THE probability is that if you quizzed each and every one of these Celtic players about the famous acts of escapology in the club’s storied past in European competition then you wouldn’t get much in the way of detail.
Jock Stein’s team coming back from the dead against St Etienne in 1968. Davie Hay’s side turning it around against Sporting Lisbon in 1983. John Collins’ winner against Cologne in 1993. Modern players don’t tend to know their history, but on nights like this, when they’re writing the history all by themselves, then it really doesn’t matter a damn what they know or don’t know.
Shakhter couldn’t hold a candle to any of those other rivals that have fallen at Celtic Park over the years but they still took a hell of a lot of beating. It took until added time until they were seen off, a stake plunged into their big hearts which almost – almost – camouflaged the awful weaknesses in their game. It looked to all the world as if the night was headed for another 30 angst-ridden minutes. By that time you would have forgiven the support had they had the very life drained out of them, but like their team they were energised to the end. They elevated their team with their noise. Drove them on. It was Anthony Stokes who engineered the winner and James Forrest who poked it home, but they had a stadium running with them. Not a triumph of the 11, but of the tens of thousands.
The Celtic support could not have done more for their team, truly they couldn’t. They turned up in vast numbers with their hope and their fears and their desperation, too, and made the kind of noise that would have awoken the dead. The teams emerged; a wall of sound. The break-up of the huddle; a crescendo. The kick-off, the first chance, the second, the third, the fourth; GBH of the ear-hole every single time. And the goals? Well, that was a hubbub of a different order.
It was a bearpit out there. It was always likely to be, in fairness. As a team, Shakhter have little subtlety and little interest in those who point out their deficiencies. We might call them agricultural in their play and they don’t care. We might think for an hour to list their assets and not come up with much beyond organised and physical and lucky but through their manager, Viktor Kumykov, they have made it abundantly obviously that our opinions are not worth a damn to them.
They just came thundering out into the Celtic Park night and clattered anything that moved. Lennon had a word with the fourth official about it, gently brandishing an imaginary card as a reminder that his colleague was permitted to show some colour. Only 14 minutes had been played at that point. It was that kind of scrap. That kind of night.
A sheep was not the only thing sacrificed since these two teams hooked-up. Last night, Lennon culled three-quarters of his defence from the first leg. They had their own anxious moments but they did their job and down the other end – where it all had to happen – a job was done, too. Late and dramatic and euphoric and lucrative. Three goals and about sixteen million quid, just for starters. Back-to-back Champions League qualification for Neil Lennon. What a huge feat, this is. A feat achieved without the spine of the team that got them there last year. Stunning and nerve-shredding all at the same time.
When Commons and Samaras scored the dynamic changed. Oh how it changed. Consider the Shakhter mindset before Commons rifled his shot low past Aleksandr Mokin followed soon after the break by Samaras’ tap-in. They’d seen Mikael Lustig miss from a close-range header inside five minutes, they’d watched Stokes take the ball around their goalkeeper after 10 minutes but they cleared his effort off the line. They’d seen Forrest’s shot tipped over and Stokes’ header clawed away, they’d seen Commons’ free-kick pawed clear by Mokin even though the goalkeeper looked like he hadn’t the first clue what he was doing at the time. Commons had put in a beautiful cross at one point but there was nobody there to meet it. Celtic had about five reasonable chances to break the deadlock and hadn’t done it.
Shakhter were in dreamland. Eventually referee Svein Moen of Norway started punishing them and for a short spell he issued yellow cards like he was dishing out snuff at a wake, but Shakhter plodded on regardless. Celtic were huffing and puffing. They were high-energy, high-tempo, high-emotion, but were as low as could be in the goal count and for all the noise and the possession and the chances, goals were the only thing that could save this night from becoming one of the greatest, costliest and most head-wrecking missed opportunities in their history.
Before the Commons-Samaras double whammy – and again soon after - you got to thinking about the gallows instead of the goals. Sure, there was buckets of time to go but how many times have we seen a team waste chances only to be punished soon after? Happens all the time. You got to thinking about all of Celtic’s chances and their lack of a ruthless goalscorer to bang a few of them in. Gary Hooper’s presence in this team seems a lifetime ago. Because Hooper has gone, because Amido Balde is nowhere close to this level and because Celtic have failed to land any one of their 27 targets up front – or does it just seem like 27? – their chief striker was Stokes, a player Lennon has rarely trusted in big European games, a player who has only ever scored in one European match in his career and that was an awfully long time ago.
Stokes it was, though. And Stokes it was who hit the crossbar from point-blank range 15 minutes into the second half. Had he scored, Celtic would have been 3-0 ahead. Not home-free, but setting sail for home. His miss seemed to give Shakhter the mightiest lift. Within three minutes, his team were given two terrifying reminder of how precarious their reality still was despite what Commons and Samaras had done for them. Adam Matthews had to clear off his own line one minute and in the next, Shakhter hit the Celtic crossbar.
Redemption at the end. Redemption in so many ways. Redemption for Stokes whose brilliant slaloming run created the winner for Forrest. Redemption for last week’s horror-show in Kazakhstan. Redemption for Peter Lawwell who would have been hit square between the eyes with the ire of the supporters had Celtic had not pulled this off. Lawwell is now free to loosen the purse strings and spend the kind of money on the kind of player, or players, that will see his team as a competitive force when they rejoin the elite of European football.
The hilarious irony of the end-game was that Forrest had spent the minutes preceding his winner seemingly asking his manager to take him off. In his moment of triumph, wheeling away to take the acclaim of a stadium that had understandably and brilliantly lost its senses, he suddenly metamorphosed into a boy that you couldn’t have removed with a JCB. Celtic Park on such nights? Honestly, you could not make it up.