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Progress under Lenny – review of European adventures
It’s Always Been About Europe. Baby Steps Becoming Toddler Strides Under Lennon.
It’s always been about Europe. When we are taking the first steps towards Timdom, someone sits you down and utters the imortal words: “Have you heard about the Lisbon Lions?”.
I remember clearly when I discovered Europe was touchable. Not just something you listened to on a paint splattered trannie in the kitchen when it was way past your bedtime on a school night.
We played Borussia Dortmund in 1987/88 UEFA Cup. It was the first time we had played a West German side in European competition but more importantly it was the first time I knew of people that traveled to the away leg on a bus. I thought buses only went as far as Arbroath. The intrepid travellers returned – with a now usual 2-0 defeat – with loud black and yellow ‘riot hats’ with stories of beer, bratwarust and a near riot.
It sounded great. The appetite was wetted to sample this for myself and for Celtic to sample this for as often and as long as possible. Winning in Europe holds a great romanticism but the scales of justice balance as if we are winning in Europe we are more than good enough to win domestically.
Currently our manager needs to get that European edge. In his first adventure the rebuilding was on-going and we were faced with an FC Braga side that on first impression smacked of a decent Europa League side. They proved to be just that reaching the final of that competition and taking all 20 minutes to end all thoughts of us producing a miracle by over turning a 3-0 first leg mauling.
Next saw the relative minnows of Eredivise of FC Utrecht. Off course that proved an utter fallacy with the phenomenally named Ricky Van Wolfswinkel taking full advantage of the comic timing that seems to befall our defenders on such occasions.
That night contributed massively to the end of Jos Hooiveld Celtic career though – with the benefit of hindsight – why Dan Mjastorovic and Cha Du Ri never saw the same fate can only be put down to leniency awarded to their new signing status.
It was a disaster but an excusable one. After we threw away the league at the end of that season we were consoling ourselves with the Scottish Cup and the belief that we had the makings of a good side fermenting. Before that could become a feel good factor we had the massive pantomine that was FC Sion.
Again, they were written off as minnows (see there is a trend developing here) but a closer inspection of the club saw a basketcase business powered by the ego of a chairman. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
In a squall of bravado we only saw the limited Ex Jambo Jose Goncalves and Pascal Feindouno who turned up on trial with us the previous season only to leave citing a poor contract offer and that he fancied Qatar. The fact that he ended up in Switzerland on a perktastic contract which matched anything a R*ngers EBT could pay should have told us all we needed to know.
We were playing a team that were willing to ride roughshod over FIFA signing laws and normal financial practices. After our defeat we saw UEFA dragged through nearly every court in Swizterland – including the fantastically named Canton Of Vaud – as Sion tried to over-turn the awarded 6-0 defeat for fielding ineligible players. We played Europa League hokey cokey for weeks.
Still, and rightly so, questions were asked over why we lost the game in the first place. Anyone who witnessed the toothless Swiss at Celtic Park would have took a glance at their balance sheet and wondered what they had done with the money. We all forgot the comedy moments we are so good at and that Dan Mjastorovic is up there with Tommy Cooper when picking his moment to gain a laugh.
Celtic and Lennon rode our legislative luck into the group stages. The luck ran out as we took Sion’s seeding and ended up in a group with Atletico Madrid, Udinese Calcio and Stade Rennes. The support viewed this with great consternation.
We all wanted the experience, we all knew the team would benefit from taking part, we all wanted to see progress but the fact that we had been bluntly embarrassed with ease by lesser mortals than the ones we would be facing was a worry. I hoped more than once that some judge would vote to torpedo the law of FIFA and allow Sion back in.
Three minutes into our opening group game I would have sold an organ for that result to happen.
Celtic great comedy moments away from home in Europe number 149 was to allow Ramuda Falcao, one of the best strikers in Europe, top goal scorer in the previous years Europa League, £30m worth of prime beef striking ability, a free run and header inside three minutes. It was going to be a long night and only Madrid taking pity on such a ragtailed bunch saw us escape with a 2-0 defeat.
That turned out to be the lowest 90 minutes that we would have.
Udinese at home was next. UEFA treat this competition like it’s something they wish to hide in a coal bunker. This see’s 18:05 kick off times to disinterested and empty stadiums just to ensure maxium Tv exposure on channels that have run out of Van Damme films and Minder repeats to show.
An early penalty from Ki was undone by some great goalkeeping from Samir Handanovic and dubious officiating from a Turkish referee. We drew with a side riding high in Serie A and though they fielded a team that was a mixture of fringe and kids it took the introduction of three first team regulars to swing the game in their favour and give the feeling that we were hanging on and dropping two points was inevitable.
Away was were the problem is though. Next up was trip to the Stade De Lorient. An impressive breezeblock stadium, which became a caldron of Breton Celticness through a haze of Ultra lit flares from both sets of fans, and unlike many modern stadiums carried the atmosphere like a theatre and not a monolithic monstrosity. It was a spectacle befitting of what I imagined Europe to be all about back in 1988. It seemed not worthy of the Europa League and that the fans were spitting in the face of UEFA’s treatment of this good lady.
The goal we lost that night was worthy of the Sunday League. Cha Du Ri decided to take a harmless clearance from a corner and for reasons only known to him play the ball back without looking to see where Fraser Forster was. Geordie dialect and South Korean tinged German doesn’t make for great communication.
This undone a confident start from us. We got ourselves back into the game and after chances were missed from Stokes and Cha, Ledley scored a fine header. The game could have swung either way after that with his going toe to toe, Forster had a fine save in injury time but a defeat would have been massively undeserved. It was the first time in a long time we weren’t just roadkill on our travels.
The return game saw an injury ravaged side loss a goal after two minutes from – surprise, surprise – a set play and were lucky to not to be out of sight before we equalised. Two goals before half time from Anthony Stokes, an impressive display from Samaras, a third from Hooper and a tactical counter attacking mature performance that was as European as they come. We Europeaned the European’s. The baby steps all of a sudden became toddler strides.
Aye, but….we still had to play Atletico at home. A solitary Arda Turan strike downed us but once again we weren’t overawed. Amazingly, we were going into the last game with a chance to qualify for the last 32. The task? Beat Udinese Calcio in the Stadio Friuli where only Arsenal had left without tasting defeat.
The Italians wheeled out the big guns unlike when they faced us at Celtic Park. They were taking this and us seriously. There could be two trains of thought about this game. That Italians were smothered by their cultural characteristics and played for the draw or that we pinned them back with a performance of verve, confidence and not short of ability.
Gary Hoopers goal saw us in the box seat. Di Natalie undeservedly equalised in first half injury time. It was a deflating goal. I wonder what would have happened if we had got in one up at half time. I watched Udinese just run out of steam and effort in the last 16 against FC Twente. That could have been us frustrating them I thought but the reality that this was 3 months later and the Italians were flattering domestically brought me back to earth.
The game saw Fraser Forster confirm his rise from just a loan keeper who needed to improve to a player that will be a massive gap to fill if his agent gets his way. His double save from Di Natalie was breath-taking. We also saw Cha Du Ri get booked by mistake. The Greek referee got him mixed up with Scott Brown. Broonie is said to impressed that the ref thought he could speak such good English. Cha was also an unlucky bounce off the post away from scoring a goal more memorable than the one he got in Rennes.
When we got to the start of May that December night seemed so long ago. It was interesting, but not surprising, that Neil Lennon mentioned that night in his speech on a rain soaked wind swept pitch after the receiving the Championship trophy.
It was a night when our deficiencies were obvious (Cha and Dan were by far the two worst players on the pitch) but our progress spiked and peaked during those 90 minutes and beyond.
We were only beaten in the groups by the team that went onto win the tournament. That’s not something that we can easily dismiss and ignore. In fact..I’m proud of that fact.
What we need to find out now is if that was just a spike brought about by playing in a completely pressure free situation and that when the heat is on we will fail to qualify again?
The task is already looking daunting. The impressive young bucks of Dinamo Zagreb are there, Partisan Belgrade are giving children of listening on paint splattered trannies flashbacks, FC Cluj are not as porcelain as they sound with their petrol dollar backing and a certain Swede has links to Helsingborgs. Oh, a certain team called Maribor might be returning to Glasgow looking for another easy victory.
I can’t wait.