Happy Birthday Dad, with usual greetings from Naka!

21 Nov

Naka and his magical left leg

I wrote this three years ago to mark my father’s 80th birthday and it was posted on the sadly departed celticjournal.org.  As it’s ten years since my father and I went to Celtic Park to see Celtic beat United 1-0 thanks to that magical free kick from Shunsuke Nakamura, I hope those of you who didn’t read this before enjoy my memory of that special night in Paradise on 21st November 2006.  Ten years eh……..where did they go to at all?


Happy 80th Dad, with greetings from Naka!


My Dad is 80 today (21st November) and given his age,  he’s doing pretty well apart from the unavoidable aches, pains and plethora of tablets he endures on a daily basis.  He loves his football.  He played for Ireland schoolboys in 1950 against the legendary Johnny Haynes (England won 2-1 in Dublin).  He passed on his love for football (and music for that matter) to my two brothers, sister and myself, but I believe it’s on me that it had the most impression.  It was my Dad who, when my mother came home with three random football shirts from the UK and I chose this striking green and white hooped shirt, explained to me how Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967 (I wasn’t even a year old when the Lisbon Lions triumphed).   It was my Dad who showed me Jinky tormenting full backs on those precious black and white snippets of television action before live football consumed (and possibly ruined) us all.   So while my Ma thankfully let me have the Celtic shirt, it was my Dad who told me about Celtic, its Irish connection, its great players and brand of football and the rest is the most wonderful, turbulent and magical history following the Bhoys.


I turned 40 in September 2006 and was given a generous injection of cash to mark it. I spotted an ad for one day trips to Celtic’s three Champions League Group games that season, which would be against Copenhagen, Benfica and Manchester United.  It was a no-brainer where to spend my birthday cash and I asked my Dad did he fancy joining me, only half expecting he’d bite.  “When are we going?” he snapped enthusiastically.


As we will recall, Gordon Strachan’s 2006 vintage maintained Celtic’s wonderful home record in Europe. A Kenny Miller penalty accounted for plucky and defensive Copenhagen which was followed by a thumping, deafening 3-0 victory over Benfica, with Miller scoring twice and Stephen Pearson adding the third late on.  The final home game however would be against Sir Alex’s Man United.   The climax to the group was approaching and Celtic needed a win to finally make the Champions League knockout phase, a phase that remained out of reach during the wonderful Martin O’Neill era.  It was 21st November 2006, my Dad’s 73rd birthday and what a birthday it turned out to be.


The tension was palpable and United had a sizeable travelling support as their heroes warmed up in front of us, seated a few rows from the front of the Lisbon Lions Stand. We could almost shake hands with the United players, but I was never going to do that given what was at stake.


The starting XIs were as follows: Celtic:  Boruc; Telfer, Balde, McManus, Naylor; Sno, Lennon, Gravesen, Nakamura; Zurawski, Venegoor of Hesselink.


United: Van Der Saar, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Heinze;  Ronaldo, Scholes, Carrick, Giggs,; Rooney, Saha.


Celtic, filled with experience and physicality and the 12th man crowd, United with seasoned internationals and arguably two of the best players in the world in Ronaldo and Rooney.  The stage was set for a battle royal and that is what we witnessed.


The first half was a fairly cagey affair, United had the greater possession but Boruc was relatively untested and Balde was coping well with the threat of Saha, while Telfer and Naylor were disciplined in taking care of Ronaldo and Rooney (the latter was deployed on the left). Rooney had gone close with a snapshot and Balde’s underhit backpass looked to have let Ronaldo in, but Bobo recoved the ground with those famous giant strides and he did enough to put off Ronaldo whose shot lacked the power to beat The Holy Goalie.  Celtic’s solitary threat on the United goal was a Gravesen header that flashed across the goalmouth, there hadn’t been a lot in Celtic attacking-wise.


Strachan was clearly dismayed at Celtic’s lack of first half threat and made two half time substitutions.   Jiri Jarosik replaced Sno, while Shaun Maloney was introduced for an out of sorts Zurawski.   The changes made an impact and both would play a part in the two major incidents of the second half.


United continued to look more menacing despite Maloney’s ability to keep possession meaning Celtic looked better than in the first half. Ronaldo made some very dangerous runs which always had the Celtic faithful on edge and one such run and shot had Boruc scrambling across his goal but away wide it went.


Saha had a glorious chance to score when Rooney dinked a lovely ball over the back four. Saha was clear with only grass and Boruc ahead of him, but Saha thought he was offside and hesitated fatally which enabled Celtic’s defence to scramble the ball to safety.  In the 79th minute, I remember vividly what happened and will for the rest of my life.


Jarosik made a nuisance of himself 35 yards from goal and as he fought for possession with Vidic, the referee deemed Vidic had fouled Jarosik and awarded Celtic a fairly soft free kick.  After the approving cheer from the Celtic Park faithful, an expectant hush fell over the stadium as we knew who’d take the kick.  “Come on Naka”, I said as I clenched my fists and turned to my Dad, “a bit of magic son, you can do it!”.


Nakamura moved forward with utter concentration and conviction and caught the ball on the sweet spot. The ball cleared United’s wall and in that couple of seconds it took from the moment it left Naka’s left peg, the trajectory of the ball swerved and dipped incredibly.  Van Der Saar in goal saw it all the way and leapt spectacularly to his left but it was utterly futile.  The ball swerved ever away from the United keeper and only the net stopped it from continuing to bend towards the corner flag.   The ensuing collective roar when we saw Naka’s delivery hit the net was deafening and in unison.  Yeeeeeeeeeeeessssssssssssss!!!  Naka wheeled away to The Jungle side of the ground as team-mates enveloped the Japanese magician.  I hugged my Dad (being careful not to wrestle this 73 year old man to the floor), while he tried to film the fans and my ecstatic celebration (he captured it well, it’s a DVD I’ll cherish) with the other Celtic fans around me in the Lisbon Lions Stand.  What a goal, what a f*cking goal!!!  Celtic 1, United 0.


The next few minutes were a blur as we finally ran out of breath celebrating and prayed the next ten minutes would pass by without incident. Those prayers weren’t answered as God was probably still too busy celebrating or watching Naka’s goal over and over on replay.  With the clock inching towards the 90 minutes, Paul Scholes went down outside the box under a Lennon challenge.  It looked like a dive to me but the ref bought it and gave United the free.   Heart in mouth time.


Ronaldo took the free and Shaun Maloney rose in the wall and deflected the ball for a corner. We cheered with relief but then we swore in horror as we noticed the referee pointing to the penalty spot for a handball against Maloney.  Expletives filled the air at the injustice of it all, though TV pictures would show Shaun had raised his arm in the wall, it was a correct decision.  Penalty given.


Saha placed the ball on the spot, Big Boruc in front of him.   Was Saha’s earlier miss still on his mind?  Would Boruc look even bigger in the goal than he already is?  Would the Celtic fans’ barracking get into Saha’s head?  The answer to those three questions was soon answered.  Saha struck the kick without much conviction to Boruc’s right and The Holy Goalie moved the same side and saved the kick.  Another deafening roar acclaimed the save and the retreating defence cleared the rebound away before United’s players could pounce.  Boruc punched the air, Saha stood dejected 12 yards out, hands on his knees, his head gone.  The roof remained off Celtic Park for the remaining injury time minutes as Celtic players’ adrenalin and final defiance kicked in and the penalty save seemed to empty the last of what United had in the tank.   The final whistle blew, Celtic 1, United 0, what a victory.  Qualification for the knockout phase for the first time, what an achievement.  Nakamura’s goal, what a player.  Boruc’s save, what a keeper.  60,000 singing Celtic fans, what an experience!  My Dad kept filming following the final whistle, the fans kept singing, I’d died and gone to Heaven, this was magic, utterly magic.  I’ve witnessed Ray Houghton’s goal to beat England at Euro 88, his goal to beat Italy at USA 94, witnessing Naka’s sensational free-kick matched those experiences and the Celtic support pushed that experience into a different league altogether.  The fact that my Dad was with me and on his 73rd birthday only re-inforced that feeling.


So Happy 80th birthday Myles, that night in Celtic Park seven years ago we’ll cherish forever and Naka will always be to the front of my mind for Dad’s subsequent birthdays, of which I hope there will be many more yet.


Phelim Warren



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