves kicked in.
“It was only 1-0 and St Johnstone had a stramash in our box and we knew that Rangers were winning so it was tight.
“When Harald scored it was just such a relief. I jumped on John Clark’s back and nearly took him to the ground and thankfully we got over the line.”