Football/Soccer

Ronan Sheehan selects his top Celtic XI since 1988

Virgil Van Dijk and Scott Brown both make it into Ronan Sheehan's top Celtic XI since 1988.

DOWN hurling manager Ronan Sheehan is also a Celtic fanatic. He selects the best XI he’s watched in more than 30 years.

I’m following Celtic from the early Eighties. I went over for my first game in 1988 with my brother Sean, it was the Scottish Cup semi-final, 2-1 against Hearts when we shouldn’t have beaten them. There were one up right until the last few minutes – to be honest, the ball for the winner hit Mark McGhee on the arse and went into the net! It was the centenary season.

I’ve been going over regularly with my mates for a long time – Paul Byers, Ronan McGrath from Rostrevor. We used to go with the South Down Supporters Club out of Warrenpoint, getting on a bus at two o’clock in the morning to go to Glasgow. Other guys like ‘Titch’ Tinnelly, Bernie Ruane and Mickey Ruane, who’s actually a councillor now

Through the bad years as well, the Nineties, I remember leaving Belfast, I was at college at the time, getting the train to Larne, the boat over, train from Stranraer to Glasgow – for a two-all draw at home to Aberdeen which saw Stuart Slater score his first goal. He didn’t score too many outside of that. [Liam] Brady was in charge.

I remember matches like being beaten 3-0 at home to Motherwell and the like, the time of ‘Sack the board’.

I was there the day when we stopped the 10, it was a fantastic day – and a fantastic night in the Clada Club afterwards! Drove from Kilkeel with Paul Byers and Paul Cunningham.

I’ve a wee man, Oisin, who’s coming eight, and all he’s ever seen is Celtic win. He doesn’t appreciate the pain that sum of us went through in the Nineties, and the real worry that the club was going to go out of business. We feared we’d lose our history.

Some people talk about football, soccer, and say ‘Sure it’s only a game’ – but for a lot of people, the same way the GAA is, its means an awful lot more than that.

There’s a great song by The Wakes, a Glasgow band, called ‘The Cinderella Story’ and there’s a line that says ‘From desperation there came celebration, Glasgow Celtic was the name’. That line sums up that Celtic means much, more than just a football club to its fans.

You can see that in the numbers that travel from Ireland every week, what happened in Gweedore when the second nine in-a-row was confirmed [a cavalcade], you can see what it means.

There are supporters’ clubs in Cork and Dublin and so on but mostly it’s the nine counties; Donegal has a strong connection with people travelling over [to Glasgow] on a regular basis.

With the hurling I don’t get to weekend matches as much as I’d like, it’s generally European and midweek matches I get to now, because I’m over in England or Scotland with work and it’s easier. Sometimes people say to me, ‘What are you doing here? Celtic aren’t playing tonight.’

[Neil] Lennon the manager, Johnny Hayes has been part of the panel, there was Damian Duff, to have that Irish connection all the time is fantastic, it continues the history and tradition of the club.

There’s probably a bit of emotion in this one as much as anything else, and the Irish connection:

Pat Bonner: He’s the first goalkeeper I remember, winning in the centenary season with Billy McNeill and the emotion of that. Artur Boruc, the Holy Goalie, and Fraser Forster were arguably better goalkeepers, and both less prone to the odd mistake that Packie would have been prone to – but Packie gave great service to Celtic. There is that emotional attachment of having an Irishman on the team, and especially a Donegal man.

My team is going to be real Celtic, attacking, so I’m going for three centre-backs – I couldn’t leave out some of my midfielders so I’ll have to take the abuse. There was very little TV coverage and I was only getting over when I was nine or 10, so that’s when Danny McGrain was coming to the end of his career – I haven’t included Danny simply because I didn’t see enough of him.

Johan Mjallby: Absolute rock at the back, there in those glory years under [Martin] O’Neill, fantastic player. Marc Rieper would have been fantastic if not for his injury problems. With three centre halves I’m clearly leaving out great wing-backs like Jackie McNamara and Kieran Tierney. In a more traditional formation those guys definitely would have been in the mix.

Virgil van Dijk: It goes without saying. What a player. Fantastic for Celtic, no doubt about that, but he’s really gone on and shown what a class player he is at Southampton first and then Liverpool. In my opinion the guy conducted himself really well: it was obvious he was using us as a stepping stone, which is fine because he gave 100 per cent when he was there and we got a really good sell-on from him, the initial money and the sell-on clause. A lot of Celtic fans have got real pleasure in seeing the player he has gone on to become and feel we helped him on that journey.

Paul Elliott: Maybe not as well known to people. From the bad old days, sorry, the more difficult days. Didn’t stay as long as we would have liked, left to go to Pisa. Always remember an Old Firm game I was at, unfortunately we lost 2-1 and ‘Judas’ – Mo Johnston – scored the winner, but Elliott was outstanding that day. He got the ball right in the midriff and was spitting up blood but he was straight back onto the field, no chance of him coming off. At a time when we weren’t going well he was outstanding.

With those three guys at the back you really would have a wall, three outstanding defenders.

Lubo Moravcik: My only regret is that he didn’t come to Celtic earlier in his career and we didn’t get to see more of him. No words to describe him in some ways, gave everything for the cause, but his trickery, his ability on the ball, some of the goals he scored. The crowd lit up every time he got the ball. Absolutely outstanding. The only player who would have touched hime for skill in my time watching was Paolo di Canio – and he left under his cloud – and his right-wing politics would rule him out for me. That has no place in football. If you could disconnect his personality from his footballing ability he was a super player too. Lubo got who we were as a club and also performed outstandingly over his whole time with Celtic.

In ‘the midfield three’ some great players lost out – Callum McGregor, what a servant he has been over the nine in-a-row, John Collins, fantastic left foot, scored a great free kick to beat Rangers at Ibrox (I have a souvenir of a seat from that day I took back with me), Alan Thompson, scored some cracking goals, Stiliyan Petrov – all of those guys could have fitted in just as easily

Roy Aitken: The bear. Longevity of service to Celtic, outstanding player, a real driver, a real leader. Back into the early, mid-Eighties, he was superb, the centenary season. Talk to any of my generation, my age, they’d all say Roy Aitken was one of the outstanding Celtic players of that time.

Next is my favourite player of all time, I was in his fan club. Matt McGlone, who for many years fought the good fight on behalf of Celtic fans, ran his fan club, used to get a wee cassette and poster –

Paul McStay: At a time when football was moving more towards the commercial end, a guy who stayed in the Hoops, probably to the detriment of his own career. Showed amazing loyalty to Celtic, stayed in the really bad years when we had some bad teams. He was having to play alongside some lads who weren’t anywhere near his quality. What a player he was. The goal he scored to beat Rangers 2-1 in the centenary season, at Ibrox with his left foot stays in the memory. I remember watching that game on video in my brother’s flat in Belfast before we went to that semi-final against Hearts. Anton Rogan actually scored that day as well. As a kid I used to look up to Jimmy Barry-Murphy on the hurling field – but when the football came out I imagined I was Paul McStay.

A man who couldn’t be left out. I was never lucky enough to see ‘Cesar’, Billy McNeill, as a player – I obviously saw him as a manager – but Scott Brown has been a fabulous leader for Celtic. He has re-invented himself in many ways, when [Brendan] Rodgers came along and then Neil Lennon, he has proven that he’s a lot better footballer than many people give him credit for. Many people see Brown as a hate figure for Rangers and others, but he’s a good footballer too and when he’s not on the field of play Celtic really miss him, not just for his leadership qualities. Rarely gives the ball away, slows the game down, gets the tackles in. More than anything else, from a leadership perspective he has been outstanding.

On the left of midfield, [Shunsuke] Nakamura – what a left peg. Some of the goals he scored, against the likes of [Manchester] United, what a man to hit a free kick. A man with outstanding skills. You could argue for another man with a great left peg, Tommy Burns, what a Celtic man he was. But take out the emotion and look at left midfield, someone with a left peg that could sing (we never talk about right-footed players like this), you couldn’t leave out Nakamura in my estimation.

In some ways the easiest two to pick and in some ways the hardest, because we’ve had so many great forwards. Odsonne Eduoard, what a player he’s gonna become, and is; Chris Sutton; Pierre van Hooijdonk; [Frank] McAvennie in the centenary year; Brian McClair, although I didn’t get to see him in his prime; [Gary] Hooper; Jorge Cadete, what a player he was, didn’t have him for long enough.

No surprise that one of them of course is King Henrik [Larsson]. What a player, what a man. Not just the goals he scored but the way he conducted himself on an off the field. The way he stayed and showed such loyalty to Celtic. I know he wasn’t getting paid peanuts, far from it, but he stayed with us in his peak years. The two headers he got in the Uefa Cup Final against Porto. The chipped goal against Rangers. Some of his touches. The way he went on at [Manchester] United and indeed Barcelona to show how good he was. He showed up that commentary of ‘Ach, he couldn’t do it in a real league’; the guy went in his twilight years to two massive football clubs as well and showed the quality and brilliance he had. If there’s any player Celtic fans adore over the past 30 years it’s probably him, and McStay.

Beside him someone we only got two-and-a-half years out of, Moussa Dembele. The way he left wasn’t ideal, although the whole truth probably wasn’t being told then about what the kid had been told, and when he could go. Ultimately Celtic bought him for £500,000 and sold him for £20 million. In that context, he gave us some brilliant years and also a pretty hefty profit to invest, including to buy Edouard on a permanent basis. Showed his class in Europe time and time again – that game against Man City, I was there.

He had skill on the ball and strength; people didn’t realise how strong he was. One goal which sticks out for me was when we beat Rangers 3-2. Dembele scored to make it 2-2 just before half-time. Candeias?? Buried Scott Brown but he got the ball away over the top, it bounced, and then Dembele held off the defender before a wee toe over the ’keeper into the net. The control, the strength, and then the class to lift it into the net.

Ronan Sheehan’s top Celtic XI (3-5-2): Bonner; Mjallby, van Dijk, Elliott; Moravcik, Aitken, McStay, Brown, Nakamura; Larsson, Dembele.

Favourite game?

To be honest, my first match. I could talk about being there when we beat Stuttgart 3-1, or beating Liverpool [both in the 2002-3 Uefa Cup], the great run there, beating Rangers 5-0, the games where we’ve beaten them easily in recent years. Those Old Firm victories are always sweeter – we beat them 1-0 once when Sutton scored a great goal in injury time. Those are all games that stick in the mind. The day we stopped the 10, it was magical to be there, Larsson and Brattbakk with the goals against Kilmarnock, that is right up there.

But my first game, because of the magic of going over for the first time, getting to see the team you loved, the colour and the excitement of the old Hampden…the desperation, we were getting beaten with three minutes to go in the centenary year and then we got two goals to win 2-1. Getting caught up in the elation of that, people hugging you that you don’t even know. After that there was only ever going to be one team for me, that I was going to follow the whole way through my life and pass on to my kids.

What that game also showed, more than anything else, is the Celtic is a club like no other. There’s a bit of magic about Celtic – look back to last year and big Jozo [Simunovic] scoring in the 67th minute wearing the number five jersey the same week of Billy [McNeill passing away].

There are so many moments like that where you say ‘There’s a bit of fairy dust sprinkled over this club’. That day [in 1988] helped Celtic do the double, having been losing to Hearts, one slight step down from losing to Rangers. To win 2-1 against all odds, hard to beat the magic of that.

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Football/Soccer