Bonner bounces back to seize cup opportunity

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Pat Bonner yesterday asked Celtic's success-starved supporters to remain patient, as his team prepares for tomorrow's Scottish Cup quarter-final against Kilmarnock.

Ironically, the 34-year-old goalkeeper could have been lining up in the opposite goal at Hampden. Bonner's 16-year sojourn at Celtic was ended last summer when he was freed by the then manager, Lou Macari. He soon fixed up a new club - agreeing to join former Parkhead team-mate, Tommy Burns, at Kilmarnock while he was at the World Cup with the Republic of Ireland.

But within weeks, Burns and his assistant, Billy Stark, walked out of Rugby Park to return to Celtic, and Bonner quickly followed. "I had spoken to Tommy and the Kilmarnock chairman about going to Rugby Park," Bonner said.

"It would have been a wrench to leave Celtic after all those years, but there was a new challenge for me there. Then Tommy took over at Celtic and invited me to join him. Suddenly I found I had a new challenge back at Parkhead."

Bonner, who now has a coaching role, took until Boxing Day to regain his first-team place. Now he is on the verge of yet another semi-final if Celtic can squeeze past Burns' old club.

"It's a big game for us. We've been in one cup final this season [the Coca-Cola Cup against Raith Rovers] and we still wonder how we lost it," he said.

"We have an opportunity to get to another one. We are one step from the semi-finals and we're not far off second place in the League. If we can get to two finals and finish second that will be a big improvement on the past few years," said Bonner.

"The fans have done well to stick it out. Now they seem to want success quicker than ever because of the changes that have been made at the club.

"But a few changes don't necessarily mean it is going to come rapidly. We are working on a three-year plan here. We are trying to build a team which can hopefully get back to winning titles, playing in Europe, and hopefully one day qualifying for the Champions' League. Those are the goals."

Bonner, now 34, has made a habit of bouncing back himself. His error against the Netherlands cost Ireland a vital goal in America, yet he remains in Jack Charlton's European Championship plans.

"I want to play in the finals in England in 1996 if I can. I still love playing and getting a buzz from big games," Bonner said.

"If Jack makes a change I won't be bleating about it. I'm ambitious enough to want to carry on, but the bottom line is I've had a great career with Ireland - it's been brilliant."

Meanwhile, Burns is close to clinching a new deal with one of his prize assets - the converted central defender, Brian O'Neil.

The 22-year-old former midfielder has been a success at centre-half since being moved into defence in October, and recently won a Scotland B cap in his new position.

O'Neil, who will play against Kilmarnock tomorrow before starting a two- match ban, is in contract talks with Burns, who said: "I'm still talking to Brian and his agent. I would hope something can be agreed within the next week or so."

Burns has also refused to confirm or deny speculation which linked him with a £2m move for Arsenal's 31-year-old England striker, Ian Wright, yesterday.

Jean-Jacques Eydelie became the last of the three players banned after the 1993 Marseille match-fixing scandal to find a club when he signed for the Portuguese champions, Benfica.

Eydelie was the go-between when Marseille offered three Valenciennes players 200,000 francs (£25,000) each to throw the League match which Marseille won 1-0 to clinch their fifth successive French title.

Marseille went on to become the first French side to win the European Cup, but were later barred from defending the trophy, stripped of the League title, and relegated to the Second Division.

The two Valenciennes players banned for a year have also found clubs. Jorge Burruchaga - Argentina's 1986 World Cup star - and Christophe Robert both now play in Argentina.

But Jacques Glassman, the Valenciennes captain who exposed the bribe, has had to go and play for a club on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion.