Seventh trophy brings O'Neill era to fitting end

Celtic 1 Dundee United 0
Click to follow
The Independent Online

After five years, seven trophies, near-glory in Europe and, crucially, the rebirth of genuine competitive rivalry at the élite end of Scottish football, Martin O'Neill took his leave as the manager of Celtic last night.

After five years, seven trophies, near-glory in Europe and, crucially, the rebirth of genuine competitive rivalry at the élite end of Scottish football, Martin O'Neill took his leave as the manager of Celtic last night.

The record books will tip the merest nod to his final match, yesterday's testimonial for Jackie McNamara against the Republic of Ireland, won 1-0 for the visitors in injury time by Robbie Keane.

O'Neill's penultimate game at the helm, Saturday's Scottish Cup win, is the occasion that will endure in the memory, not for the play (forgettable) or day (overcast), or perhaps even the scoreline, 1-0, thanks to a fortunate deflection off a defender that steered Alan Thompson's 11th-minute free-kick into the net.

No, what Celtic fans will remember is lauding O'Neill to the rain-laden skies, thanking him for ending a decade of blue dominance in Glasgow, and wishing him well as he steps down to be with his wife, Geraldine, who has cancer.

In honour of his achievements, Celtic's players insisted on Saturday that O'Neill, not they, walk first up the Hampden steps to collect the trophy.

"I thought it was a bit embarrassing to be perfectly honest, because the players do the playing and, if you win it, you should go there first of all," he said. As a man who, 20 years earlier to the day, had collected a European Cup winner's medal with Nottingham Forest, he knew what he was talking about. Perhaps because he was leaving, the players felt safe ignoring him.

"It was something all of the players felt was right," McNamara said. "It was just a small token of our appreciation for what he's done here over the past five years. He's been great for Celtic and Scottish football in general."

For all Celtic's superiority, not least in Craig Bellamy's rampaging forward, the Cup was not easily secured. Chris Sutton missed a penalty, skying it à la David Beckham at Euro 2004. And United hit the crossbar in the final minutes, leaving O'Neill worried another party was going to be pooped. Last weekend Motherwell scored two late goals to beat Celtic and hand the SPL title to Rangers.

"If [the Motherwell game] had been my final match, I would have hanged myself," O'Neill jested. "At least we had the opportunity to put it right and where better than the Scottish Cup final?

"It has been a pretty extraordinary week. It has taken me a bit of time to get over the [Motherwell] defeat and my only regret is that, due to the circumstances, I don't have the chance to try to regain the championship next season."

Instead that task will fall to his successor, Gordon Strachan, who holds his first press conference tomorrow and starts work in earnest on Wednesday. Among his first tasks could be selling goalkeeper Rab Douglas to Leicester, seeking a replacement (perhaps Antti Niemi from Southampton), and talking to Neil Lennon about a contract extension. Lennon was due to leave on a free but may reconsider. "I want to stay here," he said.

So did O'Neill, but that chapter is now closed.

Goal: Thompson (11) 1-0.

Celtic (4-3-1-2): Douglas; Agathe, Baldé, Varga, McNamara; Petrov, Lennon, Thompson, (McGready, 86); Sutton; Bellamy, Hartson (Valgaeren, 73). Substitutes not used: Marshall, Lambert, Beattie.

Dundee United (3-5-2): Bullock; Kenneth, Ritchie, Archibald; Wilson, Kerr, Brebner (Duff, 83), McInnes (Samuel, 76), Robson; Scotland, Crawford (Grady, 83). Substitutes not used: Colgan, McCracken.

Referee: J Rowbotham.

Booked: Celtic Varga; Dundee United Ritchie, Robson, Archibald.

Man of the match: Bellamy.

Attendance: 50,635.

Comments