THE last few weeks “have not been easy”, admits Efe Ambrose. A 48-hour spin cycle of emotions wherein the high of winning the Africa Cup of Nations with Nigeria was replaced by the low of making the mistakes that look to have Celtic counted out of their last-16 Champions League tie before this week’s Turin return leg has seen to that.
Perhaps entitled to have caused greatest anguish for the softly-spoken, serious-minded individual, however, is the flailing he took from someone expected to be on his side, team-mate Kris Commons, over a flawed performance after stepping on to the pitch “to help his team” only hours after stepping off a flight from South Africa.
Yet, speaking for the first time about the incident, Ambrose says he has found it easy not only to forgive Commons but also be grateful to him for making him “a better player”. A deeply religious figure who perceives all that happens in his life as being pre-ordained for good reason, into this he has included Commons’ withering criticisms immediately after the 3-0 loss to Juventus. And which included the scathing: “He said he was feeling brilliant [to the manager]. If he wasn’t feeling OK then he should have said so. If he felt good then he should have put in a better performance.” Later in the same interview, Commons stated: “There are certain individuals who let the team down.”
“With me and Kris Commons – I know what he felt like,” Ambrose says. “At the same time, he’s a great friend of mine. We’ve been chatting, we’ve been laughing. Sometimes when you lose, it brings another part of you out. I understood that. So I just take everything the way it comes. At the same time, he apologised, which I understand. When I don’t feel happy about something it’s good to express it.
“But the way that he did express it was not done in the proper way. So people looked at it as if he over-reacted. But for me, I understand. He just made me a better player, gave me a challenge that next time I shall stand up for myself and stand up for the team. That’s what he just tried to tell me. I understand better than what people out there understood what he was saying. After he created my goal [against Dundee United in the next game], he crossed the ball for me and I scored so we’ve been nice to each other since.”
Ambrose never felt like snubbing Commons after his outburst since that is not a part of his make-up. “I never get angry in football because, when something happens like this, you have bad times and good times. I have dealt with it, I am a professional and if you let that get to you it can drive you into the drain. So I never allowed it to come into the way that we play games. Sometimes the media force you into saying something that you don’t want to, or the anger comes out when we are not in a good mood to speak. When he was calm and he spoke, he wouldn’t have said what he said. He’s a great pal and player and he wants, like me, great success for the team.”
When Ambrose talks of learning from his mistakes over what happened in the first leg, it is a reference to how he played, rather than the fact he played having been out of the country for five weeks in the immediate lead-up to Celtic’s most important game in five years.
“Of course, any day, any time,” is the Nigerian’s response to whether he would make the same decision again, his manager Neil Lennon having expressed the same certainty over the player being pitched straight in. The Celtic manager didn’t have to bail out of almighty celebrations sparked by his country’s first Africa Cup of Nations win in almost two decades, mind.
“I am the kind of player who really likes working and playing. I love my job and like playing. I want to have something to do, to help my team. As you know, I really love my club and they really needed me at that point to help them qualify. It didn’t work out the way it was supposed to or you would not be asking me these questions. If I had come and we had won the game, you would not be asking me this. You would be telling me it’s a great thing coming back to help my team to win. Football is like this and you have to deal with the bad moments.
“I never thought about the celebrations in Nigeria because I had a job to do and I was back in Glasgow to do it. I was always going to come and help my team. There was a party with the President celebrating the cup because it was 19 years since we won it. It was amazing to win the cup and for me to be part of the group at that time was amazing. But my club comes first in this situation. I believe I have many celebrations ahead for me this season anyway so we have a second chance to enjoy that.”
Ambrose has still not given up hope of contesting the quarter-finals of the Champions League. That became an altogether taller order when the defender seemed to misjudge the flight of a hopeful punt after four minutes of the first leg, which allowed Alessandro Matri to run through and score.
“I didn’t lose the flight. He was clever, he gave me a push to unbalance me. He was clever to do that. The strikers were good but not in the way people thought they would be. We would have kept them out apart from the mistakes we made.”
Now mistakes must be replaced by miracles if Celtic’s European adventure is not to end on Wednesday. “Football is all about 90 minutes, anything can happen, we have seen that before,” Ambrose says. “We can wish for a miracle and it could be the day that everything could work in our favour. We just need to put our heads into it and see what happens.”
What Celtic manager Neil Lennon wants to happen before Wednesday is for UEFA’s head of referees, Pierluigi Collina, to pick up the phone to him and clarify whether Juventus’s strong-arm and octopus-arms tactics defending corners are deemed acceptable, after not resulting in the expected sanctions of penalties and red cards in the first leg.
“We were told that Collina would call us, we had an assurance that he would give us a call just to clear a few things. We are still waiting on that coming through,” Lennon says. “From our point of view, it was illegal what they were doing. The referee should have been stronger. People say Juventus did their homework. Well, we did our homework because we knew the way [Stephan] Lichtsteiner marked. From my own experience, I also knew the situation because of a corresponding fixture 11 years ago. So we made the players aware of it, to flag it up to the officials. I just felt the referee didn’t do his job properly. I have also been assured by people within the SFA that the directives we were shown at the start of the season, all the managers, emphasised that holding in the box would be reported. We felt the referee let us down on the night.”
Ambrose may also have done so – but not for the want of trying.