The season of 1997/98 was something of a watershed in Celtic's recent turbulent history. The club had been put under heavy manners since Graeme Souness rode into town in the mid 1980's and, barring the centenary year double triumph in 1988, Celtic had been unable to wrench the title from Rangers' vice-like grip.
With their greatest rivals now one success away from a record breaking ten title wins in a row, there was more than just the familiar slog of a season's Old Firm rivalry to contend with. Celtic's proud club record, nine in a row, was now under threat.
Marc Guidi's book 'The Inner Sanctum' addresses the drama which unfolded that season as Celtic tried to prevent this potentially devastating psychological blow. Most of the Celtic squad and management team from that year are interviewed and the consensus of opinion amongst them points to the difficulty of their task that year.
Manager Wim Jansen had only been appointed days before the season started with the majority of fans unhappy at such an unglamorous appointment. Jock Brown was a bizarre choice as technical director and Rangers had already stolen a march on Celtic with their lavish transfer dealings. To make matters worse Celtic lost their opening two games. As a verbose Craig Burley opined, 'We had eight new players, a Dutch manager and a commentator as general manager. And we had 50,000 unhappy fans. Stop Rangers winning the league? Yeah, no problem!''
One of the main obstacles to achieving this appears to have been the bitter internal wrangling amongst the new managerial team in place at Parkhead. Transfer funds were a major source of conflict between Jansen and Brown and the Dutchman is frank when discussing his relationship with Brown. Jansen is also fiercely critical of Brown's decision to sack Davie Hay, who had brought the likes of Paolo Di Canio and Pierre Van Hooijdonk to Parkhead in recent years.
Brown himself is notable by his absence from the book; although he will find little in the way of support should he choose to flick through its pages. Time and again he is lambasted for interfering in team matters, ignoring the manager's wishes and for the sort of parsimony which would have found favour with the beady-eyed Fergus McCann watching over the accounts. The transfer of Paul Lambert was almost scuppered due to Brown and McCann's thriftiness and the player himself, a Champions League winner that summer at Borrussia Dortmund, makes it clear he felt unwanted to begin with as a result of this protracted transfer.
These fault lines which ultimately split the club at least did not appear to have reached the playing squad. Despite a brutal early season training ground bust-up (Tosh McKinlay welcoming Henrik Larsson to Scotland with that most Glasgow of embraces) which threatened to turn in to a free for all, the players appear to have held a genuine affection for each other. It was a bond cemented with alcohol. Lots of it. Celtic would appear to have been in the running for any drinking medals handed out that season too, with the gap-toothed Craig Burley happy to lead the way in this merry-making. The wisdom of going on a gargantuan piss-up three days before the League decider is questionable but these sessions appear to have forged a collective spirit and allowed the foreign members of the squad to settle comfortably.
However, their presence seemed to unnerve some home-grown members of the squad and the seemingly laidback Jansen is accused by some of fostering divisive training methods and deliberately cold-shouldering squad members who were not a part of his team selection. There are accusations of favouritism slung at Jansen, but most of his squad are fulsome in their praise for his tactics and the effect he had on the club in his time there, especially Paul Lambert who clearly had one eye on the future. Lambert describes lengthy spells planning with Jansen and learning from his knowledgeable manager
Guidi devotes one chapter to Phil O'Donnell, the Motherwell player who tragically died just after Christmas and who played his part in Celtic's 97/98 campaign. O'Donnell's widow gives a touching testimony to his memory, with the Celtic players each providing a sombre elegy to their former team-mate. O'Donnell's popularity in the Parkhead dressing room is clear and the likes of Henrik Larsson give credit to his infectious enthusiasm for the club which impressed upon the new foreign players the significance of what they were attempting to achieve that season.
Guidi's unobtrusive style allows those involved to tell the story whilst he keeps events progressing neatly with a game by game overview of the season. The accounts from those involved in that seasons events are colourful and entertaining. Ten years on, all those involved in Guidi's books are scattered around the globe (Harald Brattbaak now trains as a pilot in the USA which, given his often wayward approach in front of goal, would not inspire too many Celtic fans with confidence) but life in the intense maelstrom of Glaswegian football seems to have sat well with the foreign and English players, with good words abounding for their adopted hometown.
Some anecdotes will cause a few eyebrows to be raised (not least Regi Blinker, at times the recipient of boos from his own fans, comparing wage slips with pal Henrik Larsson and both realising they were being paid exactly the same) and all those interviewed do so frankly with no concern as to who they may be offending. Pride in stopping Rangers' bid for ten-in-a-row is the overall emotion from the players, although the departure of Jansen almost immediately after the title was secured has sullied the memories of their triumph.