The wave of emotion

Scottish Cup final: Seventh trophy gives O'Neill perfect and poignant Celtic send-off as he takes time out of the game to care for his ailing wife
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The Independent Football

Martin O'Neill got his wish yesterday and brought down the curtain on his five years in charge of Celtic with a seventh trophy as his side defeated Dundee United 1-0 in the Scottish Cup final. But it was a close-run thing as his players wrung every last drop of emotion out of what could easily have been a celebratory stroll.

Martin O'Neill got his wish yesterday and brought down the curtain on his five years in charge of Celtic with a seventh trophy as his side defeated Dundee United 1-0 in the Scottish Cup final. But it was a close-run thing as his players wrung every last drop of emotion out of what could easily have been a celebratory stroll.

Just six days after O'Neill was deprived of a fourth Scottish League title when Celtic conceded two late goals to Motherwell, lost 2-1 and handed the crown to Rangers, their bitter rivals, he sent out the same starting 11 yesterday and, at times, they seemed intent on producing a repeat of that dramatic defeat. But in the end O'Neill had one last triumph to take with him as stepped back from football to spend more time with his ailing wife, Geraldine.

"It was a brilliant effort by the players and we deserved to win it," O'Neill said of his fourth knock-out success, three Scottish FA Cups and a League Cup. "But, like last week, we couldn't put the game away. The players have been a terrific bunch for a long, long time. It was one final effort. We missed some great chances to wrap the game up. As we found to our cost last week, one-nil is never enough." Well, this time it was, but only just.

Hampden Park was dotted with banners acclaiming O'Neill for his contribution to Celtic's continuing success, thanking him for the joy he brought to the club's fanatical supporters and wishing him well for the future. There was no sign of discontent at the Ulsterman's withdrawal for personal reasons, but he did admit earlier that among the welter of letters from well-wishers that he received in recent days, there were some that were less than complimentary. In a radio interview before the match he belittled the kind of courage that inspired a person to hide behind a pen rather than criticise him face-to-face for putting his wife, who is suffering with lymphoma, before Celtic and his career. "Your talking to a devout coward," O'Neill added, "but I know courage when I see it and I see it across the breakfast table."

The fleet-footed Craig Bellamy, whose loan from Newcastle United has now ended, looked their best chance of making the game safe after Alan Thompson's early goal from a deflected free-kick, but when the Wales international finally found worthwhile end-product in the form of a penalty six minutes from time, it was missed in almost comical style.

For David Beckham against Portugal at Euro 2004 read Chris Sutton, whose standing foot went from under him as he shot and the ball looped past the angle of post and crossbar. It would not have been at all amusing for anyone connected with Celtic if a speculative, 30-yard shot by Alan Archibald, the Dundee United defender, in added time that crashed against the crossbar had been a couple of inches lower and forced extra time.

Celtic's goalscorer Thompson said the players had found it difficult to rouse themselves for the final after last week's defeat, but he said: "Football is a cruel game sometimes but, when the good times happen like today, you have to savour the moment." O'Neill certainly will.

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