Silverware exposes cloud over Celtic

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The Independent Online

reports from Hampden Park

Airdrieonians 0

Celtic 1

It was Burns' night in Glasgow, even if Celtic's 30th Scottish Cup success said more about the poverty than the poetry of the game in a country about to be gripped by Gazzamania.

Paul Gascoigne, reputedly Rangers-bound, ought to have spent his 28th birthday here to glean a better idea of what awaits him. He would have witnessed a final in which finesse was marginalised to the point of non- existence. Where the man of the match award went, justly but instructively, to a midfield scuffler.

Peter Grant is renowned as a Celtic supporter with a contract to play for the club. On Saturday, a fortnight after Celtic's manager, Tommy Burns, wrote him out of the showpiece fixture against Airdrieonians because of damaged knee ligaments, he was also the captain without an armband.

Playing through considerable pain, Grant also summoned the energy to cajole and organise a team who looked as if they might buckle under the burden of their followers' expectations. He tackled his heart out and, when Paul McStay lifted Celtic's first trophy in six years, cried it out too. Just like Gazza.

Grant's fellow fans were full of the springs of joy, roaring out their battle hymns as if Ajax, rather than Airdrie, had been the victims. Among those sporting the shamrock in an official capacity, however, the rapture was tempered by an overdue sense of realism and almost embarrassing relief.

The Celtic players who trooped into the interview room all agreed - as did Burns and Fergus McCann, his chairman, which may be a first - that unless they built on this most tenuous of triumphs, Rangers' hold on the championship would continue.

A year ago, Ivan Golac was pondering the personnel who might transform Dundee United from Cup-winners into title contenders. The new blood never arrived, and thereby hangs a salutory tale. An embittered Golac is back in Belgrade, United back among the Mortons and Dumbartons.

So it may be as well that the favourites did not add to an early goal by Pierre van Hooijdonk, a forward who contradicts theories about the superior mobility of the Dutch. A more emphatic margin might have revived the discredited notion that Celtic could, after all, challenge Rangers without major investment in players.

Burns, conceding that his relationship with the owner was "not what it should be", may have been understating the case when he said that Celtic needed "two or three players". McCann, still coming to terms with the fact that the going rate for footballers makes little obvious business sense, played down the rift and claimed he was ready to finance "a couple of transactions".

Anderlecht's Marc Degryse may be lost to Paris St-Germain, but Burns is more confident of Dimitri Radchenko, a Russian playing in Spain with Santander. Both are strikers, the department in which Celtic looked most ordinary against the First Division underdogs, though the departure of John Collins, for whom Middlesbrough are dangling pounds 2m, might simultaneously weaken midfield.

Collins, who like McStay caused Airdrie scant concern, observed that Celtic played better when losing the Coca-Cola Cup on penalties to Raith Rovers. Meanwhile, McCann articulated the view of those not swept away on a tide of green euphoria. "It wasn't a great advert for the kind of football we want to see from Celtic," he said.

At least they did not break hand-shaking protocol when introduced to the Duchess of Kent beforehand. The Airdrie goalkeeper, John Martin, kissed HRH on the cheek but failed to take the initiative when called on to collect Brian McLaughlin's cross early on. Jimmy Boyle cleared straight to Tosh McKinlay, whose centre was headed in by van Hooijdonk.

Martin was not called upon to redeem himself for 79 minutes. Airdrie's only shot, by Alan Lawrence midway through the first half, was well saved by Pat Bonner. When the same player broke clear late on, the ubiquitous Grant stopped him with a textbook sliding tackle.

Near the stadium, a newspaper billboard trumpeted "Scots in rugby World Cup thriller". Only by such standards could Celtic claim to have "clinched Cup in classic". The result was everything, but McCann, for one, will expect a display to match next time.

Goal: Van Hooijdonk (9) 0-1.

Airdrieonians (1-2-5-2): Martin; Sandison; Jack, Hay (McIntyre, 82); Boyle, A Smith, Black, Harvey (T Smith, 51), Stewart; Lawrence, Cooper. Substitute not used: McCulloch (gk).

Celtic (4-4-2): Bonner; Vata, McNally, Boyd, McKinlay; McLaughlin, McStay, Grant, Collins; van Hooijdonk (Falconer, 40), Donnelly (O'Donnell, 70). Substitute not used: Marshall (gk).

Referee: L Mottram (Forth).