Thompson desperate to deliver on a personal day of atonement

By Phil Gordon
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The Independent Online

Life may not be a rehearsal, but there is something everyone would do differently if given a second chance. For Alan Thompson, take two of the Scottish Premier League title drama will allow the Celtic midfielder to erase the memories that have haunted him for two years.

Life may not be a rehearsal, but there is something everyone would do differently if given a second chance. For Alan Thompson, take two of the Scottish Premier League title drama will allow the Celtic midfielder to erase the memories that have haunted him for two years.

The quest for the championship has gone to the wire, just as it did in 2003. Rangers took the prize then when the Old Firm could not be separated by points. Thompson played a pivotal role, though not in the way he expected, by missing a penalty on the final day - and then learning that his rivals had snatched the title by a goal difference of one.

At Fir Park today, Thompson intends to be a man of influence. Just as he was last weekend when he scored in Celtic's vital away win at Hearts, just as he was 10 months ago with his searing match- winner in the first Old Firm derby of the season.

Unlike in 2003, Celtic have a two-point advantage going into the last day. A win at Motherwell - regardless of what Rangers do at Hibernian - will earn a fourth championship in five seasons for Martin O'Neill and his players. Yet it is the one that got away that drives this successful partnership.

Two seasons ago, Celtic had just returned from Seville, where they suffered mental and physical damage in the draining extra-time defeat by Porto in the Uefa Cup final. The domestic crown would have soothed those wounds, but they had to win at Kilmarnock by one more goal than Rangers managed against Dunfermline Athletic.

Alex McLeish's side won 6-1, and while Thompson scored a penalty in Celtic's 4-0 success at Rugby Park, missing another carried a costly price. "Missing the penalty did not upset me, it was losing the title that did that," Thompson recalled yesterday as he prepared for the last match of the season, against Motherwell. "Doing that is hard to take at any time, but it was far worse that season because of the way we lost the Uefa Cup final. I don't know what I was thinking about at the second penalty. I was caught in two minds about whether to stick it to the same side as the previous one I had scored with - instead, I hit it over the bar.

"Seville was bad, but Rugby Park just rubbed it in. It is not nice to put all that effort in over 10 months and have nothing to show for it. It was a horrible feeling and I don't want to experience it again. However, it made us stronger as players."

That was certainly true last season. Celtic responded to the traumatic events of May 2003 by securing the title before the split, with a run of 27 victories. This time, though, the lead has passed back and forward between them and their Old Firm rivals. "Normally, we have had it wrapped up with three or four weeks to go," said Thompson. "This time, it has been different. Sometimes we have been in front, others it has been Rangers.

"We have not played as well in certain games and not been as consistent as 2003, but I think the other teams have come on a great deal and their improvement has meant better games, which is good for the Premier League. However, we can put it all to bed on Sunday."

Thompson admits that he had to wrestle with seven minutes of doubt last weekend at Tynecastle. "When Hearts got it back to 1-1 and then Chris Sutton's header hit the bar and stayed out, I began to think it was not going to be our day. It has been the only time all season that a negative thought entered my mind, and that was because it was so close to the end of the campaign. Even when Rangers came to our place in February and won 2-0, I never thought, 'It's over'. We knew we had to win at Hearts because our goal difference is not as good as Rangers, and then young Craig Beattie scored that great winner."

Today, and next Saturday's Scottish Cup final against Dundee United, could represent the last parade for O'Neill's ageing side. "Considering that our talisman, Henrik Larsson, left last summer, we have done well," said the manager. "One or two players need replacing. That's natural. This team has the same desire as the 2003 side. That team did this club, and Scottish football, proud for five years."

O'Neill hopes his principal acquisition will be Craig Bellamy. Despite stories in midweek that Aston Villa had agreed a fee with Newcastle for the Welsh striker, it is Celtic who hold all the cards for the player they brought in on loan.

"We are doing everything possible to secure Craig's services," said O'Neill. "There will be a lot of clubs after him but he is very popular in the dressing room. He has two big games to fulfil here. Craig has made a big impression. Hopefully this club has done the same to him."

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