Football: Firm farewell fires Stubbs

Phil Gordon meets the Celtic player homing in on a new start
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The Independent Online
THE CROWD of autograph-hunters which greeted Alan Stubbs as he walked down the Parkhead steps after training last Wednesday must have seemed strange. There, among the kids eagerly seeking a black felt pen to be applied to their green-and-white hooped strips, were two grown men in Rangers shirts.

Since the pair were not there to heckle, one wondered if Tennents, the sponsors of the Scottish Cup, were simply indulging in a piece of spin- doctoring ahead of Saturday's final at Hampden. The Old Firm peace process needs every bit of help it can get after the troubles, on and off the pitch, of their last meeting three weeks ago.

Stubbs would be the first to agree. The Scouser prefers the brotherhood that exists on his native Merseyside to the bile that Glasgow serves up as rivalry, and, as he has recently discovered, conversation is better than confrontation. The 27-year-old defender will almost certainly be making his last appearance for Celtic in the final before, he hopes, returning to the English Premiership. His three-year stay at Parkhead has been both rewarding - he won league championship and Coca-Cola Cup medals last season - and rancorous.

Surprisingly, it was someone from within his own camp, rather than those across the divide, whom Stubbs lists as public enemy No 1. Since the former chairman Fergus McCann departed seven weeks ago to enjoy tax exile in the Bahamas, the mood has been sunnier at Parkhead too.

McCann's contempt for his highly-paid players ensured that his successor, managing director Allan MacDonald, has been a breath of fresh air. Particularly to Stubbs, who has craved a move south for over a year because his wife, Mandy, has been unable to settle away from her close-knit Merseyside family.

He thought that move was in the bag when the Aston Villa manager, John Gregory, offered Celtic pounds 4.5m for him in January. McCann, however, raised the price and Gregory pulled the plug on the deal. Now, though, Celtic's new man at the helm seems to be more accommodating to the homesick Stubbs.

"I've had a meeting with Allan MacDonald," said Stubbs, "and he understands my problems. He has said that if the time comes for me to go, then the move won't break down over money." McCann, the former Bolton player claims, went back on his word. "He told me I could go once Villa came in for me, then, suddenly, the fee went up." Celtic demanded pounds 6m.

"I tried to speak to him but he kept saying it wasn't necessary, which I found strange. If it's between McCann and MacDonald, I know which person to trust."

McCann, of course, had a costly row over bonuses last August which blighted the club's Champions' League ambitions. His departure did not draw tears from the dressing room. "The feeling that was around has gone now," said Stubbs. "There are a lot of smiles at work now. The bonus row was not good for the image of the club but since Allan has come in, he has worked behind the scenes to make it easier for the players to concentrate on football."

Stubbs has shown an adeptness at coping with the game, despite the cloud of a disrupted home life hanging in the background. His wife, in a strange city with a new baby to cope with, found it easier to seek help in family back on Merseyside and moved back there six months ago. Stubbs says his own destination is as yet unknown but admits his Glasgow house is on the market.

"I have no regrets about coming to Celtic," said the central defender who moved in a pounds 3.5m transfer from Bolton in 1996, "and my football has improved a lot, but it's been unfortunate that Mandy couldn't settle. She's coming up for the cup final and to sort a few things out regarding the house."

However, the Scouser - who has been linked with his boyhood favourites, Everton - is not keen on remaining with Celtic and shuttling back and forwards to Merseyside every few days, a la Stan Collymore. "That would cause too many problems, the travel would eventually get to you and eventually you'd miss training."

It's better, he feels, to have a clean break. Though, if Hampden is his Celtic swansong, there are some things he will miss and others he will not. "I've scored twice against Rangers, including one in the 2-2 draw in the New Year derby. That's a feeling you don't forget. But I don't think I'll ever play in a derby as fierce as the Old Firm game," he reflected "That last one capped it all.

"I've been to plenty of Merseyside derbies and it's great how fans from both teams can drink in the same pubs. You only have to remember the FA Cup final at Wembley in 1989. The players' message to Celtic fans is to go to the game and enjoy it this time.

"We know there's going to be one loser on the day, but the most important thing is that no one is a loser off the pitch - it's important we don't witness those scenes from the last game ever again."