Lost in contemplation
Disappointing as this week's drubbing from PSG at Celtic Park was, a bit of perspective is required. Most Celtic fans recognised early on that we entered the Champions’ League Group stages as massive underdogs when it came to facing the likes of PSG and Bayern. Our real battle was always going to be with Anderlecht for a spot in the Europa League in the New Year. Such is the financial clout of the so called 'elite' clubs of European football they can call on the services of players valued at more than Celtic FC in its entirety. We all know this and we accept the new realities of European football. The days when a club from one of the smaller leagues like Celtic, Red Star Belgrade or Steaua Bucharest can win the Champions League are gone, perhaps forever.
It may irk supporters in the those leagues when they recognise the undeniable fact that UEFA has machinated with the more powerful clubs to create this vicious circle where more and more money is given to the clubs who habitually show up in the later stages of the Champions League and this in turn, combined with bloated TV revenue, allows these clubs to continue to buy the best players in the world and keep the gravy train rolling along. It makes competing with them harder but even so Celtic should have made life more difficult for the aristocrats of French football who were allowed to play their game unhindered by the Hoops’ timid play. It was a harsh reminder that Celtic also started last year’s campaign with a mauling in Barcelona. That was another game in which Celtic barely laid a glove on the more fancied opposition. If we’re honest, we didn’t expect to win our match with PSG but perhaps we were right to expect the team to give a better account of themselves? Brendan Rodgers himself was clear that the mentality at Celtic Park needs to change and hints that it takes time but also that he is the man to change it…
‘For me it’s the mentality, I think for Celtic to qualify for the Champions League is huge in many ways but that can’t just be seen to be success. I want us to go into the Champions League and impose our way of playing, our way of working. I know it’s a million miles away financially from where other teams are at but it should still allow us to compete and of course that takes a little bit of time to get that mentality across. It shouldn’t just be a celebration of us qualifying, we know how huge that is for everyone, how huge it is for the nation to have that representation but that just can’t be it and it won’t be!’
The away supporters were generous in their praise of Celtic Park and the home support even if magazine’s like L’Equipe scored Celtic’s display as a meagre 3.2 out of 10. Baptiste Mandrillon, a French Journalist said of his night in Glasgow…
‘My eyes widened and my lips closed so as to appreciate this better, as one would go for the first time to the Louvre or to the Coliseum. Celtic Park is well of this caste, one of those monuments which exists nowhere else and whose weight of history makes it necessarily incomparable. Getting there is a pilgrimage. Yes, for the beauty of those green and white scarves held high in unison but also to remember that the sport and its essence do not have to be diluted in spite of time and football becoming a lucrative business. In the heart of this northern city of the United Kingdom, with its brick walls, football is visceral. One is born with it, one transmits it and the continuation is impossible to escape. This is a true supporter culture. In Europe it is being lost more and more. Despite the result never being in doubt the Celtic supporters never stopped encouraging their players, especially after each goal, almost as if they had scored. Before leaving this evening to register in the memory bank, we allowed ourselves to wander a little in the winding corridors of this rustic stadium, how fitting to get lost in contemplating the trophies and photos one sees here.’
PSG owner, Nasser Al-Khelaifi also spoke of his time at Celtic Park, saying that it was; ‘the best atmosphere I have ever experienced in my life, the Celtic fans were really wonderful.’ We don’t mind such praise but we would also like the team to turn up and at least give the visitors a game. That ‘mentality’ Rodgers spoke of instilling in his players will be needed in the games ahead. Celtic travel to Belgium to take on Anderlecht in ten days and they simply have to show up for that game. It will be tough enough coming as it does in the wake of a trip to Ibrox with all the emotion and effort which goes into such games. There needs to be a reaction from the Celtic players just as there was when they returned from Barcelona after that 7-0 battering and gave Manchester City a real fight at Celtic Park.
The last song heard at Celtic Park on Tuesday came from the PSG fans who chanted ‘Celtic, Celtic’ in appreciation of a home support who never got on their team’s back and backed them throughout what was a difficult 90 minutes. One PSG fans said, “It was an incredible atmosphere. They are very welcoming. The end of the match was really nice. This is the best trip of my life.” Celtic fans do create an incredible atmosphere on those big European nights under the lights. It’s a reminder in these days of soulless stadiums and corporate clubs run as rich men’s playthings that real football still survives and real supporters still keep the visceral fan culture of the old terraces alive. We live in a world where a rich owner can order his club (Cardiff City) to change their colours from blue to red because he thinks it’s a lucky colour; a world where average ticket prices in the English top league have, according to one report, risen by over 700% since 1990. In the less wealthy Scottish League where ticket money is a much larger percentage of clubs’ income a season ticket for Celtic’s Hampden year in the mid 1990’s cost £160 today it is closer to £500. Football fans may be seen by some as ‘customers’ and treated accordingly but the passion, affection and even love some have for their football club goes well beyond that of a mere customer. Celtic may struggle at times against the world selects the rich clubs put together but their support remains world class. The Paris fans were lavish in their praise because they see the way football is going and recognise that even on the north-west fringes of Europe real supporters still back their team the way they have since football was invented.
Of course we don’t expect to win the Champions League but we do believe that even coming from the relatively poor environment of the SPFL we should still be able to put a team on the field to give the big guns a competitive game. We are less than 18 months into the Rodgers project and it has undoubtedly seen Celtic improve and become a better side. It is a work in progress however and we believe we have the right man in place to instil a pattern of play and a mentality which will see Celtic improve further. Tuesday night was painful to watch at times as Celtic were comprehensively outplayed but that magnificent support stuck by the team in that quintessentially Celtic way they always have.
They deserve better and I for one believe that Brendan Rodgers will in time give them a side which will be more competitive at that level. The Champions league is where Celtic strive to be on a regular basis and as UEFA bends its knee to the big leagues again and cuts the number of teams qualifying via the ‘champions route’ Celtic use, it will get tougher to make the group stages in the years ahead. It would be sad indeed if the competition became little more than a tournament for the rich.
As I headed away from Celtic Park on Tuesday in the steady drizzle of a Glasgow autumn, there was admiration for PSG among the Celtic support and their undoubted talents but frustration too that Celtic took stage fright and didn’t really compete. As one fan said with typical Scottish bluntness,
‘They didnae believe. Rodgers needs to kick some arse, ye need tae show up on these big nights not stand back and admire the opposition.’
I think he was right.