“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually afraid you will make one.”
Those are the words of American writer Elbert Hubbard, born in 1856, who would go on to die aboard R.M.S. Lusitania in 1915.
The 2001/2002 season will always be remembered as one of the greatest in Celtic’s history, as the club captured a domestic treble for the first time in a generation. Martin O’Neill had reinvigorated the club as a whole since he took over the role of manager, and the club appeared to be “on the up” (with striking parallels to where the club finds itself currently). And so, after a 2-1 victory over Dunfermline Athletic and a 4-0 victory at Pittodrie, the Hoops were set to face F.C. Basel in the 3rd Qualifying Round of the Champions League.
And then, as now, Celtic had played German and Italian sides during their pre-season. Ironically, the Bhoys had also been defeated by Ajax only weeks before the start of the season (3-1 to the Dutch side at Celtic Park).
Anyway, F.C. Basel, Celtic’s opponents, had won not only the Swiss League the previous season, they won the Swiss Cup as well. However, despite this impressive double, Scottish treble winners Celtic were slight favourites to progress in most people’s eyes. During the off season, there was comparatively very little business done by the club, as Celtic and their board felt fairly content with the current squad. However, a few fresh faces were brought in; David Fernandez, Magnus Hedman, and Ulrik Laursen.
And so, on the 14th August 2002, favourites Celtic ran out in front of over 58,000 people at Celtic Park to face F.C. Basel in the first leg of the qualifier at Celtic Park. Less two minutes into the match, whilst many people were still settling into their seats, the Hoops found themselves behind as Gimenez gave the Swiss side a vital away goal. Minutes later, Celtic were awarded a penalty and Henrik Larsson equalised. However, Basel certainly held their own in the first half, and were perhaps the better of the two sides.
Early in the second half, Chris Sutton cleverly diverted a shot from distance past the opposition goalkeeper, giving Celtic a 2-1 lead. Around ten minutes later, Larsson missed Celtic’s second penalty of the night, and as the final whistle grew ever nearer, Basel came close to equalising on several occasions. With only two minutes left, a rather unlikely goalscorer emerged, as Momo Sylla volleyed home a cross from Steve Guppy to give Celtic a 3-1 advantage heading to Switzerland.
Before the Hoops travelled to the continent for the return leg, they kept up their perfect form in the Scottish Premier League, beating Dundee United 5-0 and Partick Thistle by a single goal.
In Switzerland, on the 28th August 2002, Celtic took a 3-1 lead into the second leg of their Champions League Qualifier. Celtic were fortunate not be a goal behind after only a few minutes, as once again the Swiss side started brightly and began to threaten the Hoops goal with a blocked shot from Ergic. Minutes later, Basel were ahead as a slick pass from Hakin Yakin sent Gimenez through to open the scoring once again.
Around fifteen minutes later, Celtic conceded a second as Hurat Yakin headed home from a Swiss corner kick. In only twenty-two minutes, the Hoops had went from 3-1 leaders to a side who were set to go out 3-3 on the away goals rule. Basel’s players constantly hassled and hurried Celtic, forcing them to try to play long ball football. As the match continued, both teams squandered good chances to score, and Celtic crashed out to the so called “underdogs” from Switzerland.
I remember this defeat. I was only twelve at the time, but I remember it vividly. Obviously, it hurt us all a little, but at that time none of us could have known what was to come for Celtic in Europe during the coming months, as Martin O’Neill led the Bhoys to their first European final in thirty-three years.
As we all look forward to the first leg against HJK Helsinki on Wednesday, I think most of us would happily see us lose if they knew it meant we would end up in the final of the Europea League! However, the chances of that are unlikely, and although nothing is impossible, we will all of course be hoping to see Celtic reach the Champions League group stages this season. Even if we fail in this regard, defeating Helsinki would, at worst, guarantee us a place in the group stage of the Europa League, which would be a small step in the right direction.
Personally I believe we will manage to edge past HJK, but in saying that, we must learn from the mistakes of the past if we aim not to repeat them. After a successful 2001/2002 season, Celtic didn’t really strengthen the squad and, at least in the early part of the next season, they suffered due to it. With the benefit of hindsight, that defeat led to one of the greatest stories in the club’s history, and that is something none of us will ever forget.
In summary, I think most of us would agree they would like to see Celtic strengthen for the coming season. Granted, from a business point of view these are unprecedented times. With the death of Rangers, and no newco in the top flight, this is an extraordinary period in the life of Scottish Football. However, I, for one, do not predict “financial armageddon” for the game in this country.
For the record, I do not believe the newco should have been allowed into any division higher than division three (in fact, I have written extensively about why they should have to start from the bottom if anywhere). I am merely “playing devil’s advocate” and speculating as to what the businessmen involved in Celtic may be thinking. They may well feel the squad is strong enough to win the league as it is, and that they should be cautious for now.
Personally, I believe we need one, if not two, centre backs, and a striker. That’s simply my opinion, and I’m sure many of you will disagree with it, but that’s what makes football blogging so captivating. If everyone agreed about everything it would be boring.
In saying all of this, two men will know more about that defeat to F.C. Basel (and the subsequent UEFA Cup run that followed) than most. After all, they played in both games, and were integral parts of the club’s run to Seville, as well as the final itself.
Those two men are none other than Neil Lennon and Johann Mjallby.