FORMER Celtic striker Chris Sutton admits that Celtic's defeat to Porto in the UEFA Cup final in 2003 'was probably the hardest defeat to take of my career'.

Celtic defied expectations to reach the final in Seville, where they ultimately came up short against Jose Mourinho's combative Porto side. It might have ended in defeat, but the route to the final will not be easily forgotten by Celtic supporters.

Chris Sutton recently spoke to TheSportsman and gave an in-depth account of the key games on the road to Seville. Here's what he had to say.

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On the mentality of the Celtic squad on dropping out Champions League into the UEFA Cup in 2003

“We beat Basel 3-1 at home and they beat us 2-0 in Basel. I nearly scored in the dying embers of the game, in a last minute of the game a shot went just past the post.

"The truth is that after we got knocked out, everybody was extremely deflated. We were all pretty low as we wanted to be in the Champions League.

“In the UEFA cup the first team we played was Suduva, a Lithuanian team. We beat them 8-1 at home and I didn’t even go to the away leg. We played a weakened side away and they won that 2-0.”

On Celtic vs Blackburn in the Second Round

“We were flying somewhere at the time that they drew the second round and when we landed I noticed we had drawn my old team Blackburn Rovers. I don’t really know how I felt about it at the time.

“I was quite excited about it because of the Scottish-English rivalry at the time. People back then were quite critical about Scottish football at the time, but we were playing for a team back then who were very capable and we knew what was at stake at the time. 

“Standing in tunnel looking down the line, Larsson, Johan Mjallby, a player who had won the Champions League at Dortmund, we had a very formidable team. The likes of Alan Thompson, John Hartson, we could handle ourselves.

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“What I can remember is that they outplayed us at Celtic park. Tugay, who had previously played for Rangers, was pulling the strings and he dictated the game. Having said that, we won 1-0 and Henrik Larsson scored.

“I remember Graeme Souness and Gary Flicroft, who I had previously played with, coming out after the game, saying it was ‘men against boys’, but we won the game. We all knew that we probably didn’t play as we could, in fact far from it. 

“But we had won the game, so I think it was quite a foolish thing for them to say.

“Going to the away leg at Ewood Park, the atmosphere was something else. I think Celtic took seven or nine thousand fans. Considering the way they played at Celtic Park, in the second leg we dominated from the very beginning.

“We completely spanked Blackburn, but I didn’t take great pleasure in that. However, I did like the fact that it left Gary Flitcroft with egg on his face.

“Henrik Larsson scored early in the game and I scored in the second leg. The key was not to let Tugay pull the strings and we stopped their supply. They had (Dwight) Yorke and (Andy) Cole, they were a good team.

“There was a feeling of satisfaction, but I did remember that they were my old club so I didn’t celebrate when I scored, but inside I was pleased as I knew it was job done then. 

On Celtic vs Liverpool in the Quarter Final

“Both clubs had a great European history and tradition. This was a Celtic team under Martin O’Neill that had only lost one game at home in European competition and that was against Barcelona.

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“They were always special nights because we knew that the team were capable and once again it was another battle of Britain, so it was up to us to put one over on a really strong Premier League team. 

“It was a special night at Celtic Park, I think that we scored in the first minute or two, Henrik Larsson from close range. It was a really very intense atmosphere at Celtic.

“In the Scottish League Cup Final, Bobe Balde technically broke my wrist. I went up for a header as you do, I shouted ‘My Ball’ as you do, but he didn’t listen to me. I came down on my back, I put my hand out to break my fall, then my wrist snapped so unfortunately I missed the return leg.

“I remember sitting there watching the game, it was an incredible night at Anfield. Alan Thompson scored early with a very clever free kick then John Hartson scored one of the great Celtic goals in European competition. 

“It wasn’t a great surprise to me that we went away and won at Anfield with the team we had. 

“Of course I would have preferred to have been playing, but I knew what it meant to the Celtic supporters, Martin O’Neill and the players to go and beat a good Liverpool team. We got a generous Semi-Final draw, with all respect to Boavista, we were thinking what an opportunity it was to get to the final.”

On the final against Porto in Seville

“When you get to a final, you don’t want to be a decoration, you want to win it.

“So the expectation was there against a really good Porto team. This was the start of Jose Mourinho’s success as a manager.

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“There was pressure because of Celtic’s European Cup winning team of 1967 and we wanted to win a major European trophy. You get one shot and unfortunately for us, we didn’t take it. 

“Before games, Martin was always a leader and said the right things and his team talk was ‘Don’t let this game pass you by, you have a chance, don’t waste it’.

“In terms of effort and endeavour we were there but we come up short for various reasons. 

“I felt sorry for Henrik because his couple of goals in the final were special. In many respects we let the supporters down by not giving them a major trophy. 

“I think it was the hardest defeat to take in my career because of what was at stake. It’s all well and good fighting back but you have to see it through. 

“I think the game was soured because Porto were the masters of gamesmanship and diving and this, that and the other. That was slightly disappointing, but we can’t use that as an excuse. We had it in our hands and we didn’t take it. 

“It was a phenomenal experience. It’s hard to describe travelling to a football match, and when you get towards a stadium it’s normally a couple of 100 yards where you see the fans congregate. 

“However, travelling to the stadium that day it was mile after mile of fans heading to the game. Remember that it wasn’t just the Celtic fans in the stadium, but it was the Celtic fans who traveled over to Seville. It was a sea of green and white.

“It was eye opening stuff and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.” 

On his first hint that Mourinho would be a success

“The word was out that he was a charismatic, upcoming, intelligent coach making his way in the game. I always knew he had something about him, they were a special team who went on to win the Champions League the following season.

“That was a phenomenal achievement. They had players such as Deco and Jorge Costa who was a rugged centre-half who was difficult to play against. Porto were a good all round outfit.”