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Michael Gray remembers his short Celtic career

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Imagine Celtic signing a recent England international LEFT-BACK that’s unable to break into the team?

As the clamour for new faces built up post Seville to take the club on to the next level all sorts of names and rumours were emerging as to who would be joining Henrik Larsson, Stan Petrov, Alan Thompson and co.

Quietly, almost un-noticed, our former esteemed manager, on the final day of the transfer window, brought in Michael Gray from Sunderland to compete with Joos Valgaeren, Ulrik Laursen and Stephen Crainey for the jinxed left-back position.

Recently retired Gray started just four matches for Celtic but looks back fondly and without regret about his spell in Glasgow.

“Great times,” he smiled when I asked him about his brief hoops career. “I absolutely loved it up there if I’m being totally honest.

“They were flying high at the time, it was Champions League football and you don’t turn that chance down, if you can go and play for Celtic you have to go there and witness it for yourself- it was an incredible time.”

The 2003/2004 season was arguably more successful than Martin O’Neill’s treble winning first season at the club.

Following on from Seville and in his last season in Glasgow,Henrik Larsson drove the club to the title in record time with a memorable five game whitewash of Rangers sealed with Chris Sutton’s glorious last minute chip over Stefan Klos.

In Europe Barcelona were ousted from the Uefa Cup with David Marshall and John Kennedy outstanding in the Nou Camp.

The Champions League continued to be a heart breaker however with a roller-coaster night in Lyon ending with Magnus Hedman and Bobo Balde taking the blame for a 3-2 defeat that denied the club entry into the last 16.

“I was up against Sydney Govou,” Gray recalled wryly. “Unfortunately for me he found his form, it was a tough night at the office but you get them.

“That game could have gone the other way, we got off to a great start then they popped up with a thirty yarder and a penalty to win the match.

“It was really unfortunate, the memories will always stay with me and I got to play in the Champions League against a team like Lyon. You never forget those days whether they are good or bad.

“I had a fantastic time at Celtic, I didn’t play as many games as I’d have liked but without a shadow of doubt I enjoyed every minute of it.

“I still go up there, I’m friendly with Shaun Maloney and still see him and a few other of the lads, I keep in touch with John Kennedy and it’s great to see Neil Lennon in charge.

“Anyone that you speak to who has played at a great club for Celtic won’t tell you anything other than it’s a fantastic place to go and play football.”

Gray decided to retire at the end of last season having turned 35- the age that footballers can collect a pension.

At the weekend he was back in the red and white of Sunderland helping his hometown team to victory in the Northern Masters over Middlesbrough.

Having sampled derby days in the North East and in Glasgow he is well placed to compare both experiences.

He admitted: “I always answered that question honestly, Sunderland-Newcastle is the big derby in the north-east, you get bragging rights for the week when you win it.

“It’s very competitive, over recent years a lot more foreign players get involved but whether it meant as much to them as it did to me being a Sunderland boy and captaining the team I don’t know.

“When you play in them it’s fierce but Celtic-Rangers is just immense. I’ve never known anything like it.

“The atmosphere in Champions League matches at Celtic can’t be questioned. When you are in those games the hairs stand up on the back of your neck but the Glasgow derby is something special.”

There has been a regular flow of players between Celtic and Sunderland down the years with Stan Varga and Ross Wallace the most recent players to swap the hoops for Sunderland’s red and white.

Daryl Murphy has moved in the opposite direction and has been greeted in a lukewarm fashion from supporters that can remember the recent glories of Larsson, Sutton and John Hartson.

Gray played alongside those legendary scorers and while not wishing to compare Murphy with strikers of the past the former Sunderland skipper has no doubts that the new bhoy will be amongst the goals.

“Daryl is a great player, he’s strong and will be a big success at Celtic- he knows where the back of the net is,” Gray added.

“Sunderland have gone out and bought some big big players. Does Daryl fit into that category? I don’t know.

“But he is a tremendous talent, he’s still young and wherever he’s been he’s scored goals so I think that he’s a very good addition for Celtic.

“He’s strong and will fit straight in to the SPL, he’ll have European football to enjoy as well. As an Irish boy playing for Celtic will be special for him.

“I don’t think that he’ll need time- I really don’t. He’s a top quality player and I know for a fact that he’ll score goals for Celtic.”

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