“People talk about an iconic moment and if I really do analyse it, I think it probably was.”

For a man who offered the opinion that it wasn’t enough to rely on history but rather that you had to make it, it is difficult to quantify just how big 90 minutes on the 27th August 2000 were for Martin O’Neill and the era he ushered in at Celtic. There is no hyperbole in stating it set the foundations for what followed, not just that season when a Treble was housed in Celtic Park for the first time in 32 years, but for the next two decades. The 6-2 win over Rangers shattered the dominance the Ibrox side had basked in for the previous ten years while injecting a concoction of confidence and belief into a fledgling new chapter, an alchemy that steeled Celtic for the post-millennium period.

Rangers were shellshocked within a 12-minute opening spell in which goals flew in with abandon. Not even a retaliatory punch three months later at Ibrox could even the scores psychologically. The league swung by 36 points as Celtic marched over the line in April, yet so much of that season can be traced back to that afternoon.

“It was a big moment for us,” recalled O’Neill. “Had we been beaten in that game it might have been a long way back for us. At the time it was a great, great victory and you could bask in it for a day or two but as I look back on the season that unfolded in front of us, it was probably because of that victory.

“It is easy in hindsight to throw a few adjectives in there but I realise how important it was for us.

“I might have said, maybe to my embarrassment, I thought it is possible to win the league but not win any of the Old Firm games. The most important thing is winning the league, obviously, but try telling to Celtic fans that you win the league but can’t beat Rangers along the way. The games are very, very important for every reason under the sun. It is not just the points that can go either way but psychologically for the well-being of one club and for the ill-being of the other club.”

Not that he breathed easy. Not when Celtic held a 3-0 lead after a start the Roy of the Rovers writers would have dismissed as too fanciful. Not when they led 3-1 and Henrik Larsson was dinking a chip over Stefan Klos, a moment 21 years later that still inspires wannabe Henrik’s to mimic Ian Crocker’s booming ‘That. Is. Sensational’ commentary. Of the 242 goals that Larsson scored for Celtic, none is more quintessential to his association with the club.

“It was a fantastic goal by a fantastic player,” said O’Neill. “He was sporting the dreadlocks at that time, later that season he went to a barber and got rid of them but at that stage he symbolised a lot about us. It was magnificent. I don’t think you ever scream at Henrik Larsson do something else – unless he misses – but when he went for the chip it was as if 60,000 people were silent for a second or two and then the next thing, it erupts.

Celtic Way:

"Seeing it back and when you see the ballboys make this phenomenal jump, Celtic fanatics and lads who would only be 12 or 13 years or 14 years old and they are jumping in the air with delight…

“Nothing, absolutely nothing, prepares you for the atmosphere beforehand. It was incredible. The sun was shining, an early kick-off, the crowds in, the atmosphere….people talk about Celtic and Rangers games and it was the first time I had experienced that. It was electric. For us to get off to the type of start, it was mesmeric. We scored three goals in the first 11 minutes and it is almost disbelief time. I never felt for one minute, even at 3-0, that this game was ever over, as Rangers proved.

“[Rod] Wallace scored a goal that, had VAR been around, might have been given, who knows, and that was just before half-time and then Henrik scored a magnificent goal to give us a 4-1 lead. My mind was a blur at that point. You’re thinking ‘don’t lose this…can we see it through.’ Rangers got back into it with a penalty and for a little while it felt like it was still in the balance and then Henrik made it 5-2. I think the first time I breathed a sigh of relief was when Chris Sutton scored the sixth goal and I look and there’s about two minutes left and I thought, ‘yes, we’re going to win this.’

“What it did do for us that August evening, it gave us not only encouragement but confidence we were capable of matching them. I know they beat us [5-1] a couple of months later but by that time we'd definitely got a confidence about ourselves and we'd added a couple of players. But that game was significant.

“I, from a very early age, knew about Celtic and Rangers, but even I was not expecting what I got for the opening game and I am talking about absolute atmosphere. It was incredible. And I had played in some big derby games. I had played a Manchester City v Manchester United derby game. I had been witness to some big matches but there was nothing I had experienced like that at all.”

Perhaps forgotten in what followed on from that game was the fact that O’Neill started the season, with two notable exceptions, with the same squad who had collapsed the previous year. Joos Valgaeren and Chris Sutton were the only new faces in that starting XI to line up against Rangers. That would change as the campaign went on but already the culture had shifted within the dressing room.

Sutton, with his acerbic tongue – ‘I’m coming up to put Rangers in their place’ – lent an arrogance that Celtic had long been missing. If O’Neill was, publicly, self-deprecating and at pains to quietly insist that ‘Rangers were the benchmark’ he would have known full well what Sutton offered in every sense. If Sutton can still provoke yelps of protests in his current day job it was little compared to the vein-popping ire he provoked in his playing heyday.

“You are thinking about the previous season and what had culminated in the disastrous match against Inverness Caledonian Thistle where some of the players decided to throw their boots down at half-time because I think they might have been scared about what the crowd might dish out to them,” stated O’Neill. “I don’t know enough about discontentment within the dressing room but there was a fragility about this side. You felt that this was a side who could go and win three or four games and then easily. Mark [Viduka] didn’t want to come back so the money we got from Leeds gave us Chris Sutton as out first signing. He became an incredibly important member of the side, in every aspect - in the dressing room and what he did on the field and with that bit of swagger and that bit of arrogance carrying through.”

If O’Neill’s inheritance of Larsson, freshly recovered from a leg break, was a gift, so too was the discovery of Lubomir Moravcik, the little Slovakian. The two, however, did not start off on the right foot.

Celtic Way: Lubo in full flowLubo in full flow

“I am sometimes reminded of some Celtic fans who stop me and say ‘why didn’t Moravcik play every game?’ and I say that it was because he was the same age as me when I got there,” joked O’Neill.

“It would have been great to have had a Moravcik, to have Lubo, at 26 or 27. I still believe in my career – and I have played with phenomenal players and European Cup winners – Moravcik is the best two-footed player I have ever seen in the flesh. In training he would stay at the back and flick the ball here and there, he could stick his backside out and control the ball from the air. I believe that Zinedine Zidane said himself that Moravcik was a truly gifted footballer. It would have been great to have had him at 26 rather than 86 when I got him!

“But our first pre-season was tough. Henrik was away at the Euros with Sweden and in one particular game, maybe against Leipzig – and not Leipzig as they are now but maybe in the third division - it was hellish, to tell you the truth. We did not play well and apparently somebody heard me saying under my breath ‘this is going to be a long, long season.’ But then I had a bit of a tete-a-tete with Lubo in the dressing-room afterwards and I said something along the lines of ‘you’ll not be much good to me if you can’t run’ and I think Lubo just put down the boots and had a little look up and said, basically implied, just watch and see if you change your mind in the next couple of months. Yeah, I changed my mind a lot quicker than that…

“He might not even remember it! But I do because it was the first time I was semi-angry at him and it was very early. But he was a fantastic footballer. A great player and could turn the game. He could turn players, opponents would leave their foot in, he had great balance and two feet. If VAR existed in his heyday, he would have had at least another 15 penalties because he was turning and twisting players in the penalty box and he’d be fouled on numerous occasions when he didn’t get them. A 27-year-old Lubo [in today’s market] would be priceless. He would have graced Premier League football, without a doubt.”

If that 6-2 game became so pivotal to O’Neill’s time at Celtic – there had been no bigger scoreline for the club against Rangers since the vaunted 7-1 League Cup final in 1957- one can only imagine how the current incumbent might yearn for the kind of bounce that a win at Ibrox would deliver at the end of August. Like O’Neill, Ange Postecoglou has walked into a dressing room with morale on the floor after the insipid manner in which the drive for the fabled 10 collapsed. The Greek-Australian is the first Celtic manager this millennium to have to find a way to bridge a gap that stretched beyond the 20-point mark.

Postecoglou is too pragmatic to indulge in imaginings of the kind of day O’Neill enjoyed with his first exposure to the derby but a win could prove to be just as significant; not since 2019 have Celtic won at Ibrox while their last visit ended in a limp 4-1 defeat.

Celtic Way: Ange Postecoglou will take charge of his first match as Celtic manager tomorrow against Sheffield Wednesday.

“Heavens sake! What would he give?,” smiled O’Neill. “It was not just the win. Not just the size of the win and the way we won the game as well. A beautiful sunny afternoon with the shadows hanging over the pitch, half in shadow and half in sunlight and everything just magical about that particular day. It drops into history, because of what happened during the course of the season it becomes iconic.

“I think he would give anything for a win over Rangers just to stabilise things. The situation is not going to be easy. Some players will leave, some will come in but I don’t think the gap is as massive as it was in my time. Only because I don’t believe that Rangers have the calibre of player [that they did back then]. It’s different generations you could compare them, I don’t think that the Rangers team of today can compare with that Rangers side of the beginning the century.

“Some players will leave – and they better. If you don’t want to play any more for Celtic then out you go. The start of the season will be vital, as it was for me; I count the first victory against Dundee United and the Hearts game at Tynecastle before the Rangers game as vitally important for my own position. Had we been dropping points the maybe the season takes a different outlook, who knows?”

What O’Neill would love to see at Ibrox, however, is not just the supporting cast of supporters who contribute so much to these occasions but also a return to the traditional allocation of tickets.

“The Celtic fans are coming back and you know what the Celtic fans can do,” he said. “They can be behind you and give you something you feel you didn’t have and, like every set of fans, they can be a bit volatile.

“But give the man a chance. I noticed the players he has had have all spoken highly of him which is good. That is my final point; it would be great if both sets of fans in their respective numbers were allowed back into the opposition stadia because there is nothing like it. There is nothing like 6000 or 7000 Rangers fans behind that goal adding to the atmosphere and the same with Celtic behind the goal at Ibrox. That would be lovely.”