April 9th, 1988. Celtic 2, Heart of Midlothian 1.
Unsurprisingly, this would prove to be Celtic’s toughest test of their Scottish Cup campaign so far. While the sides had already met three times that season, and Celtic had impressively taken seven from a possible nine points against their Edinburgh opponents, everyone associated with the Club knew this was going to be a tough match to win. In fact, Hearts would go on to finish second in the Scottish Premier Division that season, two points ahead of Rangers.
And so, under blue skies at Hampden Park, the tranquillity of your average spring day was soon broken by the sights and sounds of over 65,000 Celtic and Hearts supporters making their way to the game, and packing themselves inside the ground.
As the match kicked off, Celtic, while faced with perhaps the toughest of opponents available to them at the time, were undoubtedly slight favourites, having gone undefeated in their last thirty matches. However, Hearts had already scored three times against the Hoops that season, an average of one goal every time the sides met, so it would have been a brave man who bet on the match remaining goalless.
In truth, Hearts were the better side in the first half, which (ironically) was goalless. It was a tough, physical battle, without much “football” really being played. While Hearts threatened from the first minute forcing a save out of Celtic goalkeeper Packie Bonner, Celtic were described by one newspaper reporter as being “too intricate, too pernickety.”
Tommy Burns and Billy Stark were said to have been bright performers early on though, as they attempted to build attacks and support those with the ball. Celtic’s best, and only, chance of the first half was, in reality, more of a “half chance”. A long cross field pass from Chris Morris was chased valiantly by Andy Walker, but he could only watch as the Hearts goalkeeper bravely decided to come out of his box and volley the ball away to safety. This was the only time a Celtic player really managed to get beyond the Hearts’ defensive line in the first period of play.
However, at the other end, Celtic’s defensive line, as well as Hearts’ attackers, were significantly busier than their counterparts. McPherson, one of Heart’s midfielders, missed two opportunities with his head and was denied later in the half thanks to a last ditch tackle from the ever reliable Celtic fans favourite, Tommy Burns. Hearts also had a weak appeal for a penalty turned down by the referee, but in truth, it had been a fairly dreary first half in Glasgow, where so often it’s the weather that’s dreary and the football that’s enjoyable. On the 9th of April 1988, at least in the first half, it was the other way around.
Thankfully though, as the teams returned to the field of play after the interval, the quality of the match, and the excitement surrounding it in the terraces, was only going to increase. With around fifteen minutes gone in the second half, Hearts scored a rather bizarre goal, even by Scottish standards. An overhit corner bypassed everyone awaiting it in the box, before the ball was the sent back into the area, cleared, then sent in once more, and headed out by a Celtic player. The ball then bounced just outside the corner of the box, where Hearts player Whittaker swung his foot at it sending it high into the air. This was, with no mistake about it, a cross.
As the ball arced in the sky time seemed to slow, and it looked destined for the gloves of Bonner, before suddenly there were a flash of maroon as one of the Hearts players, who had remained inside the box during all of this, leapt for the ball. In truth, he never got anywhere near it, and all he achieved instead was to take out the Celtic goalkeeper, allowing the ball to drop into the unprotected Celtic net.
The decision to let the goal stand sent the end of the national stadium housing the Hearts supporters into rapturous celebration, while it infuriated the members of the Celtic support who felt that there had clearly been a foul on the goalkeeper. However, regardless of many a verbal protest, the goal stood, and Celtic found themselves a goal behind with only half an hour left to play.
While the Celtic support voiced their frustration, the Celtic bench took action to try and remedy the situation, with Billy McNeill deciding to replace Joe Miller with Mark McGhee. Minutes later, Paul McStay picked up the ball in midfield and set off on a powerful run. He played a magnificent “one-two” with Mark McGhee as he made his way into the opposition box, holding off a defender with ease and sent a pass along the ground across the goalmouth, straight towards Frank McAvennie, who snatched at his shot and sent it wide. Some would debate to this day that it may, in fact, have been easier to score. By this stage, McStay had put in such a performance with no return for his efforts, leaving commentator Archie MacPherson asking his audience, “What does Paul McStay have to do to get something out of this game?”
However, Celtic were starting to put sustained pressure on their opponents, as the clock ticked ever closer to the ninety minute mark. Minutes later, Paul McStay, who was now running the centre of midfield at Hampden almost single handedly, passed the ball out wide to the left wing, and Mark McGhee. McGhee quickly beat his man, and sent a delightful cross into the six yard box. Once again, the ball looked bound for the Hearts net, if only a Celtic head could meet it. Walker jumped and missed, leaving McAvennie to connect with the ball and…send it over the bar. It is probable that McAvennie thought Walker was going to get the ball, and therefore didn’t expect it to come to him, but that is still no excuse for missing the target entirely.
And so, as the clock continued to tick ominously for the Hoops, the match became more and more frantic, as Celtic continued to press for a vital equaliser. With only minutes remaining, Celtic won their ninth corner of the match to that point thanks to some clever wing play from Chris Morris.
As Burns floated the corner into the packed Hearts box, the excitement and nervousness around the ground was palpable. In this intense atmosphere, someone was bound to make a mistake on the field, and it was fortunate for Celtic that the mistake in question was made by Hearts’ goalkeeper, Henry Smith. Smith ran out of his goal, far further than you normally see goalkeepers come, in an attempt to win the ball. In fact, all he managed to do was to take himself out of the game for a few vital seconds, as he flapped at the ball and fell to the ground, leaving substitute Mark McGhee to control the ball, and somehow fire it home through a crowd of bodies.
Celtic had done it, or so many would have thought. They had forced the match into extra time, which now looked like a certainty. However, there was to be another twist in the tale of this match yet, as the tie entered stoppage time at the end of the second half.
The Celtic supporters in the crowd at Hampden had barely stopped celebrating their side’s equalising goal, when Celtic won a throw in, deep in opposition territory on the right wing. The throw in was quickly taken and Frank McAvennie, criticised for his earlier misses, was about to make up for them all. He chested the ball, turned, and without even letting it bounce, sent a high inviting cross towards the goalmouth. Goalscorer Mark McGhee jumped to contest the high ball with Henry Smith, who barely got off the ground and flapped at it (again), allowing the ball to drop for Andy Walker, who proceeded to hammer it into an empty net from all of a yard, sparking chaotic celebrations on the terracing.
Journalist, Bob Ferrier, described the last minute victory in his newspaper column as “Unbelievable, incredible, wicked, cruel, unjust – it was all of these and more but it was also a fact.” He then goes onto say (rather beautifully I think), “Even in the long history of last minute victories – and survivals – this result was quite astonishing, and never has any team dragged itself off the Hampden field as shattered as were Hearts…”
All in all, Celtic had once again managed to emerge victorious, as they made it thirty one matches undefeated in a row (although they would go onto lose 2-1 at Tynecastle only a week later). The Hoops had booked their place in a Scottish Cup Final in their centenary season, and this wasn’t to be the last story of a dramatic ending at Hampden Park that year.
The highlights of the match in question, along with Archie MacPherson’s commentary, can be found by clicking the link below, which will take you to footage of the match available on YouTube.
This is the fourth in a series of five articles, describing Celtic’s famous Scottish Cup Campaign in 1988. The previous articles can be found in the “Blogs” section of the website, while the final article, regarding the Scottish Cup Final itself (v Dundee United) will be published tomorrow.