NO MATTER what the result in tonight’s European Champions League match between Celtic and Juventus, the Glasgow club have already notched their greatest achievement of recent times, according to club legend Kenny Dalglish.
“It’s a huge game for Celtic,” said Dalglish. “But I don’t think beating Juventus would be as great an achievement as beating the best team in the world, Barcelona.
“That was the second best result in the history of the football club. Winning the European Cup was the best result, but that win will be up there.”
With trademark dry humour, he joked: “If they beat Juventus people might say they have taken a step back!”
Dalglish paid tribute to manager Neil Lennon for doing “fantastically well” and added: “Celtic have been fantastic in qualification. To get through the group was a real achievement, and I don’t think you can explain it logically that they got through.
“Never underestimate what they have done because they deserve all the plaudits in the world just for getting through. Now they have tasted a wee bit of the success, they’ll want more and they will be right up for it.”
Can Celtic win this round-of-16 tie against the likes of Andrea Pirlo? “He’s a fantastic player and they are a really good side, but really good sides have been beaten before, and Celtic will remain optimistic that they can beat them.
“Did you think Chelsea were going to beat Barcelona [in last season’s Champions League semi-final]? Did you think St Mirren were going to beat Celtic? Did you think Celtic were going to beat Barcelona? You never know in football.”
Speaking yesterday at the launch of the tenth annual SFA Grassroots Awards presented by McDonalds, Dalglish spoke of his hopes for the Scots who will feature in the Celtic squad.
He said: “Whoever plays tomorrow night is going to have a fantastic evening. It would be better if it was 18 Scots in the team and on the bench, but at least there are some Scottish boys involved and that’s great for them and for Celtic. The supporters love to see local boys coming through and they like to be able to say ‘that’s so and so’s cousin’, but more importantly, they want to see their teams winning.”
As Scotland’s most capped player, Dalglish has welcomed the appointment of Gordon Strachan as national team manager in place of Craig Levein, and thinks the victory over Estonia at Aberdeen last week was a sign of progress.
“They are getting stronger,” said Dalglish. “Look at last night [Sunday] when Burkina Faso got beat in the final of the African Nations Cup [1-0 by Nigeria]. I remember they were one place ahead of Scotland [in the Fifa rankings] a few years ago, and everyone was saying ‘that’s terrible’. So if they have stepped up to the plate then so can we, and I think we have progressed.
“Gordon is a very good appointment. The players will enjoy working with him, and the media will enjoy working with him, so it is a boost for Scottish football.
“It was unfortunate to see Craig lose his job, but I think as well as Gordon going in as manager, it is very important that everybody has reasonable aspirations as to what we can achieve. I think progress is the first thing that we are looking for and the result against Estonia was positive and shows we have moved forward a little bit. And there’s positivity when you think of the number of lads that are now playing Premier League football in England which is more than there has been for a long time. Slowly but surely we are moving forward.”
Dalglish singled out James McCarthy and James McArthur of Wigan Athletic as the sort of players who could inspire Scottish youngsters to reach the footballing heights. “They were at Hamilton three or four years ago,” said Dalglish, “and now they are in midfield at Wigan, and if you read the reports, they are the strongest part of the team. Everybody wants to look up to somebody, but it is also about giving youngsters the opportunities.”
That’s what Dalglish encourages as Head of Football for McDonald’s, driven by the memory of his family’s sacrifices and encouragement when he was growing up in Glasgow – “you do it because your parents did it for you,” is his simple philosophy.
The SFA and McDonalds working together has made a big difference to the funding of Scottish football development at the basic level in recent years, said Dalglish, and the Grassroots Awards recognise the contribution of the unsung heroes of the Scottish game, those volunteers who give up their time to coach and care for young footballers.
Dalglish said: “The English FA have people falling over themselves to sponsor them so the money that McDonalds gives to the other three home nations is really, really important to them.
“Last year there were over 1,000 nominations for these awards, but there could have been 50,000 because there are so many people who deserve to be appreciated for what they have done at grass roots level.”
More players at grassroots level means more players at senior level, and if the SFA-McDonalds scheme ever finds anyone as good as Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish, it will be worth every penny of the investment.
• The 2013 Scottish FA Grassroots Awards, presented by McDonald’s has opened for nominations. McDonald’s Head of Scottish Football Kenny Dalglish is urging communities to nominate their grassroots heroes for one of the eight award categories. To vote for a football coach, club or volunteer go to mcdonalds.co.uk/kickstart