Glamour isn’t associated with the Champions League qualifying second round draw that Celtic will be pitched into tomorrow. Yet the first assignment in Europe – or, competitively, anywhere – for new manager Brendan Rodgers represents the black and white football world that Celtic must perform in to earn the glorious technicolour nights of the group stages.
In the past two seasons, under Ronny Deila, qualifying grey days left the club as unwanted extras when it came to bright lights being switched on for club football’s blockbuster entertainment. Celtic midfielder Ryan Christie is driven to help the club claim star profile because he remembers well the last pure Hollywood occasion his team enjoyed in the competition. Indeed, the Highlander’s own plotline within it could have been scripted.
The 2-1 victory of Neil Lennon’s side against the ultimate star name, Barcelona, in November 2012 was cinematic in coming against the backdrop of Celtic’s 125th anniversary celebrations. Christie’s dad, one-time Celtic player Charlie, decided that he and his son could not miss the occasion – whatever else they had to miss. It is a benchmark victory against which the 21-year-old is prepared to measure his and his team-mates’ efforts.
“I think back to watching Celtic play in the Champions League and now it’s my job, and the rest of the players’ jobs, to get us back to where we think we belong, which is the Champions League,” said the former Inverness Caledonian Thistle player.
“The feel-good factor would go through the roof if we were to get back to that level. The fans are turning out and the season ticket sales have been superb so far this summer. I’m sure they’re all coming to see the new manager and hopefully a rejuvenated team. So if we can get far in Europe it’s almost like paying them back – and hopefully we can do that.
“I missed school the day after Celtic beat Barcelona 2-1. It was a really incredible night. I think I left for the game straight from school in Inverness on the Wednesday and then we headed back up the road right after the game. But there was such a buzz on the way up the road and it was incredible.
“I didn’t make it to school the next day but I didn’t get into any trouble from the teachers. I think my mum managed to conjure up some sort of note.
“Now I might get the opportunity to face a team of that calibre myself. It’s strange to think about it but that’s what I’m aiming for as a player, and that’s what everyone in the team is aiming for. Those are the games that everyone always remembers and obviously making history like Celtic did against Barcelona that night is what every player dreams of doing. And Tony Watt was such a young player when he scored that decisive second goal in the match.”
Immediate targets for Celtic must be much more prosaic. In the draw to be made in Nyon in Switzerland tomorrow there are a couple of sides the club would probably do well to avoid in what tends to be a loosely regionalised draw. Chief among these looks to be Swedish side IFK Norrkoping, the current champions in their country. They snatched the title from Malmo, the team that accounted for Celtic in the Champions League qualifying round. Currently lying second in the summer-structured Allsvenskan, they are only three points off Malmo, though have stuttered with three straight draws in their latest championship outings.
They are way ahead of Celtic in terms of competitive sharpness following 10 league games, though because of a Euro 2016-inspired June shutdown one comfort would be that they will play only one league game before the Champions League second-round qualifiers on 12 or 13 July and 19 and 20 July. However, such as Crusaders of Belfast, Dundalk or Finnish side SJK Seinäjoki would be preferred.
“There are so many different league set-ups around Europe now that you can end up drawing teams in places where their leagues are already in full flow,” said Christie, who will meet Rodgers for the first time when the Celtic squad begin their pre-season programme at Lennoxtown tomorrow. “But we’ll have had plenty of training sessions and a few warm-up games before we play in our qualifier so we’ll be more than ready to meet the challenge.”
If he gets to meet the challenge, playing in Europe wouldn’t be a new experience for Christie. He turned out for Inverness against Romanians Astra Giurgiu in a Europa League qualifier last July. A 1-0 aggregate loss came after a scoreless draw in a heroic return leg in eastern Europe. Celtic scrapped for a home win and a draw against Astra in emerging from the Europa League group stages the previous season. Patently they didn’t impress because noises from Astra’s camp recently are that they want the Scottish champions in the Champions League play-off as they perceive them weakest among the seeded teams.
“Is that right? Cheeky... I think times have changed for us now,” said Christie. “We’ve been unfortunate in Europe over the past couple of years. I’d probably say that going into the new season, it’s the most positive the club has been for a while in terms of moving forward.
“At Inverness we were a bit unlucky and I thought over the two legs we might have deserved to sneak something. And Astra then went on to put out West Ham and teams like that. I was a bit surprised at that because I didn’t think they were that good.
“It gave me a wee taste of European football. I really enjoyed playing games early and when you travel away for European fixtures, it’s got a different kind of feel to it. I’m really looking forward to it.”
On the back of recent experiences, he must be the only person of a Celtic disposition to feel that way.