I’ve always said that nothing beats a European night when Celtic are involved and even today I stand by that. I’m sure you’ll find plenty of Celtic fans who would argue they preferred gubbing Rangers, but for all I enjoyed that I always preferred going toe to toe with a decent team rather than a team we just happen to hate.
My first European game didn’t come until 1999, almost eight years after my first Celtic game, but I have memories of European nights that stretch back further than that.
The Partizan Belgrade game is slightly before my memory can manage, and I’ve probably blocked out Neuchatel Xamax entirely. The other games around that time are a bit hazy too, but I distinctly remember hiding at the back of the class at school with my headphones on trying to listen to the stupidly early kick off against Dinamo Batumi in 1995!
Back in the 1990s, the radio was undoubtedly my window into Celtic games. I’ve previously spoken about how I listened to Celtic stopping ten in a row in my bedroom, but earlier that season I’d been down the park playing football with my mates with a radio blaring as Celtic seemeingly tried to emulate the Partizan Belgrade game against Tirol Innsbruck. I distinctly remember continually keeping my mates up to date with how we were out, then through, then out, then through and eventually definitely through!
I’d love to say I remember precisely what my first European game was that I actually attended, but I’m not sure I know which one it was. I have no memory of Celtic playing Cwmbran Town in 1999 but I have a nagging feeling I might have been there. I definitely remember being at the following round against Hapoel Tel-Aviv, sitting in the upper deck of the north stand and watching Lubo Moravcik pick out something like a 60 yard pass to setup Henrik Larsson with a goal. I’m also positive that when we lost to Lyon in the following round, there was a picture of Jonathan Gould being caught well off his line in the Daily Record the next morning – and there was me and my dad in the background as we got absolutely soaked in one of the front rows of the stand.
By my reckoning, including those three rounds in 1999, Celtic have played 69 games at home in Europe over that period to this point in time which is a few hours before we play Astra Giurgiu. Assuming I did attend the Cwmbran Town match, I’ve missed just six of those games across that time.
In 2001, I couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money for the Juventus game. We’d skipped the three match package as we were due to miss the Rosenborg game by being away on holiday, but after the terrorist attacks in America that game was rescheduled to a date that we could make. We got tickets for that and the Porto game, but not the Juventus game that turned out to be one of the best European matches ever played at Celtic Park!
Prior to that, one of my favourite memories was the half time against Bordeaux. We were 0-0 at the time, and going through on away goals after a 1-1 draw in the first leg. As the teams came out, I got my first real experience of a full Celtic Park singing You’ll Never Walk Alone. The games I’d been to before that hadn’t had the same atmosphere. Martin O’Neill was at the start of his revolution and we hadn’t long before gubbed Rangers 6-2. I’d seen Mark Burchill score a hat trick in just four minutes against Jeunesse D’Esch, but that game had been all too easy and we all knew it. The Bordeaux game was as tight as it could be, and the fans rose to the occasion – as did the hairs on the back of my neck. I know that’s a cliché, but in this instance it’s exactly what happened! I’ve heard us sing it so many times since, and possibly louder too, but that game had such a profound effect on me that I still smile thinking about it. Even if we did go on and lose 2-1 after extra time despite Lubo giving us the lead on the night!
After the Juventus game I didn’t miss another home European match until 2007 when work took me to London in the same week that Celtic played Milan in the last sixteen of the Champions League. What a run of games we had in that period of time!
The wonderful Santiago Canizares winning the penalty shootout for Valencia in 2001. Then of course came the road to Seville in the 2002/03 season – including the win over Basel before losing the second leg which dropped us from the Champions League to the UEFA Cup. I was at every home game in every round that year and it was something I never thought I’d see. I was even amazingly privileged to go to the final in Seville itself. The following season, I distinctly remember watching us beat Kaunas in qualifying in heat that felt just as warm as Seville despite it being Glasgow! Beating a very good Lyon team before the thumping first half against Anderlecht in the Champions League group stages were both fantastic, but ultimately eclipsed by beating Barcelona in the UEFA Cup later that season.
Seeing Larsson come back with Barcelona and pick us apart the following season was a depressing privilege, but not quite as depressing as the following season when we ALMOST turned around that dire 5-0 defeat to Artmedia. The 4-0 home win was close but no cigar, but even that itself was a dramatic night and probably bought Gordon Strachan some time to bed in. Even 2006 saw us hammer Benfica in Kenny Miller’s finest match before beating Manchester United thanks to Shunsuke Nakamura’s free kick and Artur Boruc’s penalty save. It was great fun explaining to people that night how we had just qualified thanks to our head to head comparison with United – I must have been one of the few to understand that leaving the ground!
I’d even been to some of the away games during that period. After Seville, we went Munich to see us take the lead through Alan Thompson but ultimately lose thanks to a dreadful Stan Varga header and some even worse Magnus Hedman goalkeeping. I was there for the second leg in Barcelona which is very probably my favourite moment in all the time I’ve supported Celtic. It’s ten years since that game and my voice still hasn’t recovered from chorus after chorus after chorus of Willie Maley as we walked down the ramps of the Camp Nou!
Sadly, Barcelona is the only place I’ve seen us do anything other than lose. Later that year I was back in the city to see us get a draw thanks to John Hartson’s equaliser, but I’d already seen us lose late on in Milan after Varga had headed home an equaliser, and I’d even been to Donetsk to sober up very quickly as we lost 3-0. It’s actually depressing to see what’s happening in that region of Ukraine now, almost ten years to the day that I was there getting drunk with my dad for a fiver – about £4.50 of which was the Coca Cola mixer.
Two years later we visited Manchester to see an epic battle with United where we’d lose 3-2 after Ryan Giggs’ hamstring gave way as he tried to go round Boruc and he was awarded a penalty for it. Despite that horrid decision and the ridiculous heat of the Old Trafford stand, that was the best of the three trips that year.
The next trip was supposed to be a visit to hallowed ground in Lisbon. But thanks to a broken aeroplane, our day trip to the city didn’t leave Glasgow until after lunch and that left us with just enough time to see one square full of Celtic fans and get something to eat from McDonalds before we had to be back at the bus to head to the game itself. A game where, of course, Gary Caldwell was horrendous and we got gubbed 3-0. Six years later I took my wife to the city for a few days as Celtic once again drew Benfica in the Champions League, and so I did eventually get to the Estadio Nacional. Sadly, we lost 2-1 that day as well!
The visit to Copenhagen in 2006 went a lot smoother and we got to see that city, but of course the game was almost as bad as in Lisbon and we lost 3-1. Still, the hot dogs in the stadium were excellent.
2007 I got to see Celtic do something they’d never done before – win a European penalty shoot out. What drama that was against Spartak Moscow. I’d experienced a penalty shoot out against Valencia six years earlier, but to win one was amazing. If any picture says it all about the triumph that night it’s the one of Tommy Burns jumping onto the pile of players smothering Boruc. To this day I still can’t believe he died before the end of that same season.
By 2007 I was starting to go on holiday to Florida in September, and although the European draw was lucky that year and I didn’t miss any of the narrow home wins against Benfica, Shakhtar Donetsk and even the reigning European Champions Milan, in 2008 it meant I missed the home game against Aalborg. Fortunately, like the last sixteen Milan game in 2007, that was 0-0 too. Maybe the universe was trying to redress the balance after I’d missed the seven goal thriller against Juventus.
The results haven’t always been as great in the years since then. A draw against Manchester United and a win over Villarreal in 2008. Defeats to Dynamo Moscow and Arsenal in 2009, which lead to a draw against Rapid Vienna and a defeat to Hamburg. At least there was a win over Hapoel Tel-Aviv in there too. The 2010 wins over Braga and Utrecht were good, but Braga had already gubbed us in the first leg, and the away leg against Utrecht was just awful.
Sion wasn’t much better the following year either, but thankfully they were banned from signing players and blatantly ignored that. So, after appeal, we went into a difficult group where we lost to Atletico Madrid – most of whom would go on to end the dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid and win La Liga in 2013/14 – draw with Udinese who annoyingly didn’t bring Di Natale, and beat Rennes. This was just a hint at what was to come the following season.
Although I was at the games against Helsinki and Helsingborg in 2012 which saw us return to the Champions League group stages, I missed the first group game against Benfica as once again I was in Florida for a holiday. Trust me, September is a great month to go over there! The queues at the theme parks are FAR shorter than during the peak periods! But as I said earlier, I saw Benfica in the away game anyway so that balanced that out.
Do I really need to mention the stand out game from that campaign?
Imagine I’d been recording in 2004 in the Camp Nou. It would have been worse than that, trust me! 90 minutes of nerves followed by sheer ecstasy at the end.
Another penalty drama, this time in regular time, against Spartak Moscow followed that to send us through to another last sixteen only to get gubbed by Juventus. And there was me glad that I’d finally get to see us play Juventus in person that night too.
Last season I saw us have an easy game against Cliftonville, an awful but ultimately barely successful game against Elfsborg, and then the drama of squeaking past Shakhter Karagandy having been 2-0 down from the first leg. That’s probably the last drama I’ve seen in Europe as after that we narrowly lost to a disappointingly poor Barcelona and got thumped by an even poorer Milan. In between we beat Ajax, but I missed that game helping out my pregnant wife. We had been planning to go to that game, but we’d been for a scan of a stubborn baby earlier that day who had tried to hide from the scan and we’d had to work hard to get him to stop hiding! By the time we were supposed to be heading to the match my wife was in agony and so we headed home and watched it on TV instead.
This season just hasn’t been the same. Two games at Murrayfield instead of Celtic Park – one of which we lost but got a reprieve due to an administrative error – and then a disappointing defeat to Maribor to blow the reprieve. Despite the disappointment of two of those three games, the drama has perversely still been a highlight of the season. I still love European nights, whether we win them or not.
But after the Maribor game I snapped. You’ve seen the blog that came the following day. That had been building up for a while, but blowing the reprieve was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The mismanagement of the club at board level had got lucky the previous season. Elfsborg should have beaten us, Karagandy shouldn’t have binned a two goal lead. Did the board learn from this? No, they patted themselves on the back and then they tried to scrape through again. Even after the reprieve, did they learn anything? No. The only strengthening of the team came on the last day of the transfer window again – thus proving that strengthening didn’t even rely on getting to the Champions League! Why gamble then? Yeah yeah, it’s all the players being stubborn apparently. Funny, other teams managed to strengthen with plenty of time to spare.
I’d love to be going along to the match tonight against Astra. I’d have loved to have gone to the Dinamo Zagreb game a couple of weeks ago too. But the European matches have been the first casualty of my personal stand against Celtic. I’ll be honest, it’s gut wrenching that I’ll be watching the game in the house. As should be evident by this point, I love European nights. But as gut wrenching as it is, I read Celtic’s response to the living wage resolution at the AGM yesterday and I know that I’m right in my stand.
That lot have absolutely no understanding of the club they run. The sums have been done, and the cost of becoming a living wage employer roughly equates to Peter Lawwell’s bonus bonus. Not his wages, not his contractual obligation to 60% of his wages bonus, but the extra bonus he got on top of that. The board say they need to keep control of the remunerations, well that’s why they need control of it. Peter Lawwell is already paid far beyond the scale of anything else at the club, and he’s the first to tell us about the market which we operate in. In fact, the statement about the living wage mentions the uncertainty in Scottish Football. So to then add on an extra bonus on top of his already out of whack financial package is all the proof anyone should need that priorities at Celtic are so far from what Brother Walfrid envisaged that it’s embarrassing to even suggest that the club is the same thing he founded any more.
Peter Lawwell is the easy target of course. Given the current finances of the club we could actually afford to pay both the living wage and Peter Lawwell his bonus bonus. I wouldn’t, but then I don’t think he’s doing a particularly good job. Look around the half empty stadium tonight and you’ll get confirmation of that. Yes, people will be missing because the competition is poor or they can’t afford the extra money for the tickets regardless of how reasonably priced they are, but there’s plenty more people who aren’t attending because they’re pissed off like I am. Even some of those who are attending aren’t exactly happy – they just haven’t reached the same point that I have.
I’ve seen it suggested that campaigning for Celtic to be a living wage employer is wrong because we should be campaigning for the living wage to be universal. I actually agree that the legal minimum wage in this country should be tied to the living wage. And that should be the case of all! I object to the fact that the minimum wage is discriminatory against age. There is no valid reason for under 21s to be paid less than over 21s – they do the same job. Why is there such an outcry about that when it’s sexism, but not ageism? Further to that, there is no valid reason that the minimum wage should be lower than the living wage. Why should anyone be paid less than they can live on? What a horrible society we live in where that’s the case.
This all needs changed at a political level. But there is no reason that a campaign to resolve those issues can’t be run along side one which sees Celtic do it. Why do they need to be mutually exclusive? Given Celtic’s past, the club should be leading the way. Get Celtic on side as a living wage employer and you can use that to lobby the politicians. Imagine a body as far reaching and as influential as Celtic saying “we pay the living wage, and we urge everyone else to join us in doing that”. That is precisely where Celtic should be right now. We should be a champion of that sort of thing, instead we’re too busy hoarding the cash for a select few.
What’s that phrase we’re so fond of banding about now? More than a club? Only in that you’re a greedy club. You’re far less than Celtic should be. The fact you don’t even see it means you shouldn’t be there.
Best of luck to Ronny Deila, the players, and all of the supporters who will turn up tonight. I hope the game against Astra turn out to be another great European night at Celtic Park. I wish I was among you, but right now I cannot bring myself to do it. I’ll be cheering you on from the comfort of my own living room.