IT’S a long way from Thurso, population 8,000, to the San Siro stadium, capacity 80,000. But this is the journey Gary Mackay-Steven will complete when he steps on to the pitch for the second leg of Celtic’s Europa League last-32 clash with Inter Milan next week.
The tie is still alive following Thursday night’s pulsating encounter and team-mate Stuart Armstrong has described Mackay-Steven as “the key” in Italy. Armstrong has himself already had a significant say in the outcome after sparking the Celtic comeback with the opening goal against Roberto Mancini’s side.
But Mackay-Steven, he said yesterday, could be the man to break down an Inter Milan defence that looked peculiarly un-Italian at Celtic Park.
The winger will have to do some acclimatising first. Mackay-Steven, who grew up in the Caithness town of Thurso, claims never to have visited Italy, never mind played at the famous ground in the San Siro district of Milan.
Barring a freak result, there is little chance of Celtic going through on the away-goal rule following Thursday’s 3-3 draw. But, thanks to substitute John Guidetti’s stoppage-time equaliser, a 1-0 or 2-1 victory will be enough. Celtic’s hopes could indeed hinge on creative players such as Mackay-Steven.
“I’ve never been but obviously the San Siro is an iconic stadium,” said the winger. “Like Parkhead on European nights, it will be special, although I don’t think it could top the atmosphere we had on Thursday. Celtic Park on European nights, especially in games like we had against Inter, has an atmosphere that the fans create which is just electric.”
Having only joined Celtic on the last day of the most recent transfer window, this was the first time Mackay-Steven had sampled a European night at Celtic Park from the pitch. A spell at the Liverpool youth academy when he was a teenager means he was able to compare it with those occasions when Anfield bursts with emotion as You’ll Never Walk Alone is sung. Whisper it in Liverpool, but there was no comparison.
“I’ve experienced it at Anfield but at Parkhead, with the green and white and the 60,000 fans singing it, it’s really special,” he said. “When you get to the stadium, go through your warm-up and you hear the fans singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, it really gets the goose-bumps going.”
Both Mackay-Steven and Armstrong did exceptionally well on their first European outing for Celtic and only their third appearance in total for their new club. Mackay-Steven has the bruises to show for it, too.
“That is what the Italians are renowned for,” he said. “They have big, strong defenders who are very good, but you have to go into these games with no fear, play your own game and take on whoever. Hopefully we’ll get our rewards next week. I’ve got a few bruises to show for it but nothing to worry about.”
“I enjoyed it, definitely,” he added. “It was great playing on that stage. Obviously we didn’t get the result we wanted by letting in three goals but I think we’re still very much in the tie and I feel we can definitely go over there and get through.
“It’s even. They have the away goals but I think we showed on Thursday, by the chances we created as well as the goals we scored, they are there to be got at. We’ll be going over to Italy to attack them again.”
As far as Armstrong is concerned, his friend Mackay-Steven could be the pivotal player in Italy. “I thought he was terrific in the way he runs at defenders,” reflected Armstrong. “He had them on the back foot and he was a real threat for us going forward.
“He could be key in the San Siro. The way he plays, all it takes is the perfect pass and he is away on the break. If we get one of those passes to him, he can break the lines. He has incredible pace. The way he gets away from defenders is just phenomenal. That is something we will be looking to utilise over there.”
It was possible to sense some impatience on the part of both Mackay-Steven and Armstrong following Thursday night’s drama. They sounded like they wanted to re-engage with Inter Milan immediately. However, there is the little matter of their title quest to consider first.
Hamilton Accies are due back at Parkhead, where they won earlier in the season, tomorrow, and Armstrong knows thoughts must now turn to their domestic ambitions. The midfielder hopes to have recovered from the cramp that afflicted him towards the end of Thursday’s game.
“There might have been a psychological side to my cramping, maybe it was mentally draining,” he pondered. “I was quite nervous before the game but, as soon as it kicked off, those nerves went away and I focused on the game. I just blanked everything out. Perhaps nerves played a part in the tiredness but there was a lot of running, a lot of chasing, a lot of keeping the shape. It was a mixture of hard work and a lot of emotion.”
He dismissed the idea that Celtic might suffer because of the inevitable drop in intensity levels tomorrow. “I don’t think there is a danger of an emotional comedown,” he said. “The focus is on the league now and that is where our attention lies now. Every game is an important game at this time of the season when we are pushing on every front.”
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