This article originally appeared in Just Football as part of their ‘Your Boys Took One Hell of a Beating’ series.
While Martin O’Neill’s appointment as Celtic manager was warmly welcomed by the club’s fans in July 2000, the general consensus was that he would have a huge task on his hands to build a successful side. Although the Irishman was handed a sizeable transfer budget, it was thought that he and his new club may have to play second fiddle to their great rivals.
Rangers had won 11 of the previous 12 league titles, including the last two under Dick Advocaat. With David Murray’s millions funding the Ibrox club, they were expected to continue their domination of the Scottish game. One ‘expert’ in the media believed it would take Celtic as long as five years to challenge again for the league title.
The first Old Firm contest of that season took place at Celtic Park on 27/8/00. Although the home side had opened their league campaign with four straight wins, even a point against their old foes would have been a step in the right direction – a sign that this time, Celtic weren’t going to meekly roll over.
Nobody, absolutely nobody, could have foreseen what was about to unfold. Ten years of failure and submission had led to Celtic holding an inferiority complex as big as their 60,000 seat stadium. However, the balance of power between Scotland’s big two effectively shifted in just over ten minutes. It went something like this:
A great start. An early corner for Celtic, and Henrik Larsson’s mis-hit shot is turned into the net by Old Firm debutant Chris Sutton. 1-0
Another corner and another goal – this time a header by Stilian Petrov, as he rises above a stunned Rangers defence. 2-0.
If the first two goals produced wild celebrations amongst the home support, the third prompted complete and utter bedlam. Pocket genius Lubo Moravcik twists and turns on the byeline, before his cutback is met by Paul Lambert, who calmly guides the ball into the far corner, past former Borussia Dortmund team-mate, Stefan Klos. 3-0.
If the match wasn’t already over, it should have been at this point. Larsson, through one-on-one with Klos, tries to go round the keeper instead of picking his spot. The German gratefully smothers the ball.
Fernando Ricksen’s first Old Firm game comes to a premature end as the Rangers defender is replaced by Tugay. Playing at right-back, the Dutchman has been torn to shreds by his fellow countryman, Bobby Petta. Ricksen’s next visit to Celtic Park later in the season isn’t any more successful as he receives a red card before half-time.
A lifeline for the visitors. Claudio Reyna’s header appears to have been saved by Jonathan Gould but the ball is ruled to have crossed the line. 3-1.
Any hopes Rangers have of a second-half fightback appear to be snuffed out as Larsson scores one of the finest goals ever seen in an Old Firm match. After receiving a chested pass from Sutton around 30 yards out, the Swede skips past Bert Konterman, nudging the ball through the Dutchman’s legs. As he heads in on goal, Larsson opens up his body as if ready to curl a shot inside Stefan Klos’ left-hand post. The German keeper tries to anticipate the strike but seconds later he’s grounded and can only admire Larsson’s glorious chip which sails towards the opposite side of the goal. Larsson wheels away in celebration as the ball drops under the crossbar and into the net. 4-1.
A Billy Dodds penalty narrows the deficit as the visitors hang on in there. 4-2.
The goal that finally ends the match as a contest. Petta’s free-kick from the right is met by Larsson, whose glancing header leaves Klos rooted to the spot. 5-2.
Already on a yellow card, Barry Ferguson receives his marching orders after deliberately handling the ball and subsequently throwing it away. Unfortunately for Ferguson, it’s not his only Old Firm battle that day – he is later involved in a street brawl with Celtic fans.
The cherry on top of the icing on the cake. Petta’s ball down the left wing is collected by Stephane Mahe and the Frenchman’s low cross is met at the far post by the outstretched foot of Sutton. The striker ends the match as he started it – putting the ball in the opposition net and thus, in one game, scoring more goals than he had in all of the previous season at Chelsea. 6-2.
The importance of this result, and the manner of the victory, cannot be underestimated. A narrow win could have been attributed to good fortune or home advantage, but this was different – Celtic had swept aside their biggest rivals with a breathtaking display of power and pace.
This was no plucky, hard-fought win – more a signal of intent. During much of that season, O’Neill would describe Rangers as the “benchmark”, but he was fooling no-one. Despite losing 5-1 at Ibrox in the next meeting of the sides, Celtic were comfortable league champions as they completed their first domestic treble since 1969.
During his time in Scotland, Martin O’Neill won three SPL titles, three Scottish Cups, a League Cup and reached the 2003 UEFA Cup final. This match was the catalyst for that success, as Celtic didn’t just overcome a psychological barrier, they smashed it to pieces.