The mother of all Battles of Britain?

The meeting of Celtic and Liverpool in the UEFA Cup quarter-final 15 years ago is unlikely to be forgotten by anybody who witnessed it.

By Ronnie McCluskey

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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The night got off to a flyer when Gerry Marsden strolled to the centre circle and led the crowd in a resonant rendition of the clubs’ shared anthem, tens of thousands of scarves held aloft, the sound of 60,000 emotionally-charged voices at full volume.
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The mantra on everyone’s mind seemed to be ‘give no quarter’, for no-one missed an opportunity to clatter in. Lennon in particular was special, anchoring Celtic’s attacks and dependably mopping up play.

Football journalists on these shores love to talk up a Battle of Britain. It’s difficult to ignore the fanfare that surrounds those occasions when two domestic clubs meet in European competition, to not get caught up in the heat of the moment.

We had recent evidence of this collective enthusiasm when Liverpool and Manchester City drew one another in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. As the only two English sides remaining in Europe’s blue riband competition, the stakes were high, the atmosphere fever pitch. In the end, despite their insurmountable status at the summit of the Premier League, the favourites were torn apart by Liverpool’s formidable attack. It was a marvellous, steely display by Jürgen Klopp’s men.

For me, though, a Battle of Britain in Europe is better when a Scottish team is involved. Let’s not beat about the bush: I’m talking about a Scottish team versus an English team, with bragging rights set between them like a towering stack of high-value poker chips.

In recent years, we haven’t witnessed too many of these meetings. As the EPL has continued its seemingly unstoppable ascent, and more and more ludicrous sums are paid to attract the world’s top talent to England, the gulf between the footballing nations has seemed to widen, though perhaps not to the extent sometimes suggested.

The comments by Joey Barton – still bitter about being outmanned by Scott Brown, nutmegged by Ali Crawford and banished from Rangers after a handful of matches – that Scottish football was “like Sunday League, the standard pathetic” are echoed by a number of voices across the border. These snipes tend to flood social media whenever Celtic falter domestically or get dumped out of Europe; or when any other Scottish team engages in a scrappy, unaesthetic contest. To hear these armchair critics is to connect with deluded, entitled souls, individuals who must imagine that every match conducted under English skies is a stylish, fluid embodiment of the beautiful game.

No matter. I want to focus on a Battle of Britain fought 15 years ago between Celtic and Liverpool. The stakes? A berth in the UEFA Cup semi-final. It strikes me as a game from a bygone age, particularly given the exorbitant sums of money which have flooded the English game since. Back then, the most expensive player at Anfield was El Hadji Diouf, the Senegalese hitman having cost the club £10 million. By comparison, Celtic’s biggest signings – Chris Sutton and John Hartson – were £6 million apiece. The gulf was not huge, but the same attitude of superiority persisted among many of the English football-following faithful.

To put the  clash into context, Celtic had achieved near perfect domestic dominance the previous season (2001/2002), losing just one of 38 league games and coasting to the title with an 18-point margin over Rangers. In the same period, a year on from lifting the UEFA Cup in the 00/01 season, Liverpool finished second in the Premiership, three ahead of Manchester United and seven adrift of a nonpareil Arsenal. Though neither would scale the same heights in the 02/03 season – Celtic surrendered the title on goal difference, Liverpool fell to fifth – their duel was hotly anticipated and fiercely contested. It was, in the truest sense of the phrase, a Battle of Britain.

Which is not to say that this battle would be hostile, far from it. There is a camaraderie and rapport between Liverpool and Celtic football clubs that stretches back years. Linked by much more than You’ll Never Walk Alone and Kenny Dalglish, a form of connective tissue binds the clubs and the fans and the cities they represent; accents aside, it’s not a stretch to say that their working-class supporters form part of the same broad proletariat. This would be a special occasion for all involved.

No Scottish side had ever overcome Liverpool in European competition, but Celtic were confident ahead of that first home leg. And why shouldn’t they have been? They had already beaten Blackburn, Celta Vigo and Stuttgart, and were just three wins away from their first European silverware since Lisbon. They were also coming off a crucial Old Firm victory at Parkhead the previous Saturday, a John Hartson volley splitting the sides. Liverpool had Gerrard, Diouf and Owen, it was true, but didn’t Celtic have Petrov, Sutton and Larsson?

The night got off to a flyer when Gerry Marsden strolled to the centre circle and led the crowd in a resonant rendition of the clubs’ shared anthem, tens of thousands of scarves held aloft, the sound of 60,000 emotionally-charged voices at full volume. It had the feeling of a serenade, and Gerry, wailing theatrically like a drunkard at a wedding, concluded the song by telling the crowd with evident earnestness: “God bless ya, love ya!”

Horripilation was afflicting just about every punter in the stadium, and the sense of anticipation was palpable as Terje Hauge blew the whistle to get things underway. With Larsson back in the side having returned from a broken jaw, anything seemed possible – but it was Hartson who got the first chance after 12 seconds, Alan Thompson knocking a long ball forward and the Welshman tipping it onto the bar. The striker was instrumental moments later too, flicking the ball high across the box for Thompson to lay off Larsson waiting at the goalmouth: 1-0. Marsden had barely switched off his microphone and Larsson had bagged his 35th goal in 36 games.

What unfolded over the 90 minutes was a high-tempo contest between two commanding attacking forces. At the same time there was no shortage of strong challenges, little wonder given the quantity of physical players on the park: the likes of Mjällby, Balde and Lennon, Hyypiä, Gerrard and Heskey.

In a fashion which probably came as no surprise to home fans, the triumphalism provoked by Larsson’s goal was terminated soon after, John Arne Riise driving inside from the left flank, skipping behind Neil Lennon, then playing a lovely weighted reverse pass to Emile Heskey who slid the ball into the opposite corner. It looked as though a free-scoring battle royale might be in the offing.

As it happened, those two goals within 17 minutes would be the lot, though each team had their fair share of chances. Soon after the break, Larsson made an excellent tackle to dispossess Traore and link up with Hartson; but when the Welshman neatly played him back in, Dudek was swiftly off his line to block the Swede’s shot.

Heskey might have added a second of his own, meeting a Diouf cross in the box but managing only to slide the ball past the post; Owen, meanwhile, sprayed wide late on, perhaps something to do with the pressure exerted on him by the towering Bobo Balde. Incidentally, Owen later described the match as having “the best atmosphere I ever played in.”

“At the end of the night it might’ve appeared that Liverpool had done enough to go through,” recalled Hugh MacDonald, chief sports writer at the Herald. “I don’t think outside the Celtic community there were many people who thought they would actually qualify after that, with Liverpool getting that kind of result. But then again Celtic, as they showed so often throughout the season, were full of surprises.”

Indeed. One week later, Martin O’Neill’s Bhoys crossed the border as definite underdogs, with Liverpool’s away goal expected to be crucial. After all, Celtic had to win – and just five clubs in 41 previous European fixtures had managed to overcome the Reds at Anfield.

“No-one gave us a chance,” said John Hartson later. “And in all fairness, the manager surprised the lads in a way, because when we came in at 1-1 he was like, ‘Right, we can go to Anfield and win, let’s go‘. And we were like, ‘What a challenge that is,’ do you know what I mean?”

O’Neill’s confidence was not misplaced: Celtic had scored in 19 of their previous 20 games away from home. They were riding the crest of a wave, and the goalscoring trident of Sutton, Hartson and Larsson was clearly capable of puncturing even the most well-organised defence.

Recalling the manager’s inspirational team talk in his 2006 autobiography, Neil Lennon said: “By the time he had finished we were ready to go out and run through brick walls if we needed to.”

The Northern Irishman did not make drastic changes to the team from the first leg, though he did bring winger Momo Sylla and captain Paul Lambert in to replace Jamie Smith and Chris Sutton, the latter of whom had broken his wrist during Sunday’s 2-1 CIS Insurance Cup loss to Rangers. El Hadji Diouf – who had been fined two weeks’ wages after spitting at a Celtic fan during a throw-in the week before – was the lone change for the home side, replaced by Czech midfielder Vladimír Šmicer.

The atmosphere, in common with the week earlier, was febrile, diehard voices chorusing from the stands and not a seat to be had. Celtic, kicking off, started purposefully although neither side was able to hold on to possession for long.

Things soon settled down though, and Dietmar Hamann threatened to inflict an important blow from a corner on the 15-minute mark; but the German’s low drive drifted beyond the post. At the other end, Alan Thompson betrayed a surplus of zeal in blasting over the bar. The pace was typically fast and frenetic, both teams oozing passion and more than willing to try their luck from long range.

Talisman Larsson went closer than Thompson from a free kick won just outside the box on 20 minutes, but Dudek did well to scurry across the goal-line and parry the swerving shot. Then Hartson narrowly missed a header, Lambert’s free kick from the left flank finding the big man on the edge of the six-yard box. A not dissimilar save to Dudek’s was made at the other end shortly after, Douglas springing to action to block a spectacular Gerrard volley struck from 35 yards. This was free-flowing football from two predictably aggressive teams.

As with the best contests, the battle in the heart of the pitch was the fulcrum on which the result depended. An engrossing physical and tactical matrix of tackles and passes played out under the Anfield lights, with Petrov, Lambert and Lennon more than a match for Gerrard, Murphy and Hamann. The mantra on everyone’s mind seemed to be ‘give no quarter’, for no-one missed an opportunity to clatter in. Lennon in particular was special, anchoring Celtic’s attacks and dependably mopping up play. “Seems the calmest man on the pitch,” observed commentator Barry Davies at one point. “He’s done a very good job of doing simple things, getting people out of trouble, starting attacks from defence.”

Hartson missed perhaps the greatest chance of the first half, meeting a pinpoint Larsson cross swung in from the right wing but nutting it past the near post. Alan Thompson spared his teammate’s blushes just before the break, though: Traore’s unnecessary tug on Larsson gave Celtic a free kick and the Englishman stepped up to absolutely rifle it under the wall and into the bottom corner.

At this point, with Celtic having cancelled out Liverpool’s away goal, the small army of visiting fans sensed the possibility of a profound upset. Nerve endings must have crackled when a brilliant Sylla pass picked out Larsson just after the interval, the No.7 peeling away from his marker and breaking into the box – only for Carragher to recover and force an error.

Liverpool, playing towards the Kop end, had chances to equalise in the second stanza, but for the most part a well-drilled Celtic had the impetus, the bit firmly between their teeth. Gerrard might have been the Reds’ saviour after Owen broke through the spine of midfield and fed a lovely pass to his feet on 52 minutes; once again, Douglas proved to be the Scouser’s equal.

The fact that Šmicer was swapped out for Baros ten minutes after the restart indicated that the home team sensed this one running away from them. And it nearly did when Larsson’s header provoked an acrobatic save from Dudek in the 73rd minute, the Pole tipping it over the bar. Ten minutes later, not even a Cirque du Soleil acrobat could have saved Hartson’s wonder strike, the imposing forward playing a neat one-two with Larsson under the noses of Hyypiä and Traore, before skipping past a spooked Hamann and hoofing the ball into the top right corner from 25 yards. One of the goals of his career, and probably the goal that defined Celtic’s glorious run to the UEFA final that year. The mighty Liverpool had been emphatically conquered, at Anfield no less, and the second Battle of Britain victory of the Hoops’ 2003 European run was complete.

It is a victory which should not be underplayed. Liverpool, lest we forget, had finished second in England the year before; won the UEFA Cup and Super Cup two years prior, beating Roma, Porto, Barcelona and Bayern Munich; and, with a very similar team to that which played Celtic, would win the Champions League just two years on. Of that legendary side which fought back from 3-0 down to stun A.C. Milan, eight featured against Celtic at Anfield.

The significance of the win was not lost on O’Neill, who summed up his emotions in a post-match interview with Chick Young. “To come here and beat Liverpool on their own soil is a fantastic achievement. It’s given Scottish football a massive boost, there’s no doubt about it. It’s a great, great night for Celtic Football Club and the supporters.

“There’s a real desire about the players. And sometimes we go on about this determination and passion and I honestly think tonight it was to do with ability – a combination of everything – but the ability shone out, the ability to pass the ball under pressure. And we did it. I am absolutely ecstatic.”

The Glasgow club was just too good for Liverpool on the night, too switched-on. Heroic performances from the goal-scorers Hartson and Thompson, yes, but solid workmanship, too, from Mjällby, Balde, Sylla, Lennon. It was a well-rounded display, full of passion and intent, and it needed to be. The goals occupy the spotlight but Celtic’s staunch defending against the threat of a prolific Owen, then one of the finest young strikers in world football, shouldn’t be overlooked. O’Neill’s men also coped extremely well with Gerrard, full of beans and promise at 22 and soon to inherit the captain’s armband from Sami Hyypiä.

There have been Battles of Britain since – Celtic’s stalemate with Manchester City in last season’s Champions League springs to mind – but perhaps none quite so atmospheric or iconic, at least to my mind. As we know, Celtic’s UEFA campaign lacked the fairytale ending – cruelly beaten 3-2 by Jose Mourinho’s Porto in Seville – but their resounding win over Liverpool was a true moment in time.

A moment encapsulated by the strains of You’ll Never Walk Alone, sung by both the jubilant away support and, bittersweetly, by the faithful in the Kop, as full-time approached. Unforgettable.

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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