Another international break is upon us. Ach, at least there’s some qualifiers in there for a change and it’s not all just pointless friendlies. Few who read these blogs give a toss other than to hope that the Celtic players get back from the matches injury free, so I’m not going to go into it. Instead, I see this as a chance to stop and reflect on where we find ourselves. I touched on it a bit last week, but I thought it was worth examining one aspect in more detail.
For me, the biggest thing that’s happened recently is Celtic’s return to the Champions League group stages. I cannot stress enough just how delighted I am that Celtic are back at the big table after four years. I may have grown up in an era when Celtic couldn’t get near the competition as it was for champions only, but I still believe that it is where a club of our stature belong. The competition is of course a misnomer these days with it’s “Champions” branding, but as it now has some of the biggest clubs in Europe competing in it year on year then to be missing big clubs from it seems wrong. Inter Milan aren’t there this year, what’s that about?!
I don’t mean big clubs in a money sense. Having lots of money to throw around does not make a club big, it just means they play in a well funded league or have an owner who has more money than sense. England has plenty of those. Manchester City isn’t a big club, nor is Chelsea. They’re merely flavour of the month because they have buckets of money to throw around and have bought their success. Money has ruined the game of football and Sky have played a massive part in that with their 20 years of “this is the best league in the world” nonsense.
The daft thing is, despite all the money they’ve pumped into it you’ll still get better quality in Spain than you will in England. It’s arguable at the very top, but the fact Atletico Madrid – a mid-table Spanish team – easily pumped early English leaders Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup was yet another example. Hell they beat Athletic Bilbao to win the Europa League as well. Yes, Barcelona and Real Madrid run away with La Liga these days, but that’s not to say the teams behind them are bad.
For me, bums on seats is what really defines a big club. Not just in the stadium, as again the glory hunters will pack into the likes of big spending Chelsea and Manchester City for the moment, but across the globe in front of radio, computers and televisions. Teams like Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich… and Celtic. Our own global reach should never be doubted. Here I am, sitting in Glasgow, writing a blog for something which started life as a podcast between a guy in Texas and a guy in Canada. We’ve had bloggers in the US, Ireland, England and Australia. I’m almost the odd one out on here by actually being in the same city as the football club!
No one will ever convince me that Celtic are anything other than a massive club. We may play in a small league and have a tiny budget when compared with some of the other big teams across Europe, but we have something many of them don’t. We have a strong, passionate support who go above and beyond to not only watch the game regardless of the kick off time, but one who make friends where possible and try to help each other out. We are rightly proud of our history, and that is where we can trace back our helping of our fellow man. We were founded to do just that.
When we travel to Moscow, Barcelona and Lisbon this season we will be welcomed with open arms. I stood in the Camp Nou almost eight years ago now and after drawing 1-1 there was a simple message on the big screen. “Haste Ye Back”. There was another team in Glasgow once who visited that same city and the more accurate statement for them would be “Don’t Come Back”.
The one I’m really looking forward to though is Lisbon. I’ve booked up to travel over and whether I get a ticket or not for the game that night (I’m hopefully but I’ll need to wait and see), one thing I definitely plan on doing is visiting the site of Celtic’s greatest ever victory. I WILL go to the Estadio Nacional.
As much as the competition has changed drastically since victory there in 1967, UEFA always recognise the former winners of their premier competition. Of the 32 teams in the group stages this season, UEFA were singing the praises of the 12 that had previously won the tournament. Chelsea, Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Porto, AC Milan, Benfica, Ajax, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund… and Celtic. Of those 12, only Chelsea, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund didn’t win the cup prior to “the Champions League era”. But, sadly, of the 12 two have not won the cup since that 1992 rebranding.
The chances of us correcting that would appear to be extremely slim indeed. The bookmakers odds have us at 200/1 at best and 600/1 at worst to add to our 1967 title. Benfica, the other team, are slightly better at 66/1 to 125/1. I find it hard to disagree. We just don’t have the resources to compete properly at this level. Our best hope is that we play well in our six games, qualify for the last sixteen knockout phase by finishing second in the group and then maybe get a good draw to squeak our way into the last eight. If Neil Lennon managed to take Celtic to that stage he would be regarded as a miracle worker and would outshine anything Martin O’Neill or Gordon Strachan managed.
The last time we played Barcelona was in the last sixteen of the tournament in 2008. The money gap has widened further in the four and a half years since then. Compared with what Martin O’Neill had to work with when he took us to Seville to 2003, Neil Lennon has been working with his hands tied behind his back. Lennon himself was a £6 million signing for O’Neill. Now Neil is lucky if he gets half of that to spend on a player. The only time £6 million is mentioned in the corridors of Celtic Park these days is whether or not we can accept a bid of that value from a mid-table English Premier League team. Hell, their second tier can buy promising young strikers for more than that now. They all spend more while we spend less.
If Gordon Strachan is to be praised for making the last sixteen while working in more restrictive conditions than Martin O’Neill, then Neil Lennon should be just as praised for what he has already achieved. As much as I would love to see us truly compete on a European level again, I’m sadly realistic about our position in football. I just wish we could find a way to change it so that once more football is dominated by the truly big clubs – those with the fan bases to support their size – and not just the artificial financially inflated ones.
Krys (twitter @Krys1888 and @HHMParadiseRep)