WHEN Celtic take to the pitch in Moscow on Tuesday they will come face-to-face with a man who played an integral role in getting them there. From 2,200 miles away.
Although often a match-winning performer for his boyhood club and indisputably blessed with mesmerising ability, ultimately Aiden McGeady’s greatest contribution to Celtic was leaving the club – or being “asset managed” in a £10 million move that took him to Spartak Moscow in the summer of 2010.
That sale largely financed Neil Lennon’s reconstruction of a failing Celtic squad. It covered the outlays on Gary Hooper, Beram Kayal, Joe Ledley and “five or six others”, says Lennon. The team that won the title last season and last month qualified for the Champions League group stage came to life through McGeady’s football existence in Glasgow being brought to an end.
“Aiden was a great servant to the club and nobody here has a bad word to say for him,” the Celtic manager says. “But don’t be giving Aiden credit for the fact we’re now in the Champions League group stages!”
McGeady departed expressing a little hurt at the desperation with which Celtic sought to cash in on him. His fractious relationship with Gordon Strachan – famously he was suspended after a spat with the manager – can sometimes obscure the fact that the Republic of Ireland international was a telling influence in the club’s three-in-a-row side. Yet, two years ago, aged 24 and after five years as a member of the first-team, it was time for him to go.
“At the time we made a conscious decision that it was good business for the club and the player had ambitions to try something different,” Lennon says. “When it comes to that scenario, there is only one sensible outcome. We felt we could reinvest the money and bring new players in. It was a win-win situation. Listen, nobody ever wants to sell their best player but the money we received made sense for us to do it. We had to move on and we have done. We’ve progressed well. That said, would I love to have Aiden McGeady in my team? Yes, I would.”
McGeady was a much misunderstood young man. His willingness to remake his life in Russia and the fact that he has prospered and prolonged his stay there beyond what tends to be possible for British-born-and-raised players, hardly square with his image as a quarrelsome, conceited Glaswegian. He may now desire a move to England but his playing and personal development these past two years has revealed another side of his complex personality.
“He did have his troubles off the park,” Lennon says. “But Moscow is a different city and it was a new city for him. What does sometimes get lost is that Aiden is a very intelligent boy. It’s turned out to be a great move for him. I’m sure people had their doubts about how he’d cope at the age he was, but he’s answered his doubters.
“Spartak are a tough unit and very methodical, with good individual talent in forward areas and Aiden is doing very, very well for them. He will be a danger to us on Tuesday.
“It looks like he’s enjoying his football. Credit to him for that. It can’t be easy to go to a new environment and culture and prosper. There has been interest in him from England that I know of. He has improved again and he’s playing in a very tough league at a high level. He’s taken his game on. If he comes back to bite us, then that’s football.”
Yet, McGeady’s parting of the ways with his old club may have given them added bite in the long run. His current day equivalent is James Forrest. The youngster may be far less skilful and tricky but, by being more direct, more explosive and a (far) more accomplished finisher is, arguably, more valuable. It must be said, though, that both players have a similar strike-rate and assists record in Celtic colours, despite the moans that used to be voiced about McGeady’s “end product”.
However, the fact is that, were McGeady still at Celtic, it is unlikely Forrest would have blossomed. As Lennon realises. “It was also a worry that we lost Artur Boruc at the same time [as McGeady]. They were quality players and played consistently well for us and helped the club win trophies and compete brilliantly in Europe. You worry whether you can replace such quality and I’m not saying it’s like for like but we’ve brought in Fraser Forster and we’ve had the emergence of young James.”
Forrest will be key to Celtic’s attempts to win an away group game in the Champions League at their 19th attempt. Lennon believes his pace and that of the hopefully fit-again Georgios Samaras can allow his team to make chances against Unai Emery’s “rigid” 4-2-3-1 formation, in which McGeady is allowed to “rove the line”. Celtic’s chances must be boosted by injuries that will cost the Muscovites the services of main players Romulo and Jurado. Mind you, the way previous Celtic sides have tended to perform on the road in Champions League group games it has seemed as if the club could lose against any 11 footballers. With one draw – at the Camp Nou of all places – and 17 defeats, nine of these consecutive, they practically have done so.
Lennon, having watched his side win in Helsingborg and Helsinki and stand up to the challenges presented by Udinese and Rennes in their past four European outings, dares to believe Tuesday could be different. Oddly, Moscow has been different for the club. Celtic’s finest away performance on the continent in the past eight years was the 2-0 win over Dynamo Moscow in a Champions League qualifier in August 2009 under Tony Mowbray. The win was responsible for the club overturning a first-leg home deficit in Europe for the first time. Two years earlier, a 1-1 draw on the artificial surface of the Luzkhniki Stadium where they will play on on Tuesday helped Celtic to progress to the group stage at Spartak’s expense, the success achieved with a penalty shoot-out in the Glasgow return. However, it is the make-up of the current side, rather than past heroics, which provides Lennon with hope.
“I think we have a different mindset. I think we have more of a European feel. We have got more foreign players so maybe they don’t have as much of the British mentality that we had previously. They are younger. They have not had the experience of playing away from home. If we can play to the level we played in Udine or Rennes, or even in Helsingborg, we will be delighted with that.” If, as is more likely, Celtic do not perform to that level and are left with one point from two games ahead of back-to-back clashes with Barcelona, the gloom will start to gather around their Group G prospects.