IT’S fair to say when Joe Ledley signed for Celtic his old club Cardiff City were raging.
Then Celtic boss Neil Lennon exploited a loophole in the transfer system which under normal circumstances would have seen the Glasgow side pay a development fee to the Welsh outfit.
Ledley had garnered attention from a whole host of clubs. Cardiff had even turned down bids of up to £6 million from Wolverhampton Wanderers, Everton, Stoke City, West Ham United, Wigan Athletic and Hull City.
Cardiff wrongfully rejected bids even during the final season of Ledley’s contract believing that would be due compensation from any club who signed him under freedom of contract.
The compensation fee was only due from clubs within the same association and critically Celtic were not a member of the FA or the Welsh FA.
In the end, the Hoops got an absolute steal as they landed their man for nothing. It is a small wonder the Bluebirds weren’t singing and chirping after that piece of business was concluded.
Ledley admits that it took just one conversation with Lenny and a guided tour of Celtic Park to seal the deal.
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Ledley said: I signed for Celtic when I was 23.
“Cardiff City wanted money for me and it was classed as moving abroad to Scotland.
“I didn’t know how the system worked but Celtic got me for nothing in the end.
“Cardiff City weren’t happy and I can understand that. I had a few offers from the English Premier League but at the end of the day, it was my decision – and I made the best decision of my life.
“The club really looked after me and my family and they flew us up and took us out for a meal and I spoke to Lenny and he sold the club to me.
I went to have a look at the stadium and I thought ‘wow’. I have seen Celtic Park on TV but once you actually go there and see it for real it is something else.
“I just knew from the minute I clapped eyes on it this was the place for me.
“People do not have a clue about Scottish football or Celtic.
“It is easy to criticise decisions when you haven’t been there and done it.
“I look back at my friend’s reaction to when I was playing for Celtic and they came up. They couldn’t believe the stadium. They were just blown away by it all.
“That is why players sign for Celtic. You don’t realise how big this club is. All around the world, there are Celtic fans. It is non-stop.
“I could go anywhere in the world and I guarantee there would be a Celtic supporter.”
Suffering a brutal start to his career in Glasgow, Ledley experienced being dumped out of both the Champions League and Europa League to Portuguese side Braga and Dutch outfit FC Utrecht.
However, things soon picked up and the Welsh internationalist won the hearts and minds of the Celtic faithful when he bossed the December game against Rangers and scored the winner in a 1-0 win at Celtic Park.
It is a treasured career memory.
Ledley buried a back-post header from a corner to earn instant hero status and the subsequent iconic image of him celebrating the goal has entered club folklore.
He said: “We started that season off very poorly losing in the Champions League and the Europa League.
“Results weren’t going Rangers way by the December and it was judgement day in that fixture. We had to win that game and we did.
“Scoring the winner is one of the best things I have ever done in my life.
“Fans always remind me of that winning goal I scored against Rangers. It’s a brilliant feeling.”
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Celtic would go on and lose the title to Rangers but they would regain it the following season.
Although not before Ledley believed that Lenny was heading for the exit door on a fateful October day at Rugby Park in Kilmarnock.
Celtic was unexpectedly trailing 3-0 at half-time.
Ledley fully expected the teacup treatment and fireworks from Lenny.
The only thing he can remember is the eerie silence as a team of Celtic players knew they had 45 minutes to save the manager’s job or he was a goner.
Two goals from Anthony Stokes and a counter from Charlie Mulgrew in an incredible second-half fightback saw Celtic salvage a point and it was the catalyst for the club to go on clinch the title.
Ledley said: “Things came to a head that day at Rugby Park against Kilmarnock.
“I will never forget that for as long as I live.
“Celtic were 3-0 down at half-time.
“Lenny has since said that he was contemplating his future at that moment.
“The players realised it there and then that we were not performing for Lenny and if we did not go out in the second half and salvage something then he was going to walk.
“We didn’t want that as players and we had to pull our fingers out at the end of the day.
“I actually thought that Lenny was going to read the riot act and tear strips off us as Rugby Park that day.
“What struck me most was the silence.
“For Lenny, he was actually quite quiet.
“That’s why I thought he might be going here as he looked on the verge of quitting.
“Normally you would see tables and chairs getting flipped but there was nothing like that.
“We just knew as players that we needed to work hard for the manager otherwise he was going to go.
“We had a team full of cracking players and we got a 3-3 draw and we went from strength to strength after that.
“We knew it was totally unacceptable not just for the manager but for the fans as well.
“It is an impossible task trying to keep Lenny quiet.
“That pin drop silence struck me the most as the players knew we were in a serious situation and we dug ourselves and the manager out of that hole we were in.
“Ironically that draw kick-started the run that saw us go on and win the league.
“I came to Celtic to win trophies and it was a great feeling to win that Scottish Premiership title.”
Ledley credits Neil Lennon as the sole architect of the club’s success back then after embarking on a buy British signing policy.
He insists that the likes of Gary Hooper, Kelvin Wilson, Adam Matthews and Kris Commons allied to the foreigners and homegrown players in the side have never been in a dressing room like it ever again.
It was a definite case of “Bhoys Behaving Badly”.
Ledley said: “It was just a special moment in all our careers.
“Lenny signed the best of British football players that were around and he assembled a team that was rebuilding at the time.
“He brought in the likes of myself, Gary Hooper, Kelvin Wilson, Adam Matthews and he set up an unbelievable recruitment process.
“We fitted in straight away being British based players as there was no language barrier or settling in period having come from foreign shores.
“Scott Brown, Mark Wilson, Kris Commons, Paddy McCourt, Charlie Mulgrew and Anthony Stokes were all there during my time at Celtic.
“Even foreign players like Victor Wanyama, Virgil Van Dijk and Georgios Samaras bought into it and he lived it and breathed it.
“It was a fantastic Celtic dressing room. It was carnage with those players around honestly.
“There was always something going on. We were always up to mischief either outside or inside of football.
“We all just bought into the club and we all got it from the get-go. To a man we all loved it.
“If you spoke to all those players, it would not matter where they have been in their careers they will tell you that Celtic dressing room was the best they had ever been. It was second to none.
“We were a band of brothers off the field as you have to be careful when you go out in Glasgow. We were a tight group.
“I loved working under Lenny. He is one of the best managers I have ever had and I still keep in touch with him to this day.
“Lenny sets the tone and as a manager, he treated his players like mates and friends. There was a time and a place to push boundaries with him.
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“Don’t get me wrong, you never wanted to be on the receiving end of a Lenny bollocking as he can lose it.
“He just had total respect for his players and he let us play with freedom. He never drilled anything into us at training and he never said do this or do that.
“Training was always about short, sharp possession and being better and sharper on the ball.
“When we went into small-sided games all we did was try and keep the ball moving.
“Even when we didn’t win the league the first season I was there, I still felt some of the football we produced under Lenny was unbelievable.”
In the following campaign, Ledley would lift the title again and score in a 3-0 Scottish Cup final win over Hibs at Hampden.
Although even those achievements were dwarfed by comparison when Lenny’s Celtic put the mighty Barcelona to the sword an unforgettable Champions League night at Celtic Park in November 2012.
Victor Wanyama and Tony Watt grabbed the goals that sent Rod Stewart into a tailspin as he wept uncontrollably from the stands.
It was Celtic who grabbed the football world’s imagination as well as the limelight for their unbelievable feat.
Ledley insists that the Celtic supporters showed that night why Celtic Park is the best arena in world football to ply your trade.
Ledley said: “The Barcelona game was incredible. When I was younger I always watched Serie A and La Liga a lot.
“Everybody watched teams like Barcelona and I bought their kit as a young kid. I think I had Rivaldo on the back of my shirt.
“I signed for Celtic to play against the best teams in Europe. To play against your idols and beat them at Celtic Park was sensational and an unbelievable achievement.
“We actually lost 2-1 in the Nou Camp and that boosted us as we felt that we could give them a game in Glasgow.
“We worked on the premise that nothing is impossible.
“Scott Brown wasn’t playing, Gary Hooper was missing and a lot of first-team players were out for that match.
“Celtic did not have much of the ball as you have seen the stats but we still managed to beat them. It was an insane experience.
“You are just learning your trade though as they are the best in the world. It will take something special to eclipse that achievement.
“The stars just aligned as Celtic were celebrating their 125th anniversary as a club and it is just one of those special European nights at Celtic Park.
“Once the crowd start singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, Celtic Park just erupts. It is utterly bonkers.
“When that full-tie whistle went against Barcelona we were all in a state of shock. It was really emotional.
“Playing at Celtic Park on a European night is the best atmosphere in the world – easy!
“There are some places in South America like the Boca Juniors vs River Plate derby that might rival it.
“For me, Celtic Park on a European night is the best place to play in world football. People need to witness it first to give it even more credit.
“Once you are in that mix and among the Glaswegian supporters of this wonderful football club it truly is the best place in the world to play football.
“I have a treasure trove of memories from my time at Celtic.
“This is what the Cardiff fans could not understand. This is why I left the club to sign for Celtic.
“Once you look back in your career, I want to see medals. I wanted to lift trophies and win things and play in cup finals.
“A football player’s career goes in so fast and you want something tangible from it to say that you played in a successful and winning team.
“Maybe I am being a bit harsh but I actually feel that Celtic could have won more during my spell there especially with the team we had.
“Winning trophies with Celtic was just a pure joy.”
Ledley won three Scottish Premiership titles and a Scottish Cup winners badge with Celtic during his three-and-a-half-year spell with the Glasgow side.
However, he readily admits to having initial reservations about not being able to get on with fellow midfielder Scott Brown.
He reckoned that both their dominant and loud personalities would have clashed in the dressing room. How wrong could he be?
The two hit it off instantly and despite being one of the most decorated Celtic players in history, Ledley believes that Broony’s football talent has still not been given the credit it deserves.
Ledley revealed that he used to love it when Broony went into the heat of the Glasgow derby battle against Rangers and he would give firm friends like Steven Whittaker the silent treatment in the tunnel by looking straight ahead.
The 77 times capped Welshman insists that he fed off it and couldn’t take his own eyes off Broony’s death stare.
Ledley said: “I told my family when I signed for Celtic that myself and Scott Brown might clash because we were similar in terms of personality.
“We both love the banter and we hit it off straight away. Scott is such a good guy and he welcomed me with open arms.
“He is one of those guys who gets criticised but without him, Celtic would not have been as successful as they were. That’s a fact.
“I thought he was under-rated in terms of his ability as I think he is a fantastic footballer.
“Off the pitch, Broony was just a larger than life character.
“I used to just watch him in the tunnel before Rangers games and he had that fixed stare.
“I would take my lead from Broony and I would be like “Come on let’s have it!”
“He is a force of nature and what a character. Steven Whittaker was one of his best friends and before every Rangers game, he would custard pie him.
“He wouldn’t even look at him. He wouldn’t even talk to him and I would be thinking, ‘Jesus… here we go!’
“I think he is still truly missed by Celtic. I’d love to see him return one day as a coach or something like that.
“It is actually great to see him still playing at his age for Aberdeen and doing very well.”
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The end of his Celtic chapter when it came in January 2014 was a painful one for Ledley.
He revealed that it broke his heart to call time on his Celtic career as he signed for English Premier League side Crystal Palace in a deal worth £1 million.
Ledley admits that he agonised over the decision for weeks and despite ticking the box of playing in the self-proclaimed best league in the world, he is still not sure to this day whether he made the right choice or not.
Ledley said: “I was devastated and it broke my heart to leave Celtic. It was such a difficult decision.
“I had everyone on the phone to me and I did not know what to do as my head was all over the place.
“I did not want to be involved in an English Premier League relegation battle with Crystal Palace as they were near the bottom of the league and I did not want to go back to the Championship.
“So my decision was do I stay at Celtic or do I have a crack at the Premier League which I had watched growing up?
“I was 26 at the time and I thought it was the right decision to go and have a crack at something. I don’t have any regrets as playing in the Premier League was every boy’s dream.
“I look back and I’m not too sure whether it was the right decision or not.”
Ledley though would not swap his time in Glasgow for the world.
It was the most successful spell in his club career and the Celtic fans still love him and remember him fondly.
That means more to him than anything else.
Maybe it’s the Welsh/Celtic connection who knows but in Ledley the Celtic supporters found a kindred football spirit.
Ledley said “I look back on my career and it is totally unbelievable for a boy from Cardiff.
“I went back to Celtic Park recently and the fans gave me such a wonderful reception. It made me so emotional.
“Celtic supporters just realise what certain players do and bring to the club.
“I loved the city of Glasgow and my time at Celtic. It is a football-mad city full of amazing people.
“I had a unique bind with Celtic as a club and their supporters. We just got each other really.”
Ledley was a wonderfully proficient box-to-box midfielder, Ledley was an integral and valuable midfielder for Celtic.
He was a highly consistent but never flashy performer who rose to the challenge of playing for Celtic and then some.
Not bad for the grand sum of zero pounds.
As a Celtic player, Ledley just got it.
After all, Ledley was no ordinary Joe.