THERE was a good reason why, amid the combination of tension and bedlam at Celtic Park on Wednesday night, Kris Commons appeared completely nerveless when he stepped up to take one of the most significant penalty kicks in the club’s history.
For, as he reflected on his successful 81st-minute conversion from the spot, which earned Celtic a 2-1 victory over Spartak Moscow and a place in the last 16 of the Champions League, Commons revealed he was completely unaware of just how critical it was.
The relative serenity of the 29-year-old Scotland international was born of his belief Barcelona were beating Benfica in the Nou Camp in the evening’s other Group G fixture, an outcome which would have meant a draw was enough for Celtic to progress.
Misinformation to that effect had spread like wildfire around the stadium early in the second half, when an under-strength Barcelona side were, in fact, struggling to hold Benfica at bay in a goalless draw.
It was not until he was taken to the treatment room, having suffered a painful thigh injury in a challenge by Kim Kallstrom which led to the Spartak midfielder being sent off two minutes from time, that Commons learned the enormity of his penalty which he had thundered down the middle and in off the underside of the crossbar.
“When I put the ball down, I wasn’t thinking ‘this is to take us into the last 16’,” said Commons. “I had no idea that Barcelona were drawing. We got the impression they were winning. All the crowd were cheering and we were looking around at each other thinking ‘Barca must have scored’.
“So we thought they’d gone 1-0 up and might go on to get two or three more, and we would just have to hold out for a draw. I was in a similar sort of position back in 2008 with Nottingham Forest, when we had to beat Yeovil on the last day of the season to win promotion and hope Doncaster didn’t beat Cheltenham.
“We won 3-2 and Cheltenham scored a late winner against Doncaster, so there was that kind of buzz going around the stadium with news from the other game. So on Wednesday night, when we thought Barca were winning, you sort of go into a comfort zone.
“But then I saw Lassad coming on for Beram Kayal with about 20 minutes to go and I thought it was a strange sort of substitution if we didn’t need to win the game.
“Then the gaffer was on the touchline, geeing us up, and I thought to myself ‘why is he doing that?’ I was looking around and people in the crowd weren’t themselves, they weren’t singing or bouncing. But when I got the penalty I still thought ‘Barcelona are winning’. No-one had come to me and said ‘listen mate you need this to go in’. I was just thinking ‘put your foot through it, you’ve done it a million times in training, straight down the middle, nice and high away from his feet and we’ll win 2-1’.
“I actually took a step on the way to the run-up and thought about watching to see if he dived early and dinking it, but on my second step I just smashed it. I cut it very fine, to be fair!
“It was only when I was in the treatment room that someone said ‘We’re through, Barcelona drew nil-nil’. I still thought they were winning. Oh my God! I’ll take my mobile phone out on the pitch next time!”
As Celtic now count down the days to the exciting prospect of the last-16 draw on 20 December, Commons is in no doubt about the early Christmas gift he hopes it will deliver.
“There are a lot of good ties there for us,” he said. “Paris St Germain, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are all massive clubs, for example. But, on a personal level, I’d love to play against Manchester United again.
“I scored a winner for Derby against them in the League Cup four years ago and I’ve been a big supporter of them since I was a kid. I collected all the kits. I was even unlucky enough to get the grey one for my birthday, which didn’t go down well.
“They are a top side, especially in Europe. But whoever we get will not fancy coming to Celtic Park. They know they’ll be in for a tough game and we’ve shown that if we put it together on our day, then we can match anyone.
“If anyone thinks we are just from Scotland and are the easy option, then that would be a bit naive of them. If they’d watched our previous games and seen the technical ability our players have and the dangers we carry, then they’d see we were decent. On the road we’ve proved we can win and defend pretty well to hang on for a point or three points. We’re a decent side home and away.”
After spending so much of his career in the second and third tiers of English football, Commons is savouring his first experience of playing in the highest level of European competition.
“It’s still a bit weird for me,” he said. “I laugh and joke with Kelvin Wilson about it. We were in League One, playing at Cheltenham and Leyton Orient trying to get Forest promoted and get them back to a level that was respectable.
“You go to these places and play on cabbage patches in front of 3,000 fans. That’s only five or six years ago and now we’re part of the 16 elite clubs in Europe. We’re not just making up the numbers either. We’re playing well and scoring goals.
“It’s testimony to Neil Lennon for what he saw in me as a youngish kid at Forest. Playing in this competition has opened my eyes to the fact that I can mix it with this level of players.”
It is a status Commons will never take for granted, his every success motivated by the heartbreak suffered by his younger brother, Spencer, whose own promising career was cut short by a serious ankle injury.
“My family is pretty poor and I come from a relatively rough area,” added Commons. “When Spencer sees me on television, he can’t believe he’s seeing me in the Champions League.
“Spencer was only 16 when he suffered his injury. He was in the same Notts County team as big Kelvin, who always says he was going to be a top player. I sort of owe Spencer a lot. People used to say to me ‘your kid’s better than you’, so when I play now there’s something in me that I feel that I am doing it for both of us.
“He’s an electrician now. He went from being a young kid breaking into the first team at Notts County to fixing light fittings. He was up at 5am in the morning for a job at the Co-op after travelling to watch us play Barcelona earlier this season.”