THERE is a slightly surreal air surrounding Celtic as the champions-elect approach their William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final against Dundee United today.
It’s all to do with the venue and the conjecture that some sort of hoodoo hangs over Celtic at Hampden Park, a spell that must be broken if the Parkhead side are to win the double.
Jinxes and hexes are the province of the supernatural, but for Celtic defender Efe Ambrose, there is only one power that this committed Christian acknowledges.
“I only pray to my God,” said Ambrose, who revealed a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the reality of playing for Nigeria, a country riven with sectarian tensions between Christians and Muslims.
“I say prayers and pray for God’s favour upon us,” said Ambrose.
“Everybody believes in their own God but for me I just believe in saying my prayers.
“My faith is very important to me. We just have to believe in our faith and everything we do.
“I pray in the hotel before we leave. Victor Wanyama prays on his own too.
“In Nigeria it’s not a problem. Every time we have prayers we all come together as one, Christian and Muslim, to pray.
“Here, I don’t know, but for us in Nigeria it’s very important for everyone in the team to pray together.”
The supposed hoodoo does not trouble Ambrose at all, for the simple reason he has never played at Hampden, while he thinks hard work and preparation are the really important ingredients for Celtic.
“This will be my first game,” he said. “I believe in football that you keep learning from your mistakes. I believe the team has learned from the previous games and the manager has put a stress on it – we have watched so many videos, concerning the games we have played there.
“Maybe this time I can bring some luck into the team and we can have a change of fortune at Hampden.”
The semi-final comes near the end of a good season for Ambrose, the 24-year-old signed by manager Neil Lennon last year from Israeli club Ashdod.
“Yes, it’s been a marvellous season for me,” said Ambrose. “Moving to Celtic has been good for me – my football has improved, I have settled down well and the club has helped me a lot.
“I went to the Africa Cup of Nations with the support of the Scottish fans and my team-mates. That helped me a lot to achieve my goal. Helping them in return to get the double is now my goal.”
Ambrose gives the impression of a happy-go-lucky type, and he has been accident prone, forgetting his passport on one foreign trip and then missing the team bus when Celtic were due to play Juventus in the Champions League. His explanation? “I was using the Glasgow time on my phone. It was one hour behind so I never knew that the time had arrived and that made me late.
“It’s not that I was doing anything else I was just waiting for the time to be right.
“I felt bad. It was the Champions League, a game I was really looking forward to playing in and to make up for what had happened.
“I was late and that made me embarrassed and I got down about it. At the same time I know it could happen to anybody. It’s just unfortunate it was me again.”
Lennon viewed that explanation with scepticism, quipping: “It’s funny that as he wasn’t late for training the day before and it was still the same time difference…”
Lennon is delighted overall with Ambrose, however, and forgave the defender after club discipline was imposed: “It’s not a big issue, he’s been disciplined for it and he wasn’t going to start the game anyway as we were always going to go with Wanyama and Kelvin Wilson.
“He wasn’t dropped because he was late and I said that at the time.
“He’s been a really good signing for us and had a few blips along the way but he’s entitled to that given the amount of games we play.
“In terms of value for money he’s been excellent for us.”
Lennon approves of his players praying, though due to their mixed bag of religions, communal prayers are out – and Celtic have their huddle in any case.
“It’s a private thing, they are all individuals with different cultures and we respect that,” said Lennon. “If they want to go and pray then that’s fine. Just as long as they don’t try and impose that on other people as everyone’s different and everyone has their own way to prepare.
“Any time I see us kicking off when we have [Beram] Kayal and Emilio Izaguirre in the team, the game is going on and they are still saying their prayers!
“I find that interesting but I don’t discourage that at all. I respect them as people first and foremost because they are really good boys.”
As for hoodoos, Lennon pointed out: “They are there to be broken.
“For the first four Old Firm games where Big Eck [Alex] McLeish was in charge, he won two and lost two and people thought he had the Indian sign over Martin O’Neill.
“Martin then went on and won the next seven, so hoodoos are there to broken and if you want to call it a hoodoo, I hope we break ours on Sunday.”
The power of prayer versus the influence of superstition – which force will help or curse Celtic today?