On Tuesday night I, like so many others, sank as Jordi Alba forced in a 94th minute winner against us in the Camp Nou. A goal that made it 2-1 to the reigning World Champions at home felt so cruel for a Celtic team that had worked so hard for so long. Thirty seconds from another Champions League point in Barcelona. Gutted. Immensely proud of the team, but gutted nonetheless. Barcelona deserved the overall victory, of that there is no doubt, but the 2-1 scoreline would have been easier to take if they’d scored in the 64th minute rather than the 94th. Besides, not every team that deserves to win will do so.
Think back almost exactly a year. A year and eight days from Tuesday’s draw to be exact. Sitting at half time at Rugby Park, hoping – not expecting – that Celtic could just show something, anything, to prove they still had the fight to take the challenge to Rangers who were running away at the top of the league. 3-0 down to Kilmarnock, I’m sure there was a point that day I was sitting with my head in my hands wondering if Neil Lennon’s time as Celtic manager was coming to an end. The thought crossed Lennon’s mind too.
Imagine jumping in a time machine now and going back to that half time. Would past you believe future you if future you told past you the truth of how far we would go under Lennon?
“Don’t worry, we come back to draw 3-3, catch Rangers before New Year, win the league the next time we come here to Rugby Park by winning 6-0, Rangers die in the summer and we qualify for the Champions League to go toe to toe with Barcelona.”
It almost seems unbelievable to the future you who lived through it all, doesn’t it?
Funnily enough, the football fixtures have thrown up Kilmarnock at this point for us to play against. Fortunately this time we’re at home for a Saturday 3pm (10 ET, 7 PT) kick off in which we find ourselves three points clear at the top of the league with a game in hand. Breathing room, which after a hard shift on Tuesday night may be just the thing we need. No doubt the gaffer will make full use of the squad again and we’ll see the likes of Watt, Miku, Matthews and others who didn’t feature in Barcelona used again in the SPL.
There may be no real pressure, but the home support will no doubt be expectant as they usually are, and the manager will of course demand no easing up from his team. Hopefully the supporters will turn out in numbers to show their appreciation for the efforts of the team we are so proud of, before backing them in what could be a tough game.
Kilmarnock will sense a chance here. They haven’t beaten us at Celtic Park since December 1955, and will fancy a European hangover to help them get that first win in 57 years. Despite being scudded 6-0 the last time we met them in our title clinching match, they will no doubt remember the last time they faced us in Glasgow where they came out on top in the League Cup final. Their previous visit to Celtic Park also annoyed Kenny Shiels as a first half injury time goal from Georgios Samaras was slightly more than the minimum of one minute that the officials had indicated. Yes, minimum Kenny. Samaras did get a second goal that day, with Daniel Racchi making it 2-1, but Kenny didn’t care about those too much.
Sadly it’s no rest for Celtic next midweek either as St Johnstone visit on Tuesday night for a 7.45pm (14.45 ET, 11.45 PT) kick off in the League Cup quarter final. This won’t be an easy tie as we face a team bang in form and who sit in second spot in the SPL currently. With five wins in a row for the first time in over forty years, Steve Lomas has succeeded in turning around what had been an awful start to the season. Of course, that turnaround started with a 2-1 home victory over Celtic last month.
Despite Kris Commons giving us an early lead and then being denied what looked a pretty clear cut penalty – which would also have meant a red card for Steven Anderson for denying a goal scoring opportunity – Gregory Tade levelled the game before Rowan Vine’s winner gave Celtic their only defeat of the season until the visit to Barcelona. The turnaround in fortune mirrors St Johnstone last season who also started badly before winning 1-0 at Celtic Park and going on to finish top six. The fact Lomas is on Burnley’s radar also mirrors Bristol City noticing his predecessor Derek McInnes last season.
But the League Cup is a different animal (© Jason Higgins). When we last faced St Johnstone in this tournament, it was a visit to McDiarmid Park in the same round two years ago. Celtic raced to an early 3-0 lead, and were denied a fourth due to a dodgy offside decision, before being pegged back to 3-2 and only a late Fraser Forster reaction save prevented the game going into extra time.
We haven’t actually faced St Johnstone in the League Cup at home in a proper cup tie. Our previous two home games both came in the now long gone group stages. The first of those came in August 1961 when St Johnstone won 1-0, however the more recent game in August 1981 was a 4-1 victory for Celtic. Frank McGarvey gave Celtic an early lead, while Davie Provan got the next two goals either side of the break. St Johnstone’s John Pelosi was sent off on the hour mark and Charlie Nicholas made it 4-0 a few minutes later. St Johnstone’s consolation came near the end thanks to an 18-year old Ally McCoist who moved on to Sunderland soon thereafter.
Provan, Nicholas, McCoist… don’t worry, some players from that night still have real jobs. Current first team coach Danny McGrain was a Celtic stalwart at the time, while a young David Moyes, now manager of Everton, was making his first full start for the club having made his debut as a substitute against Hibernian the previous weekend. They can’t all be successful when they retire from playing I suppose.
That can’t be said of Neil Lennon though. I’m sure even Neil himself would agree he’s far from the finished product, but for a guy to have been learning on the job at one of the world’s biggest clubs it cannot be denied what a terrific job he has done. In the two and a half years since coming in as caretaker manager we’ve seen him grow to be a fine tactician and motivator, and one cannot help wonder what lies ahead next. With 125 years almost under our belt, who’s to say that in another 125 years future Celtic fans aren’t talking about Lennon in the same way we still talk about the greats many of us were too young to see like Willie Maley and Jock Stein.
It may be premature to suggest that of Neil Lennon yet, but if the last two and a half years are any indication I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Krys (twitter @Krys1888 and @HHMParadiseRep)