By Joe Behan
Diehard Glasgow Celtic fans made their way into The Parlour, a Celtic Supporters Club, on 86th Street off Broadway, in the early hours of Sunday morning to see their Bhoys beat Old Firm Rivals Rangers, 1-0, for the second time in five days.
The previous Wednesday, in the CSI Cup semifinals, Celtic beat Rangers 3-1 at Hampden Park.
Confidence seemed to be at an all-time high Sunday among The Parlour contingent before this crunch league game, in which Rangers had to win, at the now daunting Parkhead.
"I don’t like the Rangers defense; it looks really weak," said John Kelly, a Celtic fanatic. "We have to fancy our chances here after destroying them 3-1 in the Cup semi during the week. Psychologically, Rangers are weaker. I’ve been thinking about it all night. We’re ready."
The Hoops, like in the Cup game, attacked Rangers straight away, looking for the early goal. Cross after cross saw the Rangers’ defense collapse under the pressure. The marking was non-existent and at times two or three Celtic players had that precious space in the Gers’ box. Within the first 10 minutes Rangers were pulling down and fouling any opponent who came within 30 feet off their goal. It wasn’t that Rangers were dirty; Celtic were simply too good.
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The now dreadless Henrik Larsson was robbed of his 38th strike in the early stages. His spectacular overhead kick, which flew just over the bar, had the Rangers defense all over the place with hesitancy. In the 17th minute, the silky Swede somehow managed to lay the ball off for Alan Thompson to push the winner into an empty net, and a now empty Rangers. It was becoming quite clear that sustaining this kind of pressure on Rangers would prove a matter of time before a blue shirt would get sent off. Sure enough, in the 44th minute Fernando Ricksen got his marching orders for a late tackle on Tommy Boyd.
The confidence in The Parlour was now at a point of being cozy at the break. Many a Celtic smile gleamed upstairs and down in the bar restaurant. The singing continued. Rangers had dominated Celtic and Scottish football for the last 10 years and a sense that something bigger than beating Rangers was in the house.
"We’ve destroyed them," said an assured Kevin Kenny, a Wexford Bhoy. "Ricksen is gone and Advocaat is next. And you’ve heard here, exclusive, Alex Ferguson will take the Rangers job; he’s a blue coat. I can’t see Rangers coming back here today."
Mal Williams agreed that is was like men playing against boys, but the Celt from Dublin held off his comment, as there was still another 45 minutes to go. With Rangers down a goal and a defender, there seemed little room in The Parlour for a Gers comeback. But the Blues were not to lie down and thoughts of League Champions, the Treble and European Competition were put on hold.
An aching passion
Rangers regrouped and began to take over in midfield in the second half. The Parlour support, somewhat silenced in this spell, was acutely described by Frances Hanlon, a native of North Glasgow.
"The supporters over here are of an aching passion," the Scottish lass said. "It’s great to watch them, the way they go on. You can tell they’d love to be there, at Parkhead. It’s great to be here in New York, it’s amazing to see the Celtic support, it makes me forget where I am.
"I wanted to get out of the environment at home for a while, so I came to visit my sister, and I’m a season ticket holder — me and my Dad, Celtic mad, wears suit and all, go to all the games. But having experienced Celtic in The Parlour just gets you right back into it; it’s all about the passion."
The key moment for Hanlon’s observation that exposed Parlour support was in the 81st minute. Chris Sutton was all over Tore Andre Flo in Celtic’s box, it was a definite penalty. There was a sigh of relief as each supporter glanced to his or her neighboring stool during the replays — the beginning of the tide’s turning for Martin O’Neill and Glasgow Celtic. The lack of appeal by Rangers signified that they were a beaten team. While the Gers gave it all they had, they never looked like scoring.
On the other hand, the Celtic attack was far more potent, the catalyst being Larsson. In the 71st minute, Celtic’s Agathe found the Dreadless One with a superb long ball as the Hoops sat in. Larsson, keeping his composure, controlled a first touch that sent the Rangers’ defense backpedaling toward their own goal.
Alan Thompson made a blistering run down the middle to receive a perfectly weighted pass from the Parkhead Prince, but the world-class counterattack lacked the finish and over the bar it went. The final whistle saw the rain pelting down at Parkhead as it sent Rangers back to Ibrox, depleted and defeated.
"Cham-pi-o-nees, cham-pi-o-nees," was chanted in sync with the TV screens, and while Kevin Kenny stated that it’s about "passion and determination," Mal Williams eventually gave his analysis: "Yea, we were all over them in the first half, but we should have been two or three up after 45 minutes. Rangers came out in the second half and put it up to us. That concerns me. We stepped off them and they dominated midfield. But I’ll take the three points. O’Neill knows how to get results. Back-to-back wins against Rangers, we have to expect that it is all over."
CSI Cup semifinal
Celtic’s 3-1 victory over Rangers Wednesday in the CSI Cup semifinal at Hampden Park was "Soccer Scene’s" introduction to The Parlour’s Celtic Supporters Club. Upon arriving 20 minutes late, the greeting at the door was, "We’re two up." After the Hoop baptism by the doorman, we were filled in by Johnny Weldon, an avid Celtic supporter.
"Sutton rebound," a delighted Weldon shouted. "Larsson, magic goal — lobbed the keeper. We are all over them. We went at them straight away. Larsson danced on them. Two nil, thank you very much."
The atmosphere was electric as Rangers began to get on top. The burger was ordered. Many a soccer guru could be seen in The Parlor watching every move of the game knowing there was a long way to go. Weldon, on the other hand, was convinced it was over and only now and then did he focus on the game. He was thinking of being in Parkhead for the big league game.
Some concern began to creep into The Parlour as the singing was not so loud anymore. Heads were now fixed on the screens and the game took on a sequence of play that had the attention of Hampden Park, The Parlor and millions of Old Firm fans around the world. Martin O’Neill’s Celtic was putting on the best team defense seen for a long time at Hampden Park. A textbook first half was in the making: hit them early, hit them again, and sit in.
In the closing 20 minutes to the half, Rangers were stopped time and again and service to their front players was cut off by the Hoops’ midfield. For the first time in ages, we saw Celtic kick Rangers off the Park. The Bhoys sat in after a great first 10-minute opening in which they surprised Rangers. While the Gers put the pressure on, they never looked like scoring. Eventually before the half, Rangers were awarded a sloppy penalty and it really was the only way they were going to score, but it did come at the right time.
Celtic’s first half was all about team defense and did Martin O’Neill get it right on the day. It was 2-1 at the half and the makings of something special was in store. Or so it seemed.
O’Neill proved how cagey he is when Celtic came out and continued with first-half tactics, covering space, physical and hungrier, to stop Rangers. Celtic were fearless, and while it wasn’t vintage stuff, it was typical tactics from O’Neill. He knows how to get results whatever it takes. It was a mature performance.
Larsson hit his second from the spot, and then the shrewd Irish manager took him off the field. It is this move alone that we can see just how far Celtic has come under O’Neill. Things got a bit sloppy near the end as players from both teams were sent off. But that didn’t matter. Both the game itself and indeed the result were too big to be discussing frustration. This was professionalism at its best and the man to watch is Mr. Martin O’Neill. The final was 3-1, but that will not satisfy the Parkhead boss, and the treble probably wouldn’t either.