WHEN Neil Lennon went on his glory gallop down the touchline at Celtic Park last Wednesday night, some of his fellow SPFL managers may also have felt in the mood to celebrate.
Not quite in the Lennon fashion – he took off like a man who had suddenly realised his trousers were on fire – but a quiet smile might have been appropriate.
Of course, it is Celtic and Celtic alone who are about to hoover up another cash mountain from the UEFA coffers – £7.3 million for qualifying for the Champions League, a projected minimum of £6.8m in television revenue, with £825,000 for every victory and £426,000 for every draw in a group which features Barcelona, Milan and Ajax, with sundry other earners on top of those numbers – but that is not to say that there isn’t anything in this for the rest of the Scottish Premiership. Clearly there is.
We’re not even talking about the reported £100,000 per club that the remaining 11 in the SPFL are going to make from UEFA on the back of Celtic’s progression to the Champions League – the so-called “solidarity money”. Although that kind of injection is always welcome in these straitened times. We’re not talking either about the positivity for the Scottish game as a whole of having a representative among the elite of European football, although the benefits of that are obvious.
You are less likely to get patronised and ridiculed as a footballing nation – it has happened so often in recent times – when one of your clubs has turned over Barcelona on their way to the last 16 of the Champions League.
We can also, for a little while, spare ourselves the endless post-mortems and navel-gazing about the state of the game in this country.
Fatalism is an art form in Scottish football. It wasn’t that long ago – a couple of seasons – when many saw no future for any Scottish team in the Champions League. In a time of falling standards and reduced budgets we wondered when – if – a Celtic or a Rangers would make it back to the biggest stage. Mercifully, the grimness that surrounded those days has lifted for another season.
Celtic’s rivals will naturally look on and be envious of all that loot that is coming their way and all those million-pound players who are fetching up at Parkhead. You can look at what is happening and be demoralised by the mind-boggling advantages Celtic have over their SPFL rivals or you can see it as an opportunity, if the events of last season are to be repeated.
Celtic in the Champions League is good for Celtic, but a distracted Celtic is good for the SPFL. It’s not going to alter the course of the championship. Nothing is ever likely to do that. But a vulnerable behemoth is never bad for business. Celtic will always have a target on their back in domestic competition, but when they make strides in Europe it only serves as even greater motivation for the teams in Scotland who want to put them away. And last season those teams did it regularly. The unexpected feelgood of last season was, in part, down to the results that Celtic’s rivals were getting when they played Lennon’s team as they prepared for, or recovered from, matches in Europe.
When Celtic were qualifying for, and then playing in, the 2012-13 Champions League you never quite knew what you were going to get from them either side of their European games. Time and again they dropped points in the SPL. After defeating HJK Helsinki they drew 1-1 with Ross County. After drawing with Helsingborgs they drew 2-2 with Hibs. The week before their opening pool game of the Champions League, against Benfica at Celtic Park, they lost to St Johnstone in Perth. Neil Lennon railed against the attitude of his players, but St Johnstone were terrific. Seeing his team lose to a side with the tiniest fraction of his own budget might not have been fun for Lennon, but it was unquestionably good for the Perth club and for the league in general.
The trend continued and it gave the SPL a boost.
A few days after coming within seconds of gaining a fantastic Champions League point in the Nou Camp, Celtic lost at home to Kilmarnock for the first time in 57 years. Either side of their unforgettable victory over Barcelona, Celtic dropped points to Dundee United and St Johnstone. A couple of days after their return match against Benfica, they lost to Inverness at Parkhead. The same story after their away leg against Juventus in the last 16. In their next game they played Ross County and lost 3-2. Last weekend, in the days leading up to the seismic return leg against Shakhter Karagandy, Celtic struggled to take a point off Inverness at Parkhead, Terry Butcher’s team being denied a pretty clear penalty during the game which would have restored their two-goal lead. The draw meant that Inverness remained top of the SPFL. This is only delaying the inevitable, we all know that. But it gives momentum to Inverness. It gives their players belief. It gives the rest of the SPFL encouragement to go to Parkhead not with fear but with a genuine belief.
Butcher brought a confident team to Glasgow last weekend and would have had an even more confident team with him on the bus going back to the Highlands. Just like Celtic will convince themselves that they have nothing to fear from Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax, the rest of the SPFL might say the same of Celtic and many of them have decent results against Lennon’s team to back up their optimism.
Celtic are the big winners – stratospheric in financial terms – but we might find, like last season, that their progression to the Champions League has a welcome impact domestically.