On the eve of a Scottish club hoping to achieve what hasn’t been done for 30 seasons by triumphing at the Nou Camp, it’s worth putting a call in to Gary Lineker.
Hampering plans to retrieve colour and anecdotes about a famous victory, Lineker was on the losing side when Dundee United defeated Barcelona 2-1 to seal a 3-1 aggregate Uefa Cup win.
Someone relishing the romance of Leicester City’s Champions League debut tomorrow against Club Brugge isn’t quite so taken with the memory of going down to Jim McLean’s side twice in a fortnight during March 1987. “I was just about getting over that result, thanks for reminding me,” he says, ahead of tonight’s Champions League group stage opener between Barcelona and Celtic.
He does remember being whistled off by the home fans. “Not a good sign,” he noted. “It wasn’t a good night for us – or a good tie,” he adds. “But Dundee United played really well and above themselves and embarrassed us.
“Both clubs are really different now,” he says, truthfully. Sadly for United, and despite Barcelona’s resurgence, it’s the Tannadice club who are most changed from days when they were regularly jousting with giants.
But then the whole Scottish game has been left behind by the explosion in broadcast investment elsewhere. As the face of both BT Sport and BBC’s Match of the Day, Lineker is conflicted.
He calls the Champions League “the best club tournament in world football” but is slightly aghast at plans to guarantee four group stage places for the top four leagues in Europe. Surely a Leicester City fan cannot support such protectionism?
“I hope they don’t make it a closed shop,” he says. “That would be a little bit unfair on a lot of teams.
“I hope they keep it as an open shop,” he adds. “Everyone has the opportunity to play in the Champions League. Part of it is the opportunity for clubs from the smaller leagues, if that’s not an unfair thing say, to play against the big clubs and perhaps get through to the knockout stage. It’s a brilliant tournament. It’s the best club tournament in world football. I hope they don’t spoil it.”
Some might contend they already have. Dundee United, for example, reached the last four of the European Cup three years before beating Barcelona home and away, for the second time. “In those days Scottish football was a lot more competitive in Europe than it is now,” states Lineker, when pondering whether Celtic can do a “Dundee United” tonight. “And the Barcelona of today have the greats.”
Making things additionally tricky this evening for Celtic is the likelihood these “greats” will return to the starting line-up tonight. Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta were named among the substitutes for Saturday’s surprise home defeat by Alaves.
Lineker considered the view that Celtic could be set to enter the lion’s den at a preferable moment. He agrees the timing is helpful, particularly given Celtic’s weekend boost. There’s no better way to sign off before a date in the Nou Camp than destroying your bitterest rivals 5-1.
“It’s always good to go to a team after they’ve lost a match, rather than after they’ve won a match,” he says. “Confidence plays a big part in football, even with the great teams like Barcelona. The wounded animal theory I don’t believe in.”
No one would claim it’s easy to play in the Nou Camp, where steep sides stretch high into Catalan skies. But it’s not as hostile as playing somewhere like Celtic Park – unless, of course, you’re a Barcelona player who’s just been beaten by Dundee United.
The white hankies were out that night. But mostly, according to Lineker, the crowd resembles an audience at the opera. “There will be a far better atmosphere when Celtic play at home than in the Nou Camp,” he says.
“In the Nou Camp, while there’s a massive crowd, 100, 000 – or 120,000 in my day – they wait to be entertained. They don’t have that kind of ferocious support singing songs like back here.
“It is different, except when they play Real Madrid, which is unbelievable,” he continues. “But the other games, they might applaud. They are quite a wealthy crowd – all ‘socios’, or members. They are more like the kind of people who might go to the opera in this country. It is huge, and it’s always full. But the atmosphere is not always as amazing as it certainly would be here.”
Present in person at Celtic Park when Celtic defeated Hapoel Beer-Sheva in their play-off round first-leg victory, Lineker has enjoyed his exposure to Scottish football so far this season. “The atmosphere, as it always is on those nights under the lights, was incredible,” he recalls
But not everything about Scottish football fills Lineker with joy. The intensity of one rivalry can become extreme enough to be menacing. The relentless antagonism between Celtic and Rangers brings him down.
“I think I’ve been around long enough to know that if you tweet something positive about Celtic, you’ll get a lot of negative stuff from Rangers fans,” he says. “And if you tweet something negative about Celtic, you’ll get positive stuff from Rangers fans. I kind of know how it works. I’m not that naive. “Let’s put it this way, if I tweet something about Celtic or Rangers, I probably won’t look at my notifications for a while. It seems to matter quite a lot up there, we’ve noticed that. Sometimes too much so, looking at some of the scenes from the weekend.”
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