When I want to remind myself of how big Celtic were in the not-so-distant past I think back to a train journey from Edinburgh to Glasgow where for pretty much the whole trip a man in an expensive suit was on the phone, anxiously trying to find out the precise status of his application for a season ticket.
How long was the waiting list? When would he reach the top of it? If that moment came mid-season could he go to games right away? Were European matches included? What about the “Auld Firm”? The man was English and, bless him, thought a dip into the vernacular might have been appropriate. But it wasn’t half annoying having to listen to him repeat himself as he was passed around the office.
“That Celtic’s so hot right now!” quipped my friend, which was him re-working a Will Ferrell line from movie comedy-of-the-moment Zoolander, about a gloriously dim-witted male model and his marginally less stupid buddy. And Celtic were hot. Martin O’Neill had masterminded a new-century renaissance. The stadium was full and the football was exciting. Celtic were mighty domestically and a distinct threat abroad. Henrik Larsson was a god. There was talk of the club playing in England. It was a great time to be a Celt, or one whose company had re-located north and who wanted to jump on the bandwagon.
So where are we now? Zoolander 2 is imminent but Celtic In Europe 2 is officially a dud, just like this season’s Celtic In Europe 1. Out of the Champions League before it began, they’ve just exited the Europa as well. The bromance with Rangers – don’t ask me which of them is Derek Zoolander – is over for the time being. The ground is half-empty, the league is a bore, the team is much less glamorous – and greats from the O’Neill side queue up to slag them off.
Is there a more damning pundit out there than Chris Sutton? It’s how he’s making his name in TV, I suppose – going further than the rest. He wasn’t always great in his career – just ask Chelsea fans – but anyway this isn’t a good time for Celtic. Certainly not the moment to be talking about moving one of their games to America.
This isn’t Celtic’s idea, rather it’s come from Dundee’s US owners, Tim Keyes and John Nelms. But cynics will say – and the club have been involved in discussions, apparently – that the idea is “very Celtic”. It’s grandiose. They’re showing off (especially to Rangers). They’re playing at being big-shots.
Funnily enough, some will say the same things about Dundee in the context of the Tayside rivalry – and indeed these were precisely the criticisms being voiced by Dundee United fans when I visited Broughty Ferry last week.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Celtic come out and say they’re keen on this. They have, as they like to tell you, a brand, a diaspora, family everywhere. But right now they wouldn’t be showing the world anything like their best face. It’s true that such an idea wasn’t around in the days of the O’Neill team, far less the Jock Stein one, although I don’t think I’d have approved of it then either.
Surely there’s something arrogant about turning up in a strange land, unpacking your sporting culture and thinking you might be able to “educate” the natives and sell a few replica shirts. And there seems to be something lunatic about turning up with what is essentially a failed product.
The fans back home, what with repetitive fixtures, inconvenient kick-off times and often lousy weather, don’t need much reason to miss games. They certainly don’t need the excuse of a Premiership fixture happening 3,300 miles across the big pond in Philadelphia – and another 80-odd farther on if you’re a loyal Dundee supporter.
Last Thursday’s defeat by Ajax condemned Celtic to truly looking no further than the next match, that one being as domestic as they come in the shape of today’s trip to Inverness. Ronny Deila can’t be thinking about new horizons while trying to convince enough of the right people – not Chris Sutton – that he’s making progress and eventually it’ll all work out. But the timing of daft notions such as this game in the US is unfortunate and doesn’t do him any favours.
Over at Dundee Paul Hartley, pictured left, has gone for the idea. He remembers playing for Celtic in Chicago in a packed stadium. There’s no reason, he says, why his team shouldn’t explore how far the Dundee name can travel. Now, it would be lovely to think that a delegation from Dens Park could charm those in some far-off place. And it would be highly amusing if, like in the stories of innocent lands being left with addictions to processed food and television after the sophisticated visitors have packed up and gone home, half of Philly was to end up obsessed with The Broons, the half-time peh and the perversity of two football clubs being separated by a street-width.
But I just can’t see that happening.
Some eternal optimists, assessing Celtic’s latest flop on the European stage, thought they detected some hope. At one point there were nine Scots playing, most of them under 25, including Scott Allan, at long last given his chance. Although this line-up was forced on Deila by injury he’s extolled the virtues of a majorly home-grown team. Now, such a line-up may ultimately be forced on him by financial stringencies, but what is Celtic’s heritage if not the European Cup being won by 11 men born within 30 miles of Parkhead? The club have made sure everyone born 30 miles outwith the place knows about that.
Think local, and only then do we act global. Maybe that’s the way to do it. For right now this match sounds like a wildly optimistic if not downright bonkers space mission. We’d launch the rocket hoping there would be interesting life forms to greet us on touchdown. But – bloody hell – what if there weren’t?