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INTERVIEW: The day Mark McNally’s father turned double agent to avoid ban on Celtic fans

© SNS GroupJohn Collins scored against Rangers with no Celtic fans there to witness it
John Collins scored against Rangers with no Celtic fans there to witness it

When John Collins’ Predator boot swerved the ball high into the Rangers net at Ibrox on April 30, 1994, Mark McNally believed he had just witnessed history being made.

A goal that was unique because no other Celtic player would ever again score in an Old Firm derby at which they had no supporters.

Ranger’s chairman, David Murray, exasperated by the Hoops’ unwillingness to pay for seats damaged on their previous visit had denied them their standard 7,500 allocation.

When, just over a quarter-of-a-century on, the current side run out at Celtic Park on Saturday to face their rivals behind closed doors, the Hoops Academy coach hopes to see his expectation proved wrong.

“I guess football is always throwing up new experiences, but that ’94 derby was one that has really stuck in my memory,” said McNally, looking back on the 1-1 draw.

“In recent years the clubs have been cutting back on the visitors’ allocations but that was on a completely different scale.

“As players we didn’t bother with the back and forth about why it was happening. We were more concerned with what it was going to mean for us on the day.

“In this case we were going to have to go to play in front of 46,000 fans at Ibrox – all of whom would be against us!

“Listen, we were used to that being the case with three of the stands. But having that fourth one full of our own supporters (as we did then) made a huge difference.

“That was what all the build-up to the game focused on too, so it kind of reinforced what you were going into.

“Celtic never play games with no fans there to support them. It just doesn’t happen. Well, before Covid came along it didn’t.

“The closest you might get was a European tie that was really hard to get to, somewhere in the old Eastern bloc.

“Even then you would still expect to see a couple of hundred of our fans dotted around the ground.”

The Hoops shirts might not have been visible but, as McNally recalls, there were some “undercover agents” active on the day.

“Glasgow being the football-mad city that it is, some were always going to find a way to be there,” he went on.

“It would no doubt have been the same had we banned their fans.

“I think the one everybody probably remembers best is the plane that went over the stadium trailing a ‘Hail Hail. The Celts are here’ banner.

“We were on the pitch warming up and the sight of it certainly gave the lads a smile.

“I actually had my own personal fan in the ground – my dad Peter was there.

“One of his best pals, Billy, was a Rangers season-ticket holder who sorted him out so he could come and see me play.

“It was a really kind thing to do. But as you can imagine I was really scared about what might happen to him.

“You are not talking about a situation where, as usual, there might be thousands of you together.

“If you were going, you were going to be surrounded by Rangers fans who were not going to be delighted that some Celtic fans had snuck in.

“So you had this weird situation where I am preparing for a derby, a huge, huge, game and occasion, worrying if my dad is going to be OK.

“I spoke to him and said: ‘Look, whatever happens in the game you are just going to have to be silent. If you cheer a goal, you could end up in real bother’.”

© SNS Group
Mark McNally

Collins’ stunning free-kick was to test the resolve of McNally senior and the rest of the estimated 150 “away” fans who were at the game.

“It was a beauty. John got the new Predator boots from Adidas a couple of days before the game.

“They were a big thing at the time as they were supposed to help players put extra swerve on the ball.

“John was very pleased with them and he was telling us all that he would score in the derby with them – which, of course, he did.

“It was strange because the ground went almost completely silent which actually made the few celebrations you could hear all the louder.

“I think a good few – from both sides – got huckled by the police at that point.

“As for us, we had no end to run to so we just all piled on top of John.”

At that point, it looked as if the fan-ban experiment was going to end in an embarrassing defeat for Murray and his team.

Rangers, then well on course to completing 9-in-a-row, were not finished yet.

“They had a great team back then. You are talking about the likes of Richard Gough, Trevor Steven, Ally McCoist and Mark Hateley,” said McNally.

“Those were just the starters. That day Walter Smith was able to bring Duncan Ferguson and Alexei Mikhailichenko off the substitutes’ bench.

“Mikhailichenko actually got their equaliser – with a wee bit of help from myself!

“He cut in to shoot, I part-blocked it but the deflection made the ball spin up and over our keeper, Pat Bonner.

“It was a shame because it would have been brilliant if we could have hung on for the victory.

“We were a young side. I was in my early 20s and the likes of Simon Donnelly, Brian McLaughlin and Barry Smith would still have been in their late teens.

“For all that, we played really well.

“We had a lot of skill in the side. There was John’s goal and I remember Simon Donnelly having a great game and, with Peter Grant, Tony Mowbray and Pat McGinlay, they were all great competitors.

“In the circumstances, the draw felt like a good result. I guess it still does now.”

© SNS Group
Mark trying to keep a close eye on Mark Hateley at Ibrox in 1994

What it definitely was, McNally acknowledges, was an experience to remember.

“As I said, looking back it was definitely different from any of the run-of-the-mill games, so I guess it was a good one to have been involved in.

“My dad is in his 70s now and can still have a laugh about the time he was smuggled into Ibrox.

“John’s goal featured in the Predator adverts for ages after and it doesn’t look any the worse when you re-watch it today.”

McNally’s hope for Saturday’s Celtic Park renewal is that it too will provide highlights clips that can be savoured for decades to come.

“The closed-door aspect to this game makes it exceptional in terms of the fixture,” he said.

“However, when you put it into context of where we are right now with Covid, in football and in life, this is just how it has to be.

“Everyone would prefer the fans to be there, that is a given but it is just not possible.

“As it is, we are still getting games on and providing entertainment for supporters which is great.

“You’d like to think that we will soon be able to look back at this an exception.

“Depending on where their allegiances lie, fans will have very different opinions how they will want it to turn out. But I think that is something we can all agree upon.”