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Although it was nearly 10 years ago, Paul Lambert still hasn’t forgotten Martin O’Neill’s first day as Celtic boss back in June 2000. Speaking during series one of The Football Years Lambert tells of how the Northern Irishman immediately set about transforming a Celtic team that had reached an all-time low under John Barnes, beginning with a full and frank appraisal of the players’ failings – delivered by the players themselves.
Defeat to Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Cup and a second placed finish in the SPL, 21 points behind Rangers, had made 1999/2000 a nightmare year for the Parkhead faithful. Yet O’Neill knew instantly his plans on how to transform their fortunes.
“He asked for the lads opinions and a lot of us said we just weren’t good enough that particular season, and his words were ‘I’ll tell you what I am going to do, I’m going to keep the better ones here and the ones who don’t want to be here can go and I’ll bring in better ones to help you.’,” recalls Lambert.
“Low and behold he was good to his word, Lennon, Sutton and Thompson came in. Three massive players came into the football club and helped the ones who were already there. So he got the players vibrant and got the crowd on his side.
“We needed somebody like him with that personality and hunger and drive to drag us through. We had some really good players at the club at that time but we needed help. The focal point was the gaffer and he came in, I’ll never forget his first day when he asked us what went wrong that season."
O’Neill’s impact was immediate, winning the first two SPL titles available to him, as well as the Scottish Cup and League Cup in 2001. But, after the appointment of Alex McLeish in late 2001 at Rangers, the Scotsman’s first full season in charge at Ibrox offered the first real threat to O’Neill’s team.
Their worst fears were realised in 2003 when – on the cusp of a league and Uefa Cup double – they were pipped at the post for both. The end of the 2002/03 season saw both clubs level on points and goal difference going into the final day, with Rangers ending the day having scored just one goal more to take the league crown.
They rallied a season later, claiming back the league title and sealing a double with a Scottish Cup win. Celtic’s response to missing out the year before though was of no surprise to the Champions League winning midfielder Lambert, who credits O’Neill for their desire to set the record straight.
“If you look at the titles we lost, we lost it by a goal and we played in a European final,” said Lambert. “So we had a lot of games as Rangers found out when they did terrific in the Uefa Cup under Walter. So did I think Rangers were going to come back at us? No, not under O’Neill’s leadership because I knew the desire we all had.
“The group of lads I played with had a great desire and a hunger to try and win it year in year out. I think if you ask any Celtic fan that given period of time in Celtic’s history, the five years under the gaffer was one of Celtic’s strongest periods outwith the ‘67 team.
“If you look at it to get to a European final that group of lads there were extraordinary footballers. We had great desire to do well, so there was never under any pressure. Yeah, the pressure’s always there I think when you know you’re going head to head with your fiercest rivals. I don’t think as a group of lads we felt under pressure by them.”
O’Neill is now employed by English Premier League club Aston Villa, who he joined after a year’s break following his Celtic departure to take his care of his sick wife. Lambert believes his former boss hasn’t changed and is still a miracle worker, having lifted Villa to sixth place in the table and regular top 10 finishes.
“Just what you see today from him was exact same as what he was at Celtic. He turned the club around there is no doubt. I was there when we won the title in 1998 then they had a few barren years and it was never easy.
“He’s worked wonders at every club he’s been at. You come to a club as big as Celtic where you have to win every single game, every single week. It doesn’t matter where it is, people expect you to win. You look at some of the results we got were incredible.
“We’re the second team out with the ‘67 team to get to a European final so the lads should take great credit. Martin O’Neill, as I said before, I think Celtic the way it is at the minute is due to his appointment”