Wim Jansen: the gentle genius who turned the tide for Celtic

By Euan Davidson

January 25, 2022

It takes genius to define genius; Johan Cruyff, an undoubted icon of the game, once said former Celtic manager Wim Jansen was “one of only four men in the world worth listening to when they talk about football” [NOS].

In May 1998, Celtic fans would have lined up to agree with him, had Cruyff pitched up on the Gallowgate to see his old pal winning the league title. Jansen was the talk of Glasgow. After heartbreaking near-misses with the beloved Tommy Burns, Wim Jansen finally turned the tide for Celtic, ahead of a World Cup where several of his stars would represent a number of competing trophies.

The genius, in Jansen’s case, wasn’t in revolutionary tactics or reinventing the wheel. As a definite non-“Celtic man”, he was given one task, and one task only. Getting Rangers off their perch on the top of the Scottish First Division. His start was inauspicious to say the least.

Photo by VI Images via Getty Images

Jansen’s Celtic side didn’t exactly fly out of the gate. A loss to Tirol Innsbruck and no points from our first two league games was hardly the best start. Eventually, though, some momentum built under the Dutchman. Famous wins, like a 2-0 thriller against Rangers as 1998 began. A league cup triumph against Dundee United was symbolic of the progress made.

In a typically dramatic title race, Celtic could’ve actually won the title earlier. A win against Dunfermline would’ve sealed the deal, but no dice. It took a win over St Johnstone to finally wrestle that title back. And he did so by force of personality, man-management and building a cohesive squad.

McGregor blow, but O’Riley & Hatate may be about to star for Celtic | Jackie McNamara on 67HH

McGregor blow, but O’Riley & Hatate may be about to star for Celtic | Jackie McNamara on 67HH
67 Hail Hail (Youtube)

Wim Jansen laid the foundations for a generation of Celtic supporters

If you’ll indulge me for a second; I remember my first Celtic game like it was yesterday. On the TV, I’d seen Henrik Larsson, Craig Burley, Tom Boyd et al. And I saw Wim Jansen, and his incredible hair. His own barnet seemed to dwarf him, a man already distinctive in the sense that he was the first “foreign” manager of Celtic Football Club.

So, actually heading to Celtic Park for the first time, right up in the Gods, and far from the TV cameras below, I looked for familiar sights. Henrik Larsson’s dreadlocks and, yes, Wim Jansen’s curly hair in the dugout. Daft as these memories are, they’re – along with Craig Burley’s goal as Celtic beat Hearts that day – etched permanently into my brain.

It was the first season I’d properly understood what was happening. How good Rangers were, how much the league title meant, how stacked the odds were against the Bhoys. And, as is typical, I came away from that game with a permanent love for the club entrenched in my psyche.

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Allsport

For supporters of a certain vintage – too young for McStay, too old to understand our players doing TikTok dances – I’m sure there’s a lot of people with similar memories. There was just something comforting about Wim. He never seemed to bawl at his players; he oozed this calm that had come from seeing and winning it all as a player. Being amongst Neeskens, Cruyff and more in those iconic Holland teams will do that.

All the pressure in the world was on his shoulders for that entire season, a pressure he’d be entitled to not fully grasp. Yet he came in, saw what was needed, did it, and sadly left.

Wim Jansen deserved more; far more. And what came after him was, at times, not entirely inspiring. At least until Martin O’Neill took the reins.

But finding out Wim Jansen left the club was a heartbreaking moment. I didn’t understand. So many supporters couldn’t. In my youthful naïeveté, I hoped he’d come back some day.

Wim Jansen: Celtic legends aren’t defined by the length of their tenure, but the impact they make

Let’s be clear; Wim Jansen did an incredible job. Fine, his tenure was only for one season. But he got Celtic supporters believing again. As incredible as it seems to younger fans, the years preceding his hiring were barren, title-less endurance exercises.

In 1997, Celtic needed a saviour of a different kind to Fergus McCann, who cemented his legacy years earlier.

It came in the form of Wim Jansen. A man who had none of the baggage associated with managing one of the Glasgow giants, a man whose experience of Celtic was beating us in a European Cup Final.

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Allsport

A man who, let’s not forget, was working in Japan directly before coming to Celtic, if that sounds at all familiar.

We throw “legend”, “icon”, these types of words about. Sure, maybe Wim Jansen didn’t make the mark of a Billy McNeill, a Henrik Larsson (despite signing him), or a Scott Brown. How could he? It was impossible.

But after some dark, dark years for Celtic supporters, it was Wim Jansen’s team and his force of personality that led the Hoops back to the promised lands. To dash our rivals’ dreams, and to create new ones for us.

That’s a legacy, from one year, that can trump so many, many others. And to do it without being overwhelmed by the size of the task?

That’s genius in its own way. I guess Johann Cruyff got it spot on.

Read more: Rivals suffer significant injury setback ahead of Celtic Park meeting