Wednesday, 21 August 2013

History, Hoops and Hope
Philip Sheridan may not be a name familiar to many of you. He was the son of Irish immigrants to the USA and a General in the Union Army during the American Civil War. What Sheridan did at the Battle of Cedar Creek in 1864 should offer some hope to those of us who watched that painful display by Celtic in Kazakhstan this week. On a misty morning in October 1864 the Confederate Army attacked Union forces near Cedar Creek and inflicted serious casualties on them. They had crept forward under cover of the fog and hurled themselves onto the slumbering camp of the Union forces. Surprise was total and seven Union Divisions were mauled and retreated in disorder. That was when General Sheridan took matters into his own hands. He rode towards the distant sound of gunfire and met stragglers fleeing the Confederate advance. He ordered his men to halt the stragglers, by shooting some if necessary, and form a defensive line. Sheridan then rode into the thick of the confused battle famously rallying his flagging troops with the words "Come on back boys! Give 'em hell, God damn 'em! We'll make coffee out of Cedar Creek tonight!" The effect of General Sheridan’s appearance on the battlefield electrified the Union troops and the retreat was halted.  The Union Army was reinvigorated and turned to face the Confederates who were already confident of victory. The Confederate Army of General Early was stopped in its tracks and was never able to advance on Washington again. Abraham Lincoln commented that Sheridan had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and ordered that a 100 gun salute be fired in Washington to honour of this brave son of County Cavan immigrants.

What has all of this got to do with Celtic I hear you say! Well, history teaches us that what looks like certain defeat can be turned around with the application of belief and organisation. Celtic's defeat in Kazakhstan was greeted with much negativity and some recrimination. It is, of course, only half time in this tie. Our club has always fought the odds and often snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, I recall Cologne beating us 2-0 in the 1990s and arriving in Glasgow with that typical German swagger. They left after a 3-0 defeat and their arrogance somewhat tempered. Way back in the 1960s, a useful St Etienne team beat Stein’s Celtic 2-0 in France. The 80,000 who turned up for the second leg saw Celtic rip the French side apart and beat them 4-0. We also routed the despicable Rapid Vienna 3-0 following a 1-3 reverse in Austria although those cheats used play-acting and lies to advance on that occasion. Few will forget the devastating destruction of Sporting Lisbon by a Tommy Burns inspired Celtic. A 2-0 defeat in Portugal was followed by a 5-0 rout at Celtic Park when fans and team fused and overcame the odds! Then there was last season when we were 1-3 down at home to Aberdeen with 20 minutes left to play.  Few will forget that comeback which was capped by an incredible overhead kick by Samaras in the last minute.

Of course many fans are rightly angry and entitled to criticise team selection, strategy and formations used in the debacle in Kazakhstan. Of course certain players didn’t perform and require a size 10 up the backside after letting everyone down. And yes, the policy of selling our top players and not replacing them before vital European ties is one which requires major scrutiny. It gambled with our European future and looks increasingly like the parsimonious biscuit tin mentality of the past. All of this is open to valid criticism and the fans are right to ask why they part with hard earned money to buy season tickets and follow the club when the Board seems determined to short change them when it comes to replacing stars who have been sold. It is fair to say that Hooper and Wilson wanted to leave but nonetheless replacements of equal stature should have been lined up. The Champions League is our field of dreams. Last season, it kept us going through the long, dark Scottish winter and provided us with some memories which will never fade. It’s where this club should be and where our fans deserve to be and every effort should be made by Celtic FC to ensure it happens.

And so our forces retreat to Glasgow like the battered Army of General Sheridan all those years ago in the Shenandoah Valley. Next Wednesday we will gather at Celtic Park and try to turn the setback we endured in Kazakhstan into a victory which ranks with the best we have achieved in Europe in recent years. The odds are high but we all know that the Celtic supporters will rally and get right behind the team. European nights under the lights at Celtic Park have a magical quality which makes you feel that great things are possible. Who could have predicted Celtic defeating Barcelona, (twice) Juventus, Lyon, Porto, Benfica and the then reigning European Champions, AC Milan at Celtic Park in recent years? When our crowd roars and our players rise to the occasion anything seems possible. So when kick off time arrives next Wednesday, forget the criticism, however justified, and get on with what we Celtic fans do best and that is supporting out team with 100% commitment.  Bring the thunder which inspires our players and awes the opposition. Then maybe, just maybe the dream of playing in the Champions League can come true again.
Joan of Arc, the teenage girl who rallied France and helped defeat the English is credited with saying, ‘All battles are first won or lost in the mind.’ We Celtic supporters and our team are not admitting defeat yet because we know from long experience that it isn’t over until it’s over! My message to our players and fans is a simple one and if I may paraphrase General Sheridan, who once snatched victory from the jaws of defeat on a bloody battlefield long ago…
"Come on back bhoys! Give 'em hell, God damn 'em! We'll make the Champions League yet!’

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