30th January, 1988. Celtic 1 Stranraer 0.
If you were there that day, then cast your mind back to the Celtic Park of days gone by. If you weren’t there, or were not born at that point in time, then I’m afraid you’ll just have to use your imagination a little. As Celtic ran out that day for their first Scottish Cup tie of the 1987-88 campaign (as they started in the 3rd round of the competition), in front of a crowd of approximately 21,500, you would have been forgiven for thinking that the match against Second Division strugglers Stranraer would have been a foregone conclusion. However, this was to be far from the truth, against a team who had progressed from the first round eliminating both Threave Rovers and Keith in the process.
Celtic, one of the strongest sides in the Premier Division, took the lead after only a few minutes, while one of the opposition was off the field receiving treatment, as Chris Morris crossed the ball for Frank McAvennie, who duly obliged by sending the ball into the back of the net. Despite what many would have thought at that stage in time, that was about as enjoyable as the tie was going to get for the Celtic support that day.
From this point on, Celtic were forced to defend as Stranraer, a team who would only manage four league wins all season (from thirty nine attempts), began to assault the Celtic defence with wave after wave of attack. The match remained 1-0 as the referee blew the half time whistle, but early in the second half, Lex Baillie fouled Keith Knox inside the box, resulting in a penalty for Stranraer.
As the 29 year old Bruce Clelland stepped up to the spot, he was to have the first of a few gilt edged opportunities to equalise for the minnows at Celtic Park. His spot kick was saved by Irishman Packie Bonner, and Celtic continued to hold onto their narrow lead. While the Hoops did create chances at the other end of the field, they looked almost incapable of taking any of them, as Andy Walker’s performance “in front of goal” was later described in a newspaper as “woeful”.
As the match proceeded, Clelland, who had previously seen his penalty saved, was about to be presented with the best chance of the game for either side. As the energetic Stranraer substitute Joe Doyle charged down the wing, he crossed the ball, which looked destined for his team mate, John McNiven. With only minutes remaining, as they tried in earnest to defend their single goal lead, goalkeeper Bonner and defender Baillie threw themselves at the ball, instead managing to clash with each other. This clash resulted in the ball falling to none other than poor Bruce Clelland, only yards from an open goal. Believing he was about be put under heavy pressure from a Celtic defender, he lashed the ball goal-wards with all of his might and…struck the crossbar.
He later lamented, “I’ve never missed an easier chance. If the ball had bounced off my shins, it would have gone in, but it was sitting up nicely and I hit it right off the meat. I thought Whyte was going to come in and block.”
Sadly for Clelland and Stranraer, this was to be Bruce’s final match as a footballer. He had previously decided a career move was right for him, and joined the American Aircraft Corporation, before moving to London. While, obviously, as a Celtic supporter I am happy in a sense that Clelland didn’t manage to score for Stranraer, part of me can’t help but feel for him.
“I feel so sorry for the players and supporters, especially my family, who were watching me from the stand” he said after the match.
As the final whistle went, I’m sure the communal sighs of relief from the Celtic support could have been heard for miles around. They had avoided one of the largest cup upsets of all time (the biggest widely regarded as being Berwick Rangers victory over Rangers in 1967), and had made very, very hard work of a team which they should have beaten easily, at least on paper. Manager Billy McNeill later said “We let ourselves down. The early goal took the pressure off us and then we proceeded to lose our way. On that form we could just about escape relegation to the second division, but it might be the best lesson our players have had in a long time.”
When we consider the fact that Celtic would go on to win a prestigious league and cup double only months later, you could say that McNeill turned out to be spot on in his estimation.
As Celtic progressed to the fourth round to take on Hibernian, Bruce Clelland was presented with an engraved glass tankard as a memento from the last club he would play for, Stranraer, although I’m sure he’ll always look back on his final match with a tinge of regret.
Look out for our next article, describing the fourth round tie of Celtic’s 1988 Scottish Cup run tomorrow, against Edinburgh side, Hibernian.