Thursday, 29 September 2016

A club like no other

A club like no other
There was a point in the Celtic v Manchester City game where the teams were tied at 3-3 and Celtic were being forced into energy sapping defending as they fought desperately to keep City out. The huge Celtic support which had backed the team in the usual raucous manner sensed that the players needed a lift to see them over the line and built up a tremendous roar which reverberated around the stadium and put new energy into tired legs. Their heroes responded and matched the superstars of Manchester to hold on for a famous and deserved point.
I’ve often written about incredible backing Celtic fans give the team in these huge games under the lights. This latest example of a team and their supporters united to fight in a common cause proved again that Celtic supporters are unrivalled in these islands and have few peers in world football. The team gave every ounce of effort they had to match a side built at huge cost and the green clad fans created a racket so intense that it drowned out the Champions League anthem. This was football in the raw played in front of proper fans who see it as their duty to their club to offer the sort of support the sanitised English Premiership rarely sees. One English newspaper was quick to point out that the atmosphere at Celtic Park was one of the weapons Celtic used to hussle City out of their stride. A side which had never gone behind in a ten match winning run went behind 3 times to Celtic in an incredible encounter…
‘Make no mistake, the incredible atmosphere inside Celtic Park inspired Rodgers’ players and drove them on for ninety minutes on Wednesday night. They were a raucous twelfth man, but while they made Celtic’s players grow taller, they also unnerved Guardiola’s team. The Etihad Stadium is repeatedly cited as an arena lacking in noise and passion, particularly on a European night, but City’s home ground is not alone in providing a sterile atmosphere in the Premier League. Guardiola’s players have not encountered such hostility and backing for the home team on their travels this season, but Celtic’s supporters showed what a difference it can make when the volume is pumped up in the stands. If more Premier League stadiums can become bear-pits like Celtic Park, it will make it much more difficult for visiting teams.’
Manchester City ran into a wall of noise and eleven men in green and white who simply would not be beaten. Celtic chased down every ball, rapidly closed the space and generally made life very uncomfortable for their opponents. City couldn’t build from the back as they normally do and few who watched the game unfold grudged Celtic their point. One reporter used a memorable metaphor to describe the Celtic midfield’s constant badgering of City’s Brazilian star Fernandinho…
‘Scott Brown and Tom Rogic pulled Fernandinho out of position, forced him to make mistakes in possession and pretty much buzzed around him to the point of distraction. It was like watching two hyenas torment a lion and the hyenas won.’
Brendan Rodgers is proving that his tactics and motivational skills are once again making Celtic difficult opponents in Europe. A year ago Celtic were squandering a 2-0 lead against Fenerbahce with suicidal defending and a seeming inability to change the game or their approach to meet unfolding circumstances. Against City Celtic had a manager on top of the situation and barking out orders from the side lines. Few expected Rogic to be replaced by Griffiths and it is a measure of the Manager that he is prepared to make changes which are bold and aggressive.
The game with Manchester City was widely reported in Europe and the compliments heaped onto the Celtic support are a slap in the face for those who argue that teams like Celtic have no place in the Champions League. Few stadiums anywhere will provide such an atmosphere and football must be above all a spectacle. A few among our indigenous press pack were quick to say Celtic were out of their depth after events in Barcelona. One wonders if they have the grace to say they were wrong?  I somehow doubt it.
Celtic face the German outfit Borussia Monchengladbach on the 19th of October and it will be another mammoth undertaking for Rodgers’ young side. The Germans ran Barcelona close in their 2-1 defeat and are a big, physical and well organised side. However if Celtic can somehow get a result from that game then they would be in a great position in the group. This was possibly the hardest group Celtic could have been put into and few gave them a chance of making any impression, especially after the tame capitulation in Catalonia. The Manchester City game has changed the mind-set and has renewed confidence which will now be surging through the team. Celtic now have pace, genuine goal threat and a coach who is getting the best out of the players. They also have the backing of the most vociferous and noisy supporters around and they drive the team to new heights.
Celtic are learning about the demands of football at the top level and it was incredible to see the work rate, tenacity and yes, skill the players showed against Manchester City. When it was called for they put their bodies on the line and threw themselves into tackles and blocks when they were out on their feet. The crowd knew they were giving their all and gave their all in return. The deafening sound which swirled around Celtic Park like the autumn rain was the sound of pride and the sound of hope.
Well done Celtic and well done to every one of you who backed the team with such passion. Truly a club like no other.

Friday, 23 September 2016

He will always be here

He will always be here

For a young boy from Carnlough in County Antrim, the chance to see Celtic was rare indeed. In the early summer of 1983 Celtic had an end of season friendly against Finn Harps in Donegal and he was determined to be there. As the crow flies it’s around 95 miles from Carnlough to Ballybofey where Finn Harps play their home games but the youngster crammed into Finn Park that day with 10,000 other supporters. Celtic brought a powerful side to play the locals and stars like McStay, Aitken, Nicholas, McLeod and McGrain were there to lead an experienced Celtic side to a convincing 4-0 win. Charlie Nicholas made his final appearance for Celtic that day and signed off with a goal. It was also the end of a fine Celtic career for George McCluskey before he too left for pastures new. For the young boy from Country Antrim it was a real treat to see Celtic in action and he said in later life that his eyes were drawn to the flame haired Tommy Burns who pulled the strings in midfield and approached the friendly game in the same determined manner he did every game in which he wore the Hoops.

That young boy who watched Celtic defeat Finn Harps in May 1983 was of course called Brendan Rodgers and he could never have predicted that his life would one day allow him to work closely with Tommy Burns and see at close hand what a good human being he was. After Burns was rather harshly sacked by Celtic in 1997 he ended up at Reading FC and saw in the young coach there potential which mixed shrewdness and the sort of interpersonal skills Burns valued. That young coach was Brendan Rodgers and Burns promoted him to Head of Youth Development at the club. The two men became firm friends and Rodgers saw the way Burns took the time to speak to people in all positions at the club and encourage them with a kind word. It was an education in football but also in how to deal with people. Burns tenure at Reading was to last just 18 months as his possession based game with the emphasis on attack was unsuited to the hurly burly of the English Championship. In truth he didn’t have the quality of players at his disposal to recreate the exciting play he had brought to Celtic Park when Di Canio, Thom, Van Hooijdonk and Cadete strutted their stuff. Peter Grant who was at Reading with Burns said of Rodgers…

‘As part of my A Licence I was working with the youth teams so I’d work with Brendan on a Friday night. We’d go and take the young kids and I’d watch him training the nine to 12 year olds – doing circle work and things like that. You could see then that he was very good. He’d a fantastic manner and patience with the youngsters.’

Rodgers continued coaching at Reading until 2004 when Chelsea brought him to London. He grew as a coach and soon became a manager in his own right His career took him to Watford, Reading, Swansea and Liverpool before he followed in Burns’ footsteps and became Manager of Celtic in the summer of 2016. It was a little ironic that he ended up at Celtic as he had sounded out Burns on the possibility of him becoming Director of Football at Leicester City when Rodgers was offered the job. Burns wanted to stay in Scotland at that point in his life and declined but Rodgers felt the possibility of one day being offered the Celtic job tempted Tommy a little…

So I came up to see him and we talked about if I got the job at Leicester he could come in as a director of football. He said one day he could come back to Celtic as a director of football and I could come back as a manager. That is how ironic it is.  I came up, met him in the hotel the night before, we had a great chat, I came to the game and we went back to his house to see his wife, Rosemary, afterwards. It was something he was keen to do from a football perspective. I think his family and Rosemary had been down south for a few years and wanted to be up here. But it was certainly something that made him think.’

As it transpired Rodgers didn’t go to Leicester City and Burns continued to serve Celtic with passion and dedication until his untimely and much lamented passing. Rodgers said of him simply, 'He was a wonderful man.’

Rodgers, like Tommy Burns and Martin O’Neil before him knows exactly what Celtic is all about. He knows the brand of football the supporters like to see and has in his first few months sown the seeds of an exciting young side. He has also handled clumsy attempts by elements of the Scottish media to draw him into the Joey Barton situation and memorably dealt with a Sky reporter who ask him in the wake of the 5-1 mauling of Rangers, ‘Leigh who?’ Rodgers stared at him and said, ‘Don’t be disrespectful. He’s a wonderful player Leigh Griffiths.’  You get the impression Rodgers has that touch of steel all successful managers need and which was in retrospect missing in the Deila years.

So far his brand of football is exciting the Celtic supporters and season ticket sales have rocketed. His young side have had their fingers burned in Europe but it’s early days and Rodgers has yet to complete his team building. As he wandered the corridors of Celtic Park he spotted a picture of Tommy Burns on the wall and commented…

“I have just noticed the photos of him on the walls here. He will always be here. For me to follow in the footsteps of Jock Stein, Billy McNeill, Davie Hay and Tommy and these guys as manager is an incredible feeling of privilege for me. I think Tommy would be very proud of me today. He was a Celtic man, he always just wanted what was best for Celtic – whether he was supporting, playing for or ultimately managing the club. He never lost that love for the club, even when he’d left to coach at other places like Newcastle and Reading. His passion and emotion for Celtic was always there.”

If Brendan Rodgers brings the same passion and integrity to Celtic as his friend Tommy Burns did then the Celtic support will be happy. Burns’ team was not always successful coming up against as it did a financially stronger Rangers but he always tried to play the game the Celtic way and cared as much as any fan. Tommy was one of us and hurt when we hurt; he shared our joys and sorrows. Alan Stubbs once said of him…

’When we lost a game he gave the impression he was personally responsible and that he owed the Celtic fans an apology."

In Brendan Rodgers I believe we have another coach who knows what it means to the supporters and who will strive to give them a successful team which plays good football. The early signs are good and if his plans for Celtic come to fruition then we are in for a very exciting period at Celtic Park.  He has come a long way since he watched wide eyed as Burns and Celtic outclassed Finn Harps in May 1983. His old friend Tommy would be delighted that he has followed in his footsteps and become Celtic manager. He would no doubt smile and remind Rodgers of the demands such a job brings. The fact that a Celtic manager is expected to fight for the club and its’ followers on and off the field will not be lost on Rodgers. Burns would be a source of great wisdom for him if he was still around to guide and help him but then as Rodgers said… ‘He will always be here.’  Indeed he will. Men like Tommy are the soul of Celtic.

Make him even more proud of you Brendan.

Make us all proud.

Friday, 16 September 2016

How was the soup?

How was the soup?

Celtic played very well last Saturday and mauled their city rivals convincingly in front of a delirious Celtic support who celebrated long and loud.  However the match was overshadowed somewhat by some pretty poor behaviour by some of those who attended. We got what we have come to expect from the away support with the sectarian songs, banners attacking Jock Stein on the anniversary of his death, paedophile chants and mindless vandalism of the toilets in their section of the ground. It was as moronic as it was predictable and there is a surprising lack of shock at their antics perhaps because they have gone on so long we are all expecting it.

What was less predictable was the actions of some of our own supporters. There can be no defending or deflecting the shame which should be felt by the idiots who thought it would be fun to hang two effigies over the top tier of the stand. All the ‘whataboutery’ in the world won’t change the fact that this was wrong, very wrong. This stupidity was a monumental own goal allowing our myopic media another chance to trot out the ‘both supports are as bad as each other’ mantra they love so well. It was also morally repugnant coming as it did in World Suicide prevention day. The people responsible may not have been aware of that but nonetheless their action will rightly be condemned by all right minded Celtic supporters.

The ‘Know your place Hun Scum’ banner was to say the least lacking in class and imagination. One of the hallmarks of the Celtic support over the years has been their humour and wit. There was precious little of it on display on that flag. Yes, we all know the campaign carried out by some to re-designate the word ‘Hun’ and try and sectarianise it. I’ll never accept it as meaning anything other than Rangers or their less cerebral supporters. But come on, did you seriously expect that banner to go unremarked upon in the current media climate?  The attitude from a small but vociferous minority on social media can be summed up in a message I received when I tweeted about these two incidents. It read…

‘You’re doing the media’s work for them. How was the soup?’

The reference to soup goes back to the great hunger in Ireland in the mid nineteenth century when some of the millions of starving Irish were offered food at soup kitchens run by Evangelical Protestants on condition that they converted from Catholicism. The ‘Soupers’ as they became known had transgressed that most important tribal rule by seemingly giving up their faith in order to save their families. Some were shunned for decades and regarded in some way as traitors. The ‘Souper’ reference when aimed at folk like myself is both pathetic and inaccurate. Those poor wretches caught up in the horrors of an Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger) faced stark choices. They could watch their children die or ‘take the soup.’ Who knows what any of us would do in similar circumstances. One thing is for sure, no one has a right to judge them. I also feel given this historical reality anyone using such terms to describe fellow Celtic supporters ought to have a good look at themselves.

I openly challenged the effigies and the wisdom of the ‘Hun Scum’ banner, as many Celts did, not because I’m a traitor to Celtic but because I want the support to aspire to the very best principles that the club was founded upon. Those principles are an openness to all and a standard of behaviour and decency which rises above the more base elements such as those which hang around another Glasgow club like a bad smell.  Celtic supporters will always try to educate those who occasionally make errors of judgement. The club is too important to too many people to let a small minority tarnish its reputation as we sit idly by in silence. 

So it was that in the midst of a media feeding frenzy over events at Celtic Park the team travelled to Barcelona and were brought back to earth with a bump. The Catalans were simply on another planet.  Celtic played poorly but few teams in Europe could have withstood Barcelona on that form. It was a hard lesson on the gulf which separates the mega rich super clubs and the rest of European football. Brendan Rodgers was clear that his side have a long way to go before they can cope with teams who pass and move like Barca. His plans for Celtic are still in their infancy and the support still back him to the hilt.  This year’s Champions League campaign will undoubtedly bring more pain but it’s part of the learning curve and the money it brings may see us in a better place next season. We may have some interesting ties at home and Borussia Monchengladbach certainly look beatable but we live in hope rather than expectation in this toughest of groups. That realism won’t diminish the passion Celtic supporters will bring to games on Champions League nights but we all know the magnitude of the task we face.

Football has changed beyond recognition since the Lions played their way into immortality.  As Celtic head for the modest surroundings of Inverness this weekend they will need to put thoughts on the Camp Nou out of their heads and get back on track. Far superior teams have been whipped by Messi and co and if that going over was painful, at least it helped us temper our expectations. Rodgers has only just begun to restructure the side and I think in another year we will be better able to judge progress. Europe is always the harshest measuring rod of where a team is and we accept that we remain a work in progress.

That being said we are playing some good football and have the nucleus of a good young side. We live in hope of better days in Europe and recognise that success there will be always relative in future. It’s hard to see a team from the smaller European league’s winning the Champions League in the near future given the huge disparity in wealth which UEFA have allowed to occur. That’s not to say that we couldn’t do better than we have in recent years. Thankfully we have in Brendan Rodgers a man who has the know-how and passion to make us a better side.

That thumping in Barcelona hurt but such things happen in football. We don’t give up, we don’t whinge about it. We man up and strive to be better the next time. I signed up with Celtic for life when I first saw Dalglish and Jinky mesmerise defenders; when I first saw those pristine green and white hooped shirts glowing magically in the sunshine. There have been many ups and downs since then in the unpredictable world of football but one certainty in life is that I’ll be backing the Celts till my dying day.  I know most of you reading this will feel the same.

This is our club, we are Celtic and Celtic is us. No defeat will ever change that. Hail Hail.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Celtic Way

The Celtic way

As Tom Rogic stepped up to take what was to prove the last penalty in a shoot-out at the end of last season’s Scottish Cup Semi Final between Celtic and Rangers, Dermot Desmond watched from the stand. As we know Rogic missed and half the stadium rejoiced as the other half shook their heads in disappointment. In the plush seats at the centre of the main stand the Rangers officials were naturally delighted and celebrated with more exuberance than is normal in the more sedate Directors’ area. One newspaper stated that…

The Irish billionaire was said to be furious that the normal etiquette rules were not respected as he sat in the vicinity of his Rangers counterparts at Hampden in the section set aside for dignitaries. Warm applause and happy smiles were cast aside for behaviour that, according to one insider, “made you think they were in the Rangers end”.

Some said it was ‘classless’ but as Dermot Desmond watched he became convinced that the Delia years were over. Celtic has stuttered through two years with the Norwegian in charge and despite winning three trophies seldom reached the heights. More worrying was the disenchantment of the supporters who were voting on the style of play with their feet.  As Desmond watched the Celtic fans melt away from Hampden on that spring day he decided that it was time for change. Celtic would have a new coach and he would be a man of stature, a man who would galvanise and organise the Celtic players. A man who knew what Celtic meant to the supporters.

Yesterday’s destruction of Rangers at Celtic Park was a real wake up call to swathes of their more gullible supporters who may have been convinced by the more sympathetic elements in the media that the gap between the two sides was narrow. Celtic, missing their top scorer, simply ripped the Ibrox rear guard apart with their pace and movement. Dembele was a revelation as he used power and skill to unsettle a creaking Rangers defence. Forrest looks like a new player and Scott Sinclair was a constant thorn in the side of a Rangers who then had to endure the arrival of Patrick Roberts who clearly was intent on wiping out the memory of his horrendous miss in that Hampden semi-final. The difference between Hampden and Celtic Park was night and day. Rodgers sent out an energised team who pressed high up the field and harried the Rangers players all over the park. They were full of running and no little skill as they tore holes in the Rangers defence time and time again. His tactics were spot on and the much hyped attacking full backs of Rangers were hardly up the field.

Off the field Celtic Park throbbed and crackled with an atmosphere unmatched in these islands. Indeed only a few teams in Europe can boast of such an ambience at games. The Green Brigade led the way as usual but the songs were being born all over the stadium and travelling around the stands like rolling thunder. It was an awesome spectacle, an assault on the senses. A friend from America making her first visit to the stadium said, ‘That was amazing, America has nothing on this.’ Make no mistake about it, the Celtic support drive the team on and are a vital component in the club’s success over the years.

As for the away fans, what can you say of people who chant about child abuse at a football match? What can you say about ‘football’ supporters who don’t seem to have any football songs in their repertoire but just a tired catalogue of outdated dirges. I have written in the past about the need for the decent Rangers supporters to challenge the less cerebral types who seem to wallow in their ignorance but they seem intimidated and at times outnumbered by the empty vessels making all the noise. The vandalism in the away end was sadly typical as was the foul song book although an added bonus of the comprehensive Celtic victory was that it shut them up.

So we head for Barcelona in buoyant mood but this is tempered by realism. Barcelona remain a formidable side with a collection of world class footballers at their disposal. Their forward line is among the most potent on Earth and Celtic will do well to put up a good show and return with dignity intact. Anything we gain there would be a bonus and those who are travelling do so in hope rather than expectation. They travel for a footballing party and will enjoy a fine city. This Celtic side is evolving and still learning about the demands of playing a high tempo, high concentration game for the entire 90 minutes. Switch off for a second and Messi and co will punish you. There is a feeling though that we could give the big guns a game in Glasgow in front of those magnificent supporters. We have no overblown ideas of how good we are but we’ll give it a go and have at last a coach who will instil a game plan and organisation into the side which in truth was missing in the Deila years. We have hopes rather than expectations in Europe and know the size of the task which awaits us but hey, it’s great to have a ticket to the big party. We’ll enjoy it and make the other guests glad we came.

This has been an uplifting start to the season for Celtic. The team is playing well and the fans are enjoying their football again. On the anniversary of Jock Stein’s passing Celtic simply destroyed Rangers in a very convincing manner. The team is showing signs of developing the attacking flair Celtic are known for and the fans are loving it. There is a smile on the face of all Celts this morning and long may that continue.

Big Jock would smile to see his club enjoying such good times again and playing the game the Celtic way.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Win it for Jock

Win it for Jock

Few Celtic supporters will need reminding that the 10th of September 1985 was the day we lost one of the towering figures of Celtic's history. Jock Stein's passing in Cardiff on that lamentable evening 31 years ago sent a shock wave through Scottish football and indeed Scottish society. The 'big man' so in control, so dominant in the situations he found himself in was taken at the absurdly early age of 62. His legacy though will live long in the hearts and minds of all who follow Celtic.

It is by coincidence that this weekend's Glasgow Derby match will take place on the 31st anniversary of Jock's passing. As Jock's Celtic set out to destroy Rangers' dominance of Scottish football in 1965, he knew well the forces in Scottish society which would not be amenable to a Celtic takeover. His attitude to the press was one of brow beating them into line. Few reporters dared overstep the mark and one who did learned a harsh lesson. It came during a match at Hampden when it was planned that a helicopter would land on the pitch. This was cancelled due to weather conditions and the reporter was heard to say 'Pity, it might have crashed on the Celtic end.' Word of this got back to Stein who sought the man out and in front of astonished press pack pinned him to the wall by the throat and told him exactly what would happen to him if he talked such nonsense again. His clashes with the BBC Sports team of the time were legendary and Archie McPherson spoke in his biography of an unhealthy anti-Catholic atmosphere in the BBC Sports office he came to work in as a young reporter.  McPherson saw at first hand Stein’s ability to influence certain sectors of the media and once said…

‘He came to Celtic not just to manage them but to battle for them.’

Stein's own father, staunch in his support of the Ibrox club could never bring himself to wish Jock good luck when his side took on Rangers. Jock's experiences of being shunned by former friends when he joined Celtic in the 1950s had also marked him deeply. His close friend Sean Fallon witnessed erstwhile friends from Jock's home town of Burnbank turn their backs on him and knew that it not only hurt Jock but angered him too. Stein once said...

"I lost some friends when I made the move, but if that's what matters to them, then they're not really friends at all."

So it was that Jock set out on his mission to make Celtic the dominant side in Scotland with a burning desire not only to eclipse Rangers but to totally dominate them. Bertie Auld recalled in his biography that Stein would publically play down Old Firm games by stating that beating Rangers would get you the same points as beating any other team but in the dressing room he filled his players with immense motivation and a hunger to succeed. Stein knew the psychological value of defeating Rangers as well as the joy it brought to the Celtic supporters. Auld said...

‘Publicly Jock would tell everyone that it was just another game. Privately he thoroughly enjoyed putting one over on our oldest rivals. I would go as far as to say Jock detested Rangers.’

If you know the history then you will know that Stein led Celtic to the most successful era in their history. 25 major trophies were won in 11 exhilarating years. Jock led Celtic to nine successive League titles and made them the most feared team in Europe. The pinnacle of his achievement was becoming Champions of Europe in 1967. This was an event so seismic that it was hard for some among the Rangers support to swallow. Fed a diet of success and sycophantic media coverage it was difficult to accept that the Stein revolution had made the east end upstarts the best team in Europe. The underachieving Celtic of the post war years was gone and in its place a well-oiled attacking machine drove from victory to victory. It could be argued that in seeking to emulate the achievements of Stein’s Celtic, Rangers greatly overspent and in the end were consumed by their own overweening ambition and hubris.  The seeds of Rangers’ liquidation were not planted by Murray or Whyte but by eleven pale Scots who played pure, beautiful, inventive football beneath the Lisbon sun.

So it comes to pass that Rangers, however you perceive that club, will arrive at Celtic Park on the anniversary of Jock’s passing. Some among their followers have sought to malign his name in a morally repugnant manner. We shall rise above that and hopefully watch the club Jock loved, the club he did so much for, do their talking on the pitch. It would be a fitting tribute to the great man if Celtic were to win in convincing fashion and to do so playing the sort of football he would want to see. He once said…

"Without fans who pay at the turnstile, football is nothing. Sometimes we are inclined to forget that. The only chance of bringing them into stadiums is if they are entertained by what happens on the football field." 

I hope Celtic win on Saturday and win in style. I hope they do it playing ‘pure, beautiful, inventive football.’ I hope they set out to demonstrate to their opponents as Jock’s side did 50 years ago that Celtic are aiming for nothing less than domination of Scottish football.

So on Saturday Celtic, win for the fans, win it for the club, win it for the points but most of all win it for Jock.

Friday, 2 September 2016

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

International week is something of a pain for the average football fan as it denies them their weekly fix of club football. There was a time when fans followed the international team with the same vigour and passion as they did their club but it recent years that has waned. For Celtic fans, experiencing elements of the Scottish support booing their players on international duty turned many off following the national team. There is also the recurring possibility of key players picking up injuries playing for their respective countries. In the great club or country debate I’d say a big majority of supporters are now more interested in their club. This month sees Celtic involved in a hectic schedule of matches which will stretch the squad and give us a clear impression of the progress we have made since last season. It’s to be hoped all our international players return fit and well.

September will be a big month in which Celtic will compete in three competitions. First up is a game against the SPFL newcomers Rangers and however you perceive the club from Govan there is no doubting the fact that every Celtic fan will want this game won and won well. There is no point thinking just yet about Barcelona the following week, the supporters will want the team firing on all cylinders for this match. We will doubtless experience again the unedifying spectacle of 7000 away fans visiting Celtic Park for this game bringing with them the dreary, poisonous chanting which seems to form such a large part of their repertoire. The simple remedy for that is for Celtic Supporters to drown them out and for the team to beat their side comprehensively on the park. I’m hopeful on both counts but I’m never blasé or overconfident about any game. Football can throw up some odd results and a poor decision or a red card can change a game. The way Celtic are playing at the moment makes me quietly confident though and I have no doubt 53,000 Celtic fans at the game will make an ear splitting racket as they back the team.

The following week we travel to the Camp Nou and you don’t need to cast your mind back far to recall our games there. Celtic have played Barcelona on 5 previous occasions in the Camp Nou and lost 3 times. (0-1, 1-2 & 1-6) A 1-1 draw in 2004-05 and a 0-0 in 2003-04 are our best results and both were gained by showing stubborn determination in the face of waves of Barca attacks. That 6-1 drubbing was a sobering experience. Barcelona actually led 6-0 with 20 minutes remaining and what was a bad result could have been even more humiliating. The gulf between teams like Barcelona and Celtic is huge in financial and sporting terms. They can trawl the world for the very best players while Celtic must try to build a team using much more moderate resources.

The gulf between the super-rich elite and the rest of European football has never been so large. This manifests itself in teams paying huge amounts for players. Manchester United recently bought Paul Pogba for more than Celtic’s entire yearly turnover. The playing field has been tilted in favour of the rich and some argue the latter stages of the Champions League throws up the same faces every year.  We have seen teams such as our old foes Malmo battered 8-0 in the Bernabeu, Basel destroyed 7-0 in Munich and Olympiacos lose by 7 in Turin. Celtic is a young side and clearly a work in progress who will need to be pragmatic about how they approach the games in the Champions League this year. No one expects us to escape from a group which contains 3 very gifted sides. Brendan Rodgers will do his homework and have a game plan in mind for each of the ties but most supporters are wise enough to recognise the size of the task. If we can come out of the group with our heads held high and perhaps sneak a third place, most would be happy. It will take a monumental effort though and I’d be happy if our young team gave the big guns a run for their money.

Home games at Celtic Park showcase not only the team but the fantastic support Celtic get for the European games under the lights. One of the greatest of recent years was the stunning defeat of Barcelona in 2012. Paul Heyward of the Telegraph wrote one of the best articles on this game and said…

‘’A club set up to feed the poor in Glasgow’s East End took a bite out of the rich in a front of a home tribe so passionate that even Barcelona's Clasico veterans were taken aback. “No words to describe the atmosphere at Celtic Park,” wrote Gerard Piqué, who knows so well the cauldron of Real Madrid v Barcelona. “The stadium is a marvel – the fans, the people, how they support their team,” Xavi added. “It’s an example for every team.” “The stadium was spectacular,” said Tito Vilanova, the Barcelona coach. “I have been lucky in my career to have been to many grounds, but I have never seen anything like it. This was their 125th birthday and I wish them many more years.”

That passion and love the Celtic supporters have for their team is perhaps the great intangible of European ties at Celtic Park. There is no doubt that it drives Celtic on to a higher plane but Rodgers will know that in recent years Milan, Juventus and Inter have all scored 3 goals at Celtic Park. The support is vital but so too is a cogent game plan carried out by competent, well drilled players. Yet still we dream, still we hope that when Manchester City, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Barcelona come calling that chemistry we see so often between Celtic and their supporters on European nights at Celtic Park will bring that magic ingredient to bear on proceedings. Paul Heyward described that ingredient so well in 2012 when he said…

‘Somewhere between madness and love, this fanaticism did for Barcelona on a night when the Celtic team and their disciples were indivisible. Money can’t buy you that.’

Getting to the Group stage of the Champions League and winning the SPFL are the main aims each season for Celtic. The Champions League offers the chance to joust with the giants of modern football and gives the fans a real sense of excitement. It sets the club up financially and supports the wider Scottish game. We will need to raise our game to have any chance in the group we find ourselves in but in football you never know. Perhaps somewhere between madness and love we’ll spring the odd surprise. 

Nothing would please me more.