Hitting the ground running
Seasons 1978-79, 1990-91 and 1994-95 stick out as unusual in the last 50 years or so for followers of Celtic for one important reason; the club failed to qualify for European football in those years and had to make do with domestic fare only. In terms of Scottish football, Celtic failing to qualify for Europe with the relative resources they have in comparison to other sides denotes a particularly poor season on the park. The reasons for those three years in the European wilderness are to be found in the previous season’s failures. 1977-78 season saw Celtic lose top performers McGrain and Stanton to long term injuries and that coupled with Dalglish leaving for Liverpool saw Celtic lose an astonishing 15 league matches to finish fifth in the League. It was a season which saw Jock Stein so shabbily bundled out the door by the old board following his astonishing 25 trophy wins in 12 years. 1989-90 saw the club stutter to a poor third place in the SPL miles behind Rangers and Motherwell. A cruel 9-8 penalty shoot-out defeat in the Scottish cup final against Aberdeen capped a poor year. While 1993-94 saw Celtic chalk up 20 draws in the 44 game SPL programme and this coupled with 9 defeats saw them finish a pretty miserable fourth place. Those three seasons with no European football to distract them did allow Celtic to concentrate on domestic matters but the club and the fans greatly missed the excitement those European nights under the lights bring.
Today, Celtic kick off another European campaign in that soccer outpost of Iceland. It is a mark of how Scotland’s co-efficient has fallen in recent years that our champions now fight it out with the minnows of Europe to gain entry into the Champions League. Celtic’s efforts in recent years have helped raise this but the majority of other Scottish clubs have been out of Europe before the schools return in mid-August. It remains vital to Celtic in financial terms that they progress to the Champions League group stages but more importantly to the fans it offers that glamour and excitement which domestic football sometimes lacks. This season will see Celtic begin the SPFL season for the first time in their history with no fixtures against traditionally tough opponents Hibs, Hearts or Rangers (however you view them) and there can be no denying that some of the more traditionally exciting Scottish games are not on the calendar. Champions league football is vital to keeping excitement and interest alive, especially in the darkening days of the Scottish autumn. We may not be equipped at the moment to envisage making a huge impression on the big European footballing powers whose financial muscle dwarfs ours but those night’s at Celtic Park demonstrate that in terms of support and atmosphere we are definitely among the elite. That incredible support drives the team on and we can still punch above our weight at Celtic Park and teams of the highest quality know they have to perform to get a result there.
This time last year we were facing Cliftonville, Elfsborg and Shakhtar Karagandy on our way to what was an ultimately disappointing campaign in the Champions League but at the time we loved every second of our jousts with the big guns of Barcelona, Ajax and AC Milan. We were found wanting on the pitch at times but the excitement and buzz around those games was a tremendous boost to the support and of course the club banked millions of pounds. In the past we may have been naively bundled out by sides like the street wise muggers of Juventus or well beaten by a Neymar inspired Barcelona but those are the risks you take in the toughest and best club competition on Earth. Most fans would rather be in among the big boys and run those risks than be pressing their faces up against the window and watching from the outside.
It has irritated sections of the support that the club has yet to strengthen the side given the importance of the upcoming qualifiers although it may be that some potential targets will hold off until Celtic make it, hopefully, to the group stages of the UCL. Rather than welcoming the signing of Craig Gordon, it has merely led to speculation that Fraser Forster’s time at Celtic may be drawing to a close. The new manager comes with a reputation of creating useful sides on a limited budget and this doesn’t suggest the board are minded to release huge amounts of money for his transfer budget. Celtic have a fine balancing act to pull off here, on one hand the policy of signing ‘rough diamonds’ like Wanyama relatively cheaply and developing them for sale has proved profitable. On the other the support are no mugs and recognise that the continual selling of our best players is weakening the side. In the two years since Celtic defeated Barcelona on that memorable night in 2012, the side has undoubtedly regressed. It is up the board to ensure that their ‘buy cheap-sell dear’ policy is handled intelligently and doesn’t have a detrimental effect on the quality of the side. Indeed, some suggest a lack of transfer money to build the side was one of the reasons behind Neil Lennon’s departure. Of course we realise the constraints of playing in the low income world of Scottish Football and accept that sometimes we simply can’t refuse the sort of money being offered by the English Premiership but the club must also remember the most important factor in the equation remains the Celtic supporters. Failure in these qualifiers will not sit easily with a support, many of whom rightly or wrongly, view the club as stockpiling cash. Of course prudent financial planning is required in these difficult times and we need look no further than Govan to see the results of arrogance and hubris. However the new man needs to mould his own team and the cash from any sales should be given to him in full to build for the future.
Tonight’s tie in Iceland is hopefully the first step on our journey to the Champions League. The rewards for success are great both in terms of excitement for the fans and finances for the club but the price of failure is equally great. Celtic as a club and support need European football for many reasons. It is true to say that the most vital games in Celtic’s season are these qualifying ties which come dangerously early in the football year. The team needs to be ready to put in a shift and get us through these qualifying games. Tonight they begin in a modest little ground which holds less than many Scottish Junior stadia. Should they wish to be in among the elite of European football again then they’d best hit the ground running.