Martin O’Neill’s Celtic in the Sunshine State

Celtic’s recent visit to Australia during the mid-season break brought on by the World Cup was a rare opportunity for Celtic fans down under to see Celtic, led by compatriot Ange Postecoglou, ply their trade in the Sydney Super Cup. It was the first time since 2011 that the Celts had visited Australia and a 2023 trip to Japan is in the pipeline with Celtic looking to build upon the immense success of the Japanese core of players in the first-team squad.

Such matches or tours provide a chance, whether it be mid-season or part of a pre-season, for locals and fans alike to get a glimpse of Celtic live. Games like this date as far back as 1904 with a first European tour seeing Celtic travel to Austria and Czechoslovakia. Nowadays, matches overseas are borne out of the same financial grounding as those in the early decades of the club. Aside from the appearance fees or gate receipts though, there is now a more pronounced element of building on a worldwide fanbase with its foundational roots in the diaspora from Scotland and Ireland as well as the modern aspect of commercial development such as merchandising which clubs across the world look to exploit.

Over two decades ago, in January 2001, Martin O’Neill’s side embarked upon such an opportunity with a mid-season trip to the US east-coast state of Florida for two matches against University of Florida and Tampa Bay Mutiny. The fixtures fell during an extended Winter break with a 6-0 home drubbing of Kilmarnock on 02 January 2001 giving the Celts a nine-point lead at the top of the lead going into the break which continued until the Scottish Cup campaign kicked off on 28 January with a trip to Stranraer.  

The Daily Record reported at the time that Celtic’s mid-season break came at a cost to the club of around £150,000. They also reported that the training base used, Disney’s Wide World of Sports, had discussed a commercial partnership in which they would pick up the tab for one or two excursions (presumably guaranteed) to the facility each year over a 10-year period. Such a deal never materialised, and the terms offered seem a world away from the sums reportedly banked during the recent two-match trip to Australia. 

Celtic’s first match on the trip, against University of South Florida Bulls, provided a comfortable  5-1 win and a run-out for 21 of O’Neill’s squad who had been in Orlando for two days prior to the first match. What was to follow though, two nights later, was a more showpiece occasion which would bring Celtic fans from across the USA to the Pepin-Rood Stadium to see both their own heroes as well as a footballing legend who would turn out for Tampa-Bay Mutiny. 

Rodney Page of the Tampa Bay Times spoke to Tampa Bay CSC President John McCarron who described the match as ‘the chance of a lifetime’ and had been fielding calls from across the US and Canada with fans confirming they would be flying in for the occasion. 

Martin O’Neill set up a strong side for the fixture against Mutiny – a franchise who would dissolve later that year. The whirlwind start to O’Neill’s reign as Celtic boss might have provided more leeway for the Celtic hierarchy to give the manager whatever he required with a mid-season break to the sunshine the pre-cursor to an unthinkable domestic treble achieved on 26 May at Hampden. 

That balmy evening on 19 January 2001 though would provide an insight into the standards required sought by O’Neill. Celtic’s starting XI should have been enough to see off a side who had amassed a paltry 14 points from a shortened 27-game MLS season as a result of disruption due to the September 11 attacks on the East Coast. 

Mutiny were however inspired into a lead by their legendary 39-year old Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama. Valderrama had a guiding hand in both of Mutiny’s goals, in the 14th and 30th minute, to give them a well-deserved 2-0 margin going into the half-time break. Valderrama was Colombia’s most-capped player at the time with 111 appearances (he is now third most-capped) and had captained his country at the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cup.

The unmistakable central-midfielder joined Mutiny in 1996 for the inaugural MLS campaign and his flair lit up the league even if his side never quite matched his own talent. Against O’Neill’s side however he showed the ability which he had propelled him to one of the most instantly recognisable faces in world football. His appearance on the night was unexpected with his contract situation unclear and VISA issues to resolve, he was not in the country when his own manager spoke to the press on the day prior to the fixture. Whilst Valderrama excelled in spite of this, O’Neill was thinking about his own side and the 45-minute performance they had given the 4,500 crowd with a reported 2,500 Celtic fans who had made the journey.

O’Neill gave a dressing-down to his players on the pitch at the end of the first half and told Hugh Keevins post-match that ‘I had to remind the players of their responsibilities to the supporters who had travelled a long way to watch them play.’

The second-half provided a more fitting performance with goals from Tommy Johnson and Alan Thompson shortly after the break bringing the Celts level with neither side able to secure a win. Valderrama’s half-time departure, likely due to his late arrival in the US, would blunt the MLS sides attacking threat. 

Celtic supporters from as far as New York and Los Angeles were spotted in the stadium, not held in Mutiny’s normal Raymond James stadium which was hosting the Super Bowl just nine days later. Alongside those travelling from other parts of North America, more local clubs were represented and even on the pitch itself. 

Mutiny’s first choice goalkeeper Scott Garlick confirmed ahead of the match that he was a member of the local Celtic Supporters Club, convening at Flanagan’s Pub in Dunedin, along with midfielder Dominic Kinnear who was himself born in Glasgow. Garlick had spent time with Waterford United in the mid-1990’s before making the move to the MLS where he would spend the rest of his career. 

Garlick explained the Celtic connection ahead of the match; ‘My hero was Packie Bonner. For me, he was the best, a guy you could really look up to. I’ve followed Celtic since I was a kid so it’s a big thrill to be playing against them especially as they are top of the league and flying.’

Kinnear, born in Robroyston before moving to California at a young age, would however miss the match due to injury and would retire in the subsequent weeks. The boyhood Celtic fan rued his luck but intended to obtain a souvenir on the night; ‘My number one ambition in life was to play for Celtic but I always thought that if I couldn’t do that then the next best thing would be to play against them. My aim is to get Henrik Larsson’s jersey and treasure it as my souvenir of what will be an unforgettable occasion for me.’

The connections home and abroad which were brought together on that night are replicated with every trip Celtic make abroad, however near or far. The commercial opportunities which the club and its hierarchy are duty-bound to explore are welcomed but they are forgettable unlike those memories of seeing Celtic in the flesh as opposed to simply on a Celtic TV stream at an inevitably inconvenient time of the day or night.

Those are the opportunities which linger long in the memory for those lucky enough to play their part, whether on the pitch or in the stands. Perhaps similar memories will have been forged at Fenway Park in 2010, Sydney Football Stadium in November or in the coming months in Japan for Celtic fans or for those whose connection with Celtic has yet to begin.

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