Helicopter Sunday: Rangers’ last-gasp triumph, 15 years on
As a former Australia international who was long based in Europe, Scott McDonald is a seasoned air traveller. Just don’t ask him about helicopters.
The striker scored Champions League goals against AC Milan and Manchester United and netted the winner in an Old Firm derby, yet he remains best known for the last-gasp double 15 years ago that changed a chopper’s flight path.
With Celtic holding a two-point lead over Rangers going into the final day of the season and leading 1-0 at Motherwell, the helicopter carrying the Premier League trophy set off for Fir Park.
But, with McDonald firing in his first on 88 minutes and adding a second soon after, the pilot had to do an abrupt U-turn and head for Edinburgh where Nacho Novo’s goal had given Rangers a 1-0 win at Hibernian.
Here, BBC Scotland spoke to those involved to share their memories of an amazing climax to season 2004-05.
‘I remember sitting in tears’ – the game changer
McDonald grew up a Celtic fan in Australia. However, those final minutes left him unpopular with some of his family…
“I’ll never forget that day. I was in shock after the game. I thought I was going to get lynched. I remember sitting there in tears.
“All I can remember is Phil O’Donnell coming up to me, ripping the towel off my head and saying ‘stuff them, it’s about us, it’s about you doing well for you’. Coming from a guy like that, who had played for Celtic, that was huge.
“It’s kind of crazy. My grandfather was in the Celtic supporters’ club in Melbourne in the early hours of the morning. It’s safe to say he had to get bodyguards to get out of there in the end. And my father-in-law didn’t look at me for about a week.”
Slumped shoulders at half-time – the winning manager
Alex McLeish would celebrate his second – and Rangers’ 51st – league title that day.
“With Celtic leading and us at 0-0, there were a few slumped shoulders at half-time. I spoke to [captain] Barry Ferguson and said we need to keep them motivated.
“If there are two goals – one for us and one for Motherwell – the whole outcome changes. We said keep going, keep attacking, we need a goal. And then Thomas Buffel set one up for wee Nacho. Then, when I heard the second roar, I assumed the Celtic game had finished. I didn’t realise Scott McDonald had scored another.
“The only fear I had was Soto Kyrgiakos and Marvin Andrews keeping the ball between them at the back. We’re not talking Barcelona defenders here, they were two big warriors. But they didn’t make any slip-ups, they were clever and careful enough to see the game out.
“Winning my first title with Rangers was the best feeling ever but, for the second, I don’t think I’ll ever experience another reaction like that from the fans. That spine-tingling enjoyment.”
‘I ran the other way, I wasn’t celebrating’ – the team-mate
Richie Foran was in the Motherwell midfield that day and ‘set up’ the equaliser.
“There was no real pressure but [manager] Terry Butcher certainly had us up for the game. He’s a big Rangers man and the team-talk was unbelievable. He really wanted to win it.
“Celtic had a lot of opportunities but big Gordon Marshall had a wonderful game. Some of the Celtic players started to argue among themselves and argue with the referee as they started to feel the pressure.
“I had a shot and shanked it but it fell to Scott and he absolutely pinged it into the top corner. When I saw that, I ran off the other way. I thought ‘there’s no way I’m celebrating, I’ll be lynched when I go back to Ireland!’
“I remember a young Celtic fan crying his eyes out afterwards. He called over in an Irish accent, ‘Richie, what have you done?’ That stuck with me. There was such a sadness among the Celtic support. Skippy [McDonald] was also pretty devastated in the dressing room. He was asking for security guards to walk him to his car.”
Silent & stunned Celtic dressing room – the losers
Craig Beattie came off the bench on 75 minutes, replacing John Hartson in the Celtic attack.
“We had it in our own hands. We took the lead and it seemed pretty comfortable. Then, all of a sudden… wow, it all just turned on its head. It’s a 10-and-a-half month build-up from the first day of pre-season and to lose it in the last five minutes of the season was heart-breaking.
“Some of the players we had were world class, [Craig] Bellamy, [John] Hartson, [John] Sutton, those guys were phenomenal. [Stiliyan] Petrov and [Alan] Thompson in midfield, it was a team full of quality.
“There was absolutely nothing said in the changing room. Martin sat on the floor for 20-25 minutes and didn’t say a word; everyone was just looking at the floor. It was very rare for the manager to be stuck for words.”
‘An extraordinary situation’ – the referee
Kenny Clark was the man in the middle at Easter Road.
“In terms of the sheer drama and the change of mood, I don’t think anything compares. The added complication on the day was that Hibs could qualify for the Uefa Cup as long as they didn’t lose by too many goals.
“Maybe 20 minutes into the second half, the game changed. It was like boxers backing off from one another. Hibs retreated into their own half and Rangers were just being allowed to keep the ball. It was an extraordinary situation.
“Just before the Rangers fans erupted at the news of the goal, Barry Ferguson had asked how long to go. I said, ‘four minutes’ and he said, ‘just blow, this is boring’. A minute later, the whole mood changed completely and all of a sudden there was an urgency about Rangers, who thought ‘let’s not do anything stupid here’.”
Rae of joy for Rangers – the victors
Alex Rae capped his first season with Rangers with a league winner’s medal.
“I sent the missus to New York on the Thursday because I thought ‘if we lose this title, I’m going to be an absolute nightmare’.
“I remember Barry Ferguson jumping on my back and saying ‘we’ve won this’. There were players dancing around like I was actually overwhelmed. It was something that I’d never envisaged.
“A year before, I was at Wolves and I was doing an interview with Tony Gubba for the BBC and he asked me ‘what’s your passion?’. I said it was Rangers and he said he was seeing Alex McLeish the next day. I said ‘tell him I’m available’ and from that interview I got one of the happiest days in football.
“When you speak to fans, they always remember Helicopter Sunday. It will go down in folklore.”