Only three players — Joss Valgaeren, Neil Lennon and Henrik Larsson — started against Caledonian from the 11 that beat Liverpool 2-0 on the Thursday before in the Uefa Cup quarterfinals. O’Neill’s selection for the third round against Inverness suggests Celtic thought they were in for a stroll in the park. The selection of Javier Sanchez Broto, Stanislav Varga, Jamie Smith and David Frenandez backfired on the Hoops, as they could not put the ball away in the second half. That’s what happens when a team gets complacent or cocky. The game will do that to a team if it thinks it’s only a matter of fielding any 11.
Graeme Bennett, Calendonian’s director of football, claimed the result was just as good as their triumph at Celtic Park in 2000. That’s when it all went wrong for John Barnes. The defeat for O’Neill, though, will be forgotten if the Hoops win the league championship and the Uefa Cup. However, O’Neill admitted he was disappointed to be out of the Scottish Cup.
“Even though changes were made, we’re still Celtic football club,” the Northern Ireland-born manager said. “We didn’t play well enough. We could’ve played until midnight and wouldn’t have scored so tonight is a big disappointment. It wasn’t good enough from us.”
For Caledonian, it was a completely different outlook. “Our manager John Robertson is now a legend in Inverness,” Bennett said. The director is entitled to say that about his manager, but similar claims are on ice for O’Neill as he approaches the run-in to the league and the Uefa semifinal.
After a 1-0 draw with Liverpool in the first leg of the Uefa quarterfinals Celtic went on to win 2-0 at Anfield. The impressive run by Celtic in Europe, beating Blackburn Rovers, Celta Vigo and VfB Stuttgart, has done wonders for Scottish football. Scottish Football Association spokesman Andy Mitchell said, “Scotland now lie in ninth place in the Uefa ranking table, which means that the SPL champions next season will automatically enter the 2004-2005 Uefa Champions League at the group stage, while the runners-up will come in at the third qualifying round.”
O’Neill has also shattered a 22-year history of frustration for Celtic fans by extending their Euro season last Christmas. Furthermore, it’s Celtic’s first semifinal in almost three decades. The Bluenoses of Rangers will not be too happy that their rivals have equaled their thirty-one-year-old Scottish record of having appeared in the semis of all three European competitions.
There was concern for Celtic fans when their team was knocked out of the Scottish Cup but O’Neill can be forgiven, for now anyway. Because what he and his squad are doing in Europe outranks winning domestic cups and even the SPL. Rangers beating Celtic in the CIS Cup was quickly wiped out when Celtic beat Liverpool.
But Celtic were brought down to earth with the defeat by Thistle. As O’Neill said: “Euphoria doesn’t last too long in this game.” Although O’Neill has done brilliantly and his achievements are close to being monumental, he’s not quite legendary, not yet. At least not when compared to Jock Stein. While O’Neill does have a treble under his belt, all eyes are on Uefa success. The question is, if the Uefa Cup is won, could O’Neill be hailed as a legend? Not quite. For that he would have to stay at Celtic longer, a lot longer.
There is no doubt that he has laid the foundation to continue his winning ways, although Rangers have had his number. The recent league win over the Gers and this Euro run keeps O’Neill and Celtic in the spotlight. They have broken the recent mould of underachievement in Europe and have become genuine contenders for major silverware on the continent. So the next question is: Will O’Neill stay with Celtic?
What if Manchester United, as expected, came knocking on his door? How could he refuse? If he wins the Uefa cup with Celtic, and the SPL title, will there be second thoughts? One thing is for sure, if he goes his legendary status will have not been achieved at Celtic, indeed he could be seen as a traitor by the faithful. It is, however, more than likely that O’Neill will do another year in his rolling contract at Parkhead. Assuming that he stays on, then he would have to make the final stages in the Champions League for further employment at Celtic, and that would be his decision, and his alone. At least Celtic fans know CL is indeed around the corner, but it would be nicer to increase their chances by winning the SPL.
Martin O’Neill should stay with Celtic and Scottish football. It has been very good to him thus far. If he commits to say a three-year contract he will be a hotter item than he is now. He will get the platform that he really needs, and that’s the Champions League. No doubt the shrewd manager will not overlook his opportunities in Scotland. But he does have to ask himself if he can take Celtic to a play-off of the quality of Real Madrid vs. Manchester United, AC Milan vs. Ajax, Inter Milan vs. Valencia or Juventus vs. Barcelona. Furthermore, can he do it on a regular basis with the Celtic? For now, though, it’s blinkers on for O’Neill. Boavista is the task at hand, along with the SPL title.