Celtic cry themselves a river
Sunday 25 May 2003
Billy Connolly was not in the country when he was announced on Thursday as Britain's funniest-ever comedian. Instead, he was in the departure lounge at Jerez airport, expressing his gratitude that he had been part of a very special audience. It was role reversal. He joined in the applause as Celtic took their first steps in public since the painful night before. Few are better at reducing an audience to tears than Connolly, but on Wednesday night he met his match: Martin O'Neill and his players had Seville crying a river.
Connolly had been just one of the 75,000 Celtic fans who swamped the baking Spanish city for the Uefa Cup final. O'Neill's team had taken their bow in the Estadio Olimpico, which had been hijacked by a green-and-white army, after the crushing 3-2 defeat by FC Porto in extra time, but the small provincial airport at Jerez, some 60 miles away from the bedlam, demanded an extra curtain call. There were no jokes from the comedian. Merely a heartfelt exchange with captain Paul Lambert and a thank you. The pain will take time to heal, but the Scottish champions will know that while their dream of lifting their first European trophy in 36 year died up on that sweltering Seville stage, they did not.
No side have ever given more in evening temperatures of 40 degrees and had nothing to show for it. Derlei's winner five minutes from the end of extra time rewarded a Portuguese side who had laced their unimpeachable quality with a cynical approach that would still have O'Neill in a rage two days later.
No individual contributed more than Henrik Larsson. The prolific striker had yet again risen to the heights, with two headed equalisers that lifted Connolly, Rod Stewart and everyone else in the huge Celtic diaspora (Everton's manager, David Moyes, Fulham's John Collins and the former world snooker champion John Higgins were also there) off their feet. The 35,000 who had managed to get their hands on tickets were joined by just as many in Seville's bars and those who watched a giant screen in a park.
On Thursday, however, their idol was almost a broken man. Dark glasses veiled his swollen eyes and the tears that surely came in the privacy of his own bedroom. Larsson's five-year-old son, Jordan, roamed around the duty-free shop with a silver Uefa medal around his neck. "My dad gave me that," said the Swedish youngster proudly, with his thick Scottish accent. Everyone took it in different ways. Alan Thompson had done his crying at the final whistle, an inconsolable figure who had to be helped up to receive his medal. Chris Sutton resisted stubbornly; the England player sat detached in the airport, alone with his thoughts.
Robert Douglas was weighed down with a culpability that comes with every set of goalkeeper's gloves. "I keep replaying it in my mind," he said on Friday of Derlei's winner. "I would have held the first shot 99 times out of 100, but this time it spun away. I cannot even bring myself to look at my medal yet."
O'Neill could barely bring himself to glance at the Uefa Cup as he received his. By Friday, the pain had not subsided, nor the frustration with Porto's play-acting or the brawl in the tunnel at half-time. "It was the substitute keeper, he started the fracas, then ran away," O'Neill revealed. "Now I hear their coach trying to defend the antics of his players by talking about us being physical. He should be cringing with embarrassment."
O'Neill, in contrast, feels only pride. For those in England who say he is merely marking time until a bigger job comes along, one look around Seville on Wednesday night would have prompted the question: what is bigger than this? Manchester United took 55,000 to Barcelona in 1999 for the Champions' League final. Police in Seville estimated they had 75,000 Celtic fans on their patch. There was not a hotel bed left in town, and many simply slept where they fell. Yet, there was not one arrest. An American reporter wrote: "It was like a scene from Braveheart after a battle - exhausted Scots laid out as far as the eye could see, but not a bit of trouble."
O'Neill reflected: "This is a big club, there is no doubt about it. The support we had was phenomenal. We have made real progress. The team itself is far from the finished article, but we can look back on this Uefa Cup run with great pride, and it whets the appetite for more."
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