It was the day that Scottish football will never forget, and the day that Alex McLeish realised that anything is possible in football. It was May 22, 2005 – it was Helicopter Sunday. McLeish still gets that tingling sensation as he recalls Scotland’s most incredible final-day drama when Celtic let the silverware slip from their grasp and handed it to fierce rivals Rangers. In stark contrast, Chris Sutton still bristles in discomfort as he is reminded of the most painful day in his long and illustrious career.
The destination of the title in Scotland has gone to the wire five times in recent history, with Rangers also prevailing in 2003, 2009 and in 2011. Celtic were last-day winners in 2008. But on each of these occasions the title was won rather than disastrously lost in the way it was in 2005 when Martin O’Neill’s side failed to seal the deal. Many had felt that the championship race was over on April 24 that year, when Celtic pulled five points clear of Rangers by beating them 2-1 at Ibrox with four matches remaining.
However, a 3-1 defeat by Hibs in their next game allowed Rangers to cut the gap to two points – and that was the state of play going into the final day, with the caveat that Rangers had the better goal difference.
Celtic’s mission was clear. If they defeated Motherwell at Fir Park, or matched Rangers’ result at Hibs, they would be champions. They were overwhelming favourites to do so, not least when Sutton gave them the lead on 29 minutes. As Gers hearts sank some 38 miles away, there was an expectation that Celtic would complete the job. McLeish had some work to do at half-time in the Easter Road dressing room.
“I remember it well,” McLeish tells FFT. “I said to the squad: ‘the one thing you cannot do is not win this game. If for some reason Celtic drop points, and you don’t do your jobs and win the game, you will regret it for the rest of your lives. You will wake up in the middle of the night with cold sweats.’
“Hibs had their own agenda because they were trying to get into Europe – so both teams were desperate to win. We huffed and puffed and pushed Hibs a bit, but came in at half-time knowing that Celtic had scored.
“The players came in with hunched shoulders when they heard the Celtic score and I knew I had to pick the guys up again. I had a word in Barry Ferguson’s ear and said: ‘you can’t be sitting there with your face tripping you. You’ve got to be rallying these guys.’
“Then we had big Marvin Andrews telling everyone in the dressing room ‘keep believing’ and gradually the atmosphere changed a bit. I got everyone together and said: ‘here’s the scenario. If we score a goal and Motherwell score a goal you’re champions.’
“I wanted to make sure that they did their job and then we would wait to see what happened at Fir Park – and if wasn’t to be, then we could say it was a great effort. I said to them that if they did that and just missed out then they’d still deserve to be hailed as a great team. It would be no disgrace to lose to a good Celtic team. But I again stressed that they had to make sure they won the game and then hope that Motherwell scored a goal. We got our goal when Thomas Buffel played in Nacho Novo and he put the ball away…”
Now Rangers needed something to happen at Fir Park – but the sub-plot was that a narrow defeat suited Hibs as it would allow them to qualify for Europe ahead of Aberdeen on goal difference.
Understandably, the Hibs players retreated into their own half and allowed the Rangers defenders to knock the ball across the back four. Both sides had settled for the result.
“It was surreal,” recalled Dean Shiels, who played for Hibs that day and is now in his third season with Rangers. “We were getting beaten 1-0 and that suited us because we were in Europe if we avoided losing three or four. Obviously 1-0 suited Rangers and I have never played in a match like it in my life.
“I remember chatting to Ferguson and Michael Ball during the game. We had time to talk on the pitch because there was no action happening. We were just sitting off the game and the Rangers back four were just passing the ball across the pitch. We were in no rush to chase the ball, we were happy to lose 1-0.”
The scenario was reminiscent of West Germany’s 1-0 win over Austria at the 1982 World Cup – the ‘non-aggression pact’ in which both sides settled for a result that put them both through at the expense of tournament darlings Algeria.
As McLeish confirms: “Our boys were keeping the ball at the back and Hibs were happy to let them do it. Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Marvin Andrews just passed the ball between them.
“There was one moment when Marvin threatened to go forward and I shouted ‘Don’t you dare!’
“I had visions of one of our guys slipping and a Hibs player running in to score, but they stayed back in their own half. We had old heads like Alex Rae and Barry Ferguson who were able to play a clever game and see it out for us. Then came the most spine-tingling moment in my career.”
Growing up in Australia, Scott McDonald was a boyhood Celtic supporter – but with two minutes remaining he killed the Hoops’ dreams of the title when hooked a fantastic volley into the top-right corner for Motherwell. The title was over, but McDonald made doubly sure with a second goal just 60 seconds later. There was no consoling the shattered Celtic players and management because they knew they only had themselves to blame.
“We were purely focused on what we had to do, and that was win the game. Quite simply, we blew it,” reflects Sutton. “To get so close, there is no worse feeling. It still rankles to this day. There are moments in your career that you can’t forget and that was one of them. I don’t think I will ever get over that day.
“The current Celtic team will be feeling the same way about the Scottish Cup semi-final when a massive refereeing decision went against them and denied them the chance of winning the Treble. They will be unable to forget that day either. I had put the team ahead but it was like any game, you need a second goal. We had chances, in fairness, but I have to give begrudging credit to Motherwell.
“The dressing room afterwards was an eerie place. There are no words to describe it really and nobody could have said anything that would have made the situation better. We won the cup the following week, which was some solace, but the league was the one we wanted.”
“Quick, turn around!”
While disbelieving Celtic supporters trudged out of Fir Park, the Rangers fans celebrated like crazy at Easter Road, with current interim boss Stuart McCall among them.
McLeish added: “Winning the championship in 2003 was, of course, probably the ultimate because I was in charge of a brilliant team and we beat a very strong Celtic team. But the feeling I got at Easter Road that day was like nothing I had ever experienced before or since – although I would love to experience it again.
“Maybe Birmingham’s League Cup win over Arsenal came close but it was just that moment when this almighty roar boomed around the stadium and it has never been replicated since. I thought ‘what’s happening here?’ and everyone on the bench told me Motherwell had scored through Scott McDonald.
“Then there was another roar and I thought it was the final whistle at Fir Park but it turned out Motherwell had scored again. It was then that the helicopter (with the trophy) started to change direction.
“Because it was so unexpected, the party we had back at Ibrox was so special. It was all impromptu and I think many of us were sitting there wondering what had just happened. It was amazing.
“I know how bad it is to lose because I have experienced the lows of football. So in the fullness of time I understood the devastation of the Celtic side that day and what they were going through.”