Rovers faced Celtic in a pre-season friendly this year, which felt like it could have been specially arranged as a tribute to the second round UEFA Cup tie from 20 years ago today. While Celtic eventually eased through 3-0 on aggregate, the first leg at Celtic Park is often remembered for being a very dominant Rovers display which deserved a lot more than a painful 1-0 defeat. ‘Larssony on a grand scale’ read the Lancashire Telegraph headline.
The first leg was screened live on BBC One on Thursday 31st October 2002 with an 8:05pm kick-off, and I recently found that the full 90 minutes have been uploaded to YouTube (albeit BBC Scotland’s version, with Kenny Dalglish as the ideal studio guest). So I watched it all back to see if we’re right to look back on it with some adulation, despite the loss…
Cynics might say that the star-studded Rovers team of 2002/03 should have been playing Celtic off the park as standard, since Celtic had just won at Dunfermline while Rovers were beating the English champions at Highbury. But this was an exceptionally strong Celtic side during their Martin O'Neill era, with many familiar names in the team. They’d just become the first Scottish top-flight side to record more than 100 points in a season, and would also knock out Liverpool in the UEFA Cup, then take José Mourinho’s Porto to extra time in the final.
Stories led with the obvious angles of ‘Battle of Britain’ and Rangers legend Graeme Souness visiting Parkhead to receive obligatory abuse. Of course, Souness loved it all as he stepped off the team bus at the stadium, then later delayed his entrance to the dugout to deliberately keep the Celtic fans waiting. “I went to the toilet – and I washed my hands,” Souness cheekily explained when asked about the delay later.
All of this was a brilliant tactic to focus all of the attention on himself and take the pressure off his team. And it worked.
The Rovers team picked itself after Henning Berg got a late injury in training and Damien Duff was deemed fit after an injury on international duty earlier in the month. It was that tough period for David Dunn, where he should really have been starting every match… if it weren’t for captain Garry Flitcroft, Tugay and Duff. Perhaps it’s a surprise now to see Egil Ostenstad starting, but he’d recently come back into the team and contributed two goals (plus a key assist at Arsenal). Andy Cole had been injured, Matt Jansen was recovering from his summer accident and Ciccio Grabbi was still Ciccio Grabbi. All three were on the bench.
Celtic included Champions League winner Paul Lambert, goal machine Henrik Larsson and ex-Rover Chris Sutton. Several in the squad had already proven themselves in the Premier League and there wasn’t even room for John Hartson in the eleven.
The opening stages were a very even affair with both sides pressing forward and having decent chances. Brad Friedel saved well from a Stiliyan Petrov header in the 10th minute, then David Thompson hit a powerful drive which Rab Douglas palmed away.
Celtic had actually edged the possession by the 28th minute but things were about to take a drastic turn…
The rest of the half is perhaps one of the most enjoyable, exciting periods I’ve ever seen Rovers play – here we are on the European stage, BBC One primetime, a “small team” as Souness would always suggest – playing controlled but attacking football with flair. I remember sitting watching with a smile fixed on my face. There is an almost 10-minute period where Celtic don’t enter the Rovers box and barely even make it into the final third.
A few of the key passages of play follow below along with the chances where Rovers really should have made it count.
29:00 The first indication of complete control starts bang on 29 minutes when Rovers hold onto the ball for a full minute with 16 successive passes, a sequence which only fails when Martin Taylor makes a risky but positive forward pass.
31:37 Two minutes later Rovers have another long spell of possession, only broken by a stray Lucas Neill pass after which he immediately wins the ball back. This period ends with a classic Damien Duff electric run – that signature one where he skins the full back on the inside and drives forward to the byline – but his cross is slightly too deep. It’s promising play though and the waves of pressure continue…
33:09 The clock hits 33:00 and it’s another full 60 seconds of Rovers possession – 21 successive passes resulting in a Duff cross which earns a corner. A couple of poor Thompson deliveries from set pieces follow, but he then more than makes up for it with two absolutely sublime pieces of skill.
36:12 Tugay, inevitably, is controlling all of these possession phases – collecting the ball in a deep position and always looking for a creative pass. This time he feeds the ball through the Celtic midfield to the more advanced Garry Flitcroft, who in turn finds Duff, who’s drifted over to the right. A short dribble later and Thompson now has the ball on the wing: he cleverly dinks it between two defenders and bursts past them to set himself up with a crossing opportunity. Bobo Baldé makes a great block from Dwight Yorke’s snapshot.
40:10 The next piece of Thomo magic is Dennis Bergkamp-esque and Rovers supporters would forever be talking about it if there’d been a goal at the end. If only! The move again starts with Tugay, who passes forward to Thompson in a central position. It’s one-touch back to Flitcroft, who finds Duff with a first-time lofted pass. Duff gets the ball down with ease and plays back to the supporting Nils-Eric Johansson. Thompson has now made a dart to an inside left position to receive a pass: he flicks it with the outside of his right foot, spins the opposite way around the bamboozled Joos Valgaeren and collects the ball on the other side. Extraordinary ingenuity. Yorke again has the eventual chance and this time he’s guilty of not making the most it, allowing Ulrik Laursen time to close him down around the six-yard box.
This article could easily have a big David Thompson tangent – an incredible talent with an array of long-range goals to rival Pedersen and Tugay, and someone who could have become a real legend were it not for such tough luck with repeated knee injuries. Along with Alan Shearer, I haven’t seen anyone have as big an immediate impact on the Rovers team – an international call-up by Sven-Göran Eriksson after just one month is evidence of that. Minute 42 and he wins a free kick in shooting range – his shot is saved by Douglas though.
44:10 The final chance for a deserved goal started again with Tugay inside his own half – he shrewdly yet theatrically won a free kick off Larsson and quickly moved the ball on. By the time he received it again just 20 seconds later, six other Rovers players have had a touch of the ball via slick triangles. Tugay now shifted it left, getting Johansson and Duff involved and making an involvement of nine players as the threat intensified. Duff exchanged cute passes with Yorke in the box, but his cross-shot was blocked by Neil Lennon.
The half ended almost bang on 45. Rovers had been doing all the right things with an exceptional period of high-intensity positive play with bags of creativity. For that final extensive part of the half, Rovers had 75% possession, resulting in 58% dominance across the whole 45.
Tugay was orchestrating, with Yorke dropping deep to expertly link up play, while danger was coming from Duff and Thompson on the flanks. Every player was always looking for a forward pass, taking risks, attempting one-touch passes if possible, or sprinting forward with the ball, while on every occasion that Celtic had possession, Rovers quickly won it back around the centre circle.
While old cliches such as ‘possession means nothing if you don’t score’ clearly ring true, given Rovers had already scored 11 goals in four games that month, they were perhaps due a blank on ‘one of those days’ and unfortunately found themselves under a Halloween spell.
The Rovers possession play continued for five or so minutes after half time, before the game again became a bit more balanced. Still, there was chance for Garry Flitcroft to hit one of those iconic first-time ‘rugby union’ punts towards the left wing after being given the ball from kick-off. Those little quirks in players’ games all come flooding back like it was yesterday.
Andy Cole was a half-time sub and provided better link-up play than Ostenstad while always looking like a goal threat. There are a couple of excellent phases later in the half where Cole exchanges passes with Yorke and Dunn, but Rovers seem destined never to score – that final break of the ball or clinical shot just wasn’t quite there.
Dunn had come on for the tiring Duff in the 67th minute, providing a different attacking impetus by drifting centrally from a left midfield position. He had one powerful shot from range which was palmed away for a corner by Douglas, not long before the Celtic goal.
The game’s turning point came in the 77th minute when O’Neill took a bold gamble and threw on a third striker to replace Lambert. Ten minutes later, substitute John Hartson had a free header from a corner after losing Taylor, which Thompson heroically kept off the line. Almost inevitably, Larsson was on hand to force the ball in after being anonymous all match. A great goal poacher turned out to be the real difference between the two teams. Henrik Larsson is always a good answer.
Taylor had been in excellent form at that time – getting rave reviews for his performance at Arsenal and scoring a brace in the 5-2 win over Newcastle – but losses of concentration and lack of strength to handle brutes like Hartson were maybe why his career didn’t really push on much further.
Such is the speed with which teams change in football, just one year later this generation of youth would sadly be broken up: Duff and Dunn transferred, Thompson and Jansen both struggling to make the same big impact for different reasons, while Taylor was out of favour and soon moved on to Birmingham.
The second leg of the tie is also out there to watch again – from memory, the key difference was that O’Neill learned his lesson and saw the huge influence that Tugay was having. He played his three forwards from the start, but told Sutton to drop deep with a specific instruction to harass/foul Tugay all match. Celtic won 2-0 and the history books show a convincing aggregate victory.
Maybe the 4-0 win at Spurs on the last day of 2002/03 is the true Graeme Souness peak, when Rovers did get their just rewards for great attacking play, but the match at Celtic is still one of the highlights of his era. It may have been part of a defeat, but if you’ve got about 15 minutes to spare today, then enjoy watching from minute 29 to the end of the half. Start the YouTube clock at 36:20…
“I’m gutted. It’s a bit of a killer blow really after we’d outplayed them for long spells. It was a great atmosphere and one hell of a game to play in but it’s just unfair that we did lose after playing ever so well. This was one of our best performances of the season and the manager was very pleased with us after the game.” – David Thompson
“I thought we got a bit of a pasting, certainly in the first half. We are capable of playing better. We’ve given ourselves a chance of going through but we’ll have to do a lot better at Ewood Park.” – Chris Sutton
“I thought we battered them for most of the game. We had a lot of half chances which they got good blocks on but after dominating for so long we ended up giving away a sloppy goal.” – Damien Duff
“As far as adverts for the Premiership go, Rovers were a credit to the league for the way they diligently went about their task and the only thing missing was the elusive away goal much of their enterprising approach play merited.” – Lancashire Telegraph reporter Andy Neild
“I’m a bit disappointed [with the Celtic crowd], I thought it would be more hostile but that’s a measure of how well we played. My team had a great time out there tonight. There won’t be many teams in the whole of England that would come here and do as well as us. I am disappointed that we lost but very pleased with the way we played. In football, you don’t aways get what you deserve. We came here and bossed the game for the large part.” – Graeme Souness