Football Commentary: Intrepid Macari aims to build on luck and pluck

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The Independent Online
SOME start. If Graham Taylor and Napoleon Bonaparte are to be believed, and leadership really is more about luck than judgement, Celtic will probably win the Scottish Premier League and the Uefa Cup for good measure.

Lou Macari was shuffling anxiously in the dug-out, contemplating defeat in a typically tumultuous Old Firm derby, when fate, or rather Ally Maxwell, offered a helping hand.

Rangers' reserve goalkeeper stilled the blue-nosed legions - no mean feat - with two horrendous howlers which turned profit into deficit and presented Lucky Lou with a 2-1 win to get his Celtic managership off to a real flyer.

Poor Maxwell got a real hammering from the Ibrox Loyal for a butterfingered performance which will haunt him for the rest of what may now be a very brief Rangers career. The electronic clock was showing 92 minutes when he gave away the decisive goal. Some time for a faux pas.

Celtic, who just about deserved a draw, could scarcely believe their good fortune, and cavorted madly on the pitch as the ground emptied faster than a Fenian Guinness.

Dramatic stuff but, as ever when these two meet, the sound and the fury contributed much more to the occasion than the football, which was too frenetic to rise above the ordinary.

Rangers were the better side, as one would expect from expensively assembled champions, playing at home, but Celtic deserved some reward, if not maximum points, for their tigerish commitment and never-say-die spirit.

Essential qualities, both, in this most fiercely partisan of derbies. Gordon McQueen captured the mood on the way in. 'Well, here we go,' he said. 'Never mind the football, let's get on with the bigotry.'

The Big Man was not to be disappointed. 'Skip to my Lou' was the Celts' greeting for their third manager in a month. The blue hordes preferred their own version of the old nursery ryhme. 'Lou, Lou, fuck you Lou; fuck you Lou Macari.'

Glasgow was home, but this was some welcome. So why had he returned, on what looks like the classic hiding to nothing? Despite Saturday's result, Celtic are very much the poor relations these days, unable to match their more successful neighbours in the transfer market, or approach their facilities.

Friends say Macari canvassed their opinion about the job, and that they all told him the same thing. 'Don't do it. You can't win.' Come decision time, though, the heart ruled the head. Once a Celtic man, always a Celtic man, and the old Bhoy is back, some 20 years after his glory days as the green-and- white No 10.

Returning from England, how had he found Scottish football, two decades on? 'The big difference I like is that you saw 22 uncomplicated players out there, running about, fighting for their lives, fighting for a result.'

True enough, but it was hardly the most glowing of endorsements. 'Uncomplicated players' just 'running about, fighting'. If an Englishman had said that about Scotland's two most celebrated teams there would have been uproar. It also prompted questions about how 'complicated' things get at Swindon and Stoke.

Unfamiliar with his new charges - 'I thought McStay and the other lad were fantastic in midfield' - Macari left selection and control in the hands of the caretaker, Frank Connor, who will go down as one of the most successful managers in the club's history, with three wins and a draw in his four-game interregnum.

It was Lucky Lou, though, who made the fateful substitution which saw Brian O'Neil replace Charlie Nicholas after 88 minutes, and bundle in the late, late winner.

For old Charlie it had been just as he expected - energy wasted running around, with hardly a decent pass coming his way all afternoon. It may be true, as he maintains, that Celtic's tradition scorns the big target man, but you would hardly have guessed it on Saturday, when they persisted in lofting high balls towards strikers whose strength lies on the ground.

Perhaps they had forgotten that the unlamented Tony Cascarino had gone. More likely recent evidence had shown them that Maxwell was no Andy Goram, and that if they could test him in the air, the cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof understudy would be found wanting.

They did and he was. With England's Premiership full of foreign goalkeepers, it ill behoves a Sassenach to crack the old jokes, but this was a real throwback, to the roughest of the Rough.

Celtic, busy and eager to impress the new manager, had shaded the first half, but Rangers were on top by the time Ally McCoist nudged them in front, midway through the second.

'Can you hear the Celtic sing?' The familiar taunt died on some 30,000 lips when Maxwell, under no pressure, dropped an innocuous cross from Pat McGinlay and John Collins drove in the equaliser.

Poor Ally had no ally. The punters from Parkhead mocked him mercilessly with 'Ally for Scotland' and the fury of the home crowd knew no bounds when, deep in stoppage time, he missed a Collins corner to allow O'Neil to burgle the winner.

Celtic were lucky, and they knew it. 'If you get a break, you've got to be grateful,' Macari said. 'We sneaked it. We're not going to kid ourselves that we're suddenly on the road to great things, but beating Rangers at Ibrox gives you a hell of a lift.'

A successful defence of the 1-0 lead they take into the second leg of their Uefa Cup tie with Sporting Lisbon would be an even bigger one, generating the money needed to improve a threadbare team.

What of Rangers, plumbing uncharted depths down in sixth place? The talent which brought them the treble last season is still there, and not too many would bet against them reasserting themselves to retain their title, but they need a more reliable keeper than Maxwell to cover for Goram, who will not be fit before the new year.

Previously, it would have presented no problem. The Bank of Scotland club would simply have bought one of the best. This year, though, going out of Europe so early has put a hole in their budget, giving everyone else a glimmer of hope. Not least Lucky Luigi.

Goals: McCoist (67) 1-0; Collins (70) 1-1; O'Neil (90) 1-2.

Rangers (4-4-2): Maxwell; Stevens (Pressley, 29), Gough, McPherson, Robertson; Steven (Mikhailichenko, h-t), Ferguson, McCall, Durrant; McCoist, Hateley. Substitute not used: Scott (gk).

Celtic (4-4-2): Bonner; Grant, Gillespie, Mowbray, Boyd; Byrne, McStay, McGinlay, Collins; Nicholas (O'Neil, 88), Creaney (Payton, 64). Substitute not used: Kerr (gk).

Referee: J McCluskey (Stewarton).

(Photograph omitted)

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