IT WAS the seconds after he scored that seared into John Collins' mind that this was a derby in which the natural dynamics had been destroyed.
Forced to twist in on himself to celebrate the free-kick he had curled in at the top right-hand corner of the Rangers net, it didn't feel right there was no side, no section, no slice of the 46,000-capacity Ibrox that housed like-minds for the Celtic midfielder to bound towards.
"People talk of it as a special goal, and it was, because no other Celtic player will ever score in an Old Firm game they have no supporters at. But it was a hollow one too," says Collins, reflecting on his 29th minute opener in the "fan-ban" game that took place 15 years ago this week. "The pleasure in scoring is seeing the joy and happiness on the faces of the people who live for your team; hearing them singing. They are the heartbeat of a football club but it was only my blood and the blood of my team-mates I could see pumping after the ball hit the net."
He also heard "a couple of mouthfuls of abuse aimed in my direction from Rangers fans". It wasn't these oaths alone, though, that punctured the eerie silence that descended on the ground after Collins' deadball expertise did for keeper Colin Scott. There were the shouts of the team-mates that engulfed him, and the cheers of isolated Celtic fans who had wangled tickets to sit among the home legions.
The inevitability some – thought to number in the region of 150 – would go "undercover" to gain entry to a game from which they had been barred threatened to make Rangers chairman David Murray's stand against the "wanton vandalism" of destroyed seats in the away end at the previous Ibrox derby give way to other violence. In the end, that was restricted to coins being pelted at several police as they led Celtic fans round the track after the fans had outed themselves at their team's goal. "It takes two to tango and you couldn't have the sort of atmosphere we all see as crucial to the fixture without Celtic supporters," Collins says. "It was the weirdest thing when we ran out to warm-up and the Broomloan Stand was a sea of blue. After that, mind you, I just focused on the game to the exclusion of everything happening round about, as you must do as a player."
One thing those running the Glasgow clubs thought they must not do was go public on hooliganism by their rivals' fans at their stadiums for fear of tit-for-tat escalation. Murray not only broke with that convention in January 1994. Exasperated by Celtic's unwillingness to stump up 7,800 for the 384 seats broken during their side's 2-1 win the previous October, he denied Celtic their standard 7,5000 allocation from the final derby that season, on April 30. As he did, the Rangers owner pointed out there had been 20,000 of damage at the visiting end across the previous six Ibrox derbies.
Celtic remained immovable in their belief that all liabilities were the responsibility of the home club, pointing out they had always incurred these when Rangers came to the east end of the city. But as the visiting end at Parkhead was then standing, there was not the same potential for such costs. The decision not to accede to Murray's demands on the matter was one of the few policies that survived regime change at Celtic and the Fergus McCann buy-out in March that year. The new owner did eventually seek a compromise, offering to indemnify Rangers in future so long as Celtic were allowed to organise the stewarding of their own support in future. When this proposal was rejected, the Celtic director elected to boycott the derby, instead choosing to join the 12,000 Celtic supporters who watched their reserves beat Rangers 3-1 that same afternoon.
The three empty rows in the directors box at Ibrox on the final day of April a decade-and-a-half ago – left by the Rangers chairman in case the Celtic officials had a late change of heart – didn't provide the only oddity of a decidedly curious afternoon. These were to be found at all points on a day which, had Rangers beaten their fourth-placed rivals and closest challengers Motherwell lost, would have allowed Walter Smith's side to claim a sixth consecutive championship.
Little venom initially could be sensed in air warmed by light sunshine. So put-upon did Lou Macari's Celtic seem, with no fans, eight players missing and in the midst of form that had left them struggling just to qualify for Europe, even when the half-empty team bus pulled up outside the Ibrox front door the reaction was humorous more than hateful from those home fans who had congregated. Rangers were going to have a laugh at Celtic's expense and that feeling extended to certain members of they squad, if certainly not Smith, who had cautioned of the danger presented by opponents with a cause.
On the pitch beforehand, Duncan Ferguson indulged in a knockabout kick-about with a man dressed in a bear costume. After passing the ball back and forward for several minutes, Ferguson's furry friend came up and mockingly stuck the head on the striker, a nod to Ferguson's "Glasgow kiss" on John McStay a fortnight earlier. The howls of laughter upped in decibels when the bear was revealed as injured keeper Andy Goram. These were brought to an abrupt halt when a plane flew overhead trailing a banner proclaiming: "Hail Hail The Celts Are Here". "That was genius," Collins says. "Celtic supporters have a great ability to come up with different, fun ways of supporting the team, and the guy who hired that plane carried on an admirable tradition."
Collins, meanwhile, started a new one by scoring with the "revolutionary" new Adidas Predator boot he had only taken delivery of only two days before, and which he had tapped confidently in the dressing room beforehand and said would bring him a goal. "It was the first scored with these boots and for years the strike was shown in Adidas's promotional films," he says.
Rangers' 79th minute equaliser was not the sort to be replayed endlessly, an Alexei Mikhailichenko shot spinning off the boot of Mark McNally and drifting over the head of Pat Bonner as if "it were a bubble in the wind" as the Scotsman's Glenn Gibbons memorably described it. It was an effort that prevented Murray's stance backfiring on him spectacularly. For his manager, the encounter "finally killed the myth about a crowd influencing the match". "From our own point of view, 45,000 might be fine when were winning. If we are losing, it is not so clever," Smith said.
To Collins and everyone else among the tiny band of Celtic representatives that day, the 1-1 draw felt like a "moral victory" for a team "everyone said would go there and get turned over big time". Macari opted for a 4-5-1, to avoid that. But with a 19-year-old Simon Donnelly having played only a handful of senior games, Peter Grant returning after four months out, and Tony Mowbray deciding to play despite his manager leaving that up to him because of "the sorrows" of nursing his wife through terminal cancer, it was little wonder Macari punched the air triumphantly at the final whistle. "I feel we've won here," he said. "There were 45,000 supporters out there totally against us and we had four lads who had never played in an Old Firm game. It was a melting pot for them. It has been suggested that my players lack commitment, but we've proved that to be a nonsense today."
In truth, Celtic only proved, as they did regularly during Rangers' nine-in-a-row era, that they could fare well in dead rubber derbies. Murray, meanwhile, could claim he achieved the desired effect, with damage to seats in the fixture at Ibrox greatly reduced since. In the immediate aftermath, the Rangers owner insisted he would have no qualms about extending the ban. He surely did so aware that it would be denied him, the Scottish League AGM the following month passing a rule stating a "reasonable" number of visiting fans had to be allowed to attend league games. "People thought I was bluffing, but I have to make decision and some may be unpopular – even though its for the good of the club," Murray said at the time. "I'm hopeful now the point has been made, normal transmission can be resumed."
Defining "normal" in the Old Firm domain is a devil, but Collins' belief is the derby 15 years ago was uncomfortably removed from that. "When you talk about uniqueness, you always think of it as a positive," he says. "But that game's uniqueness was what was all wrong about it."