WE WISH Celtic well today as another European journey begins.
It begins for our other representatives, too, with the draw for all the qualifying rounds, but Celtic are currently our only hopes in the elite competition, the Champions League, and John Collins has spoken of his desire for more electric nights in the East End of Glasgow after his club’s failure to make the group stage last season.
“Collins comes across as arrogant with a misplaced sense of entitlement”
But the assistant manager does neither himself nor Celtic any favours with his comments about the rest of Scottish football. He is frustrated by these clubs’ failures in Euro competition because of the knock-on effect for the title-holders of a trickier pathway to exciting ties and a big moneypot. In so doing, though, Collins comes across as arrogant, with a misplaced sense of entitlement.
Celtic having to negotiate three qualifying rounds was “100 per cent unfair,” he said.
“In the last decade or so the club have generally done very well in the qualifiers so I find it unfortunate that we have been held back by the co-efficient points accumulated by the rest of the Scottish teams.
“We have been kind of punished for that, which is unfair, when you consider some of the special nights Celtic have had in the Champions League.”
Now, technically he’s right. Scotland’s co-efficient ranking has plummeted, meaning everyone has to jump through more hoops, including the Hoops. And you can have sympathy for Celtic for having to play more games to qualify, but only up to a point.
Collins sounds irritated, as if he doesn’t think Scotland’s other Euro candidates are pulling their weight and doing enough. The sub-text is they’re not doing enough to help Celtic get into the groups and look glamorous.
I’m sure St Johnstone, after losing Stevie May, missing another big player, Steven MacLean, through injury, still managing to secure European football for the fourth straight year, seeing their season stretch to 11 months and only getting a 24-day break before the sick-bags are put on standby for the resumption of the training slog, think they’re not only doing enough but absolutely all they can. And of course their main aim will be, as always, to do well for themselves, their club and their fans, rather than anyone else’s.
If the smaller teams without Celtic’s resources don’t do as well as the champs in reaching the dizzy heights of a sneaked victory over Barcelona on a rare off-night for the best team in the world, then guess what? Maybe it’s because they don’t have Celtic’s resources.
Maybe it would be Dundee United “compiling dossiers” on Euro opposition – a phrase I’ve always loved being a child of the Cold War and a fan of the spy thrillers of Len Deighton – rather than St Johnstone if Celtic hadn’t dented the Tannadice challenge by luring Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong across to Parkhead. Celtic regularly moan about the lack of competition domestically, almost forgetting how often they’ve weakened the other teams.
If an 11-month season is too gruelling for modestly-financed clubs when it comes to scrambling out of the Euro qualifiers, thereby improving the co-efficient, who do you think is to blame for the domestic element of the campaign being so long-drawn-out? The kind of top flight we have – nine-and-a-half months, 38 games each – is what Celtic and Rangers before their demise wanted. Despite many calls over the years for an expanded division and fewer matches, the Big Two won’t let go of the prospect of four Old Firm games a season, even though they haven’t got them at present.
Celtic may be frustrated by the failures abroad of the other Scottish teams but they are no more frustrated than these clubs themselves. Does Collins not think the likes of St Johnstone want to progress further, have even more adventures, visit places that are – no offence – slightly more exotic than Trnava?
This is Saints manager Tommy Wright, talking about their European sojourns over the past four years: “We’ve had nothing but a positive experience. Minsk was quite expensive for us but my chairman wouldn’t have it any other way – he wants us to be in Europe.”
Wright waxes lyrical about “lovely summer evenings” and 8,500 gates.
He adds: “We took 400 to Trnava, 600 to Rosenborg and 1100 to Lucerne. The supporters have really bought into it. The challenge this year is to try and get through another round and maybe get close to the play-offs.”
Saints are doing their best to continue a fine, if only occasional, Perth tradition of continental competition. Back in the 1970s pomp of Henry Hall and John Connolly, some of the club’s first European opponents puzzled over maps trying to locate the whereabouts of a town called “St Johnstone”.
Other Scottish clubs not involved this year – indeed who haven’t been involved for a while – have notable Euro heritage. Hibernian, Hearts, Dunfermline Athletic and Rangers all participated in Euro competition while Celtic were waiting for Jock Stein to happen along and transform the club.
Indeed Hibs twice reached semi-finals before the Celts made their Euro entrance.
Add Kilmarnock to that group and you have clubs justly proud of famous triumphs under floodlights, who still commemorate them in song and who still think they could have risen to greater heights and later rounds if it wasn’t for the dodgy referee, the underhand tactics, the rotten luck in the play-off.
Celtic of course did go further – all the way to glory, a fantastic achievement. It’s Lisbon and 1967 which drives their desire for more Euro experiences; that and the sense they’ve long outgrown the local scene and the Champions League is where they want to be.
That Celtic Park on such evenings is a stirring place is not in dispute. Indeed, next to half-empty Italian stadia and morgue-like Manchester City, it can claim to be one of the tournament’s iconic venues. But Celtic have no right to Collins’ “special nights”.
The community singing has been lovely, the tears of Rod Stewart heavy and heartfelt, but Celtic are just going to have to battle through the additional games brought about by the fragmentation of Europe – which cannot be blamed on the likes of St Johnstone – and the Champions League’s own self-importance.
Let’s hope they get favourable draws and unlike last time don’t cock up. After all, it would be good for the co-efficient and help the other Scottish teams.