Aidan Smith: The game is rigged against Celtic

THE tournament is now arranged against clubs like Celtic says Aidan Smith

Neil Lennon watches the draw for the Champions League. Picture: SNS

You’re either with the Old Firm or you’re not. Regarding Celtic, you’re either part of “the family” or you’re not. When Neil Lennon quit and the rolling news programme got going – as a procession of ex-Celts from Frankly McGarvey to Frankly McAvennie pronounced, each looking less and less bedhead-ish and sounding more and more reasoned as the day wore on – the man next to me simply wasn’t having it.

“Lack of competition?” grumped this follower of another club entirely (OK, he was a Dunfermline Athletic supporter). “How can anyone in the Old Firm complain about lack of competition? Celtic and Rangers carved up Scottish football years ago to suit themselves. They rigged the league so the vast bulk of the prize money and the TV money went to the top two, normally them. Celtic whinge, in Rangers’ absence, of poor crowds, revenue being down, no atmosphere at their games. Well, a more equitable distribution of wealth might have sorted all of that out. But now – hell mend them.”

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Sign up to our Football newsletter

This is how football goes now. You’re for your team and no other. You don’t notice other teams, don’t follow their stories at all. Angry Pars Man would doubtless have it that the Old Firm are to blame. Perhaps he’s thinking back to when his team blazed a trail in Europe. That was slightly before my time but I can read about it in books. The Scottish Football Book edited by Hugh Taylo and The Scotsport Annual edited by Arthur Montford, prize purchases on eBay. Stirring nights under gloomy lights. Black boots, still quite toecappy, white laces. Hot-tempered continentals harassing refs. Kilmarnock and Hibernian also featured in the wholly equitable distribution of coverage courtesy of Hugh and Arthur. And then in 1967 Celtic won the European Cup and, back then, the whole country cheered.

Well, didn’t it? I was still young but that’s the way it seemed. The TV Times previewed the final with a photo of Billy McNeill, calling him “Celtic’s skipper”. I’d never heard the term before and really did wonder if he was the best at jumping over a rope during training. This was the game which thirled me to football and, for a while, until I’d worked out that the team all born within a 30-mile radius existed that bit further away from my home town, your correspondent supported Celtic.

Glory-hunter. But I had an excuse – I was ten. Not like the loud businessman, English accent, braying into his phone on my train during the Martin O’Neill era, demanding to know exactly when he’d qualify for a season-ticket. Or half the Scottish acting community and all of the River City bad guys.

Lennon was a feature of that side, not its glittering star but a growling presence in deep midfield, the heavy lifter, the practitioner of the under-appreciated short sideways pass, and the player other fans loved to hate.

It was during those years that we started to hear about the Celtic family, the Celtic global brand. After one of those ritual slaughters of my team, myself and a friend got a lift back to the train station from a Celtic fan we’d met over lunch. This was so obviously a Celtic car because the radio was turned off straight after the report of our game, no other team coming close to being a threat to Hoops supremacy. My pal and I joked that Celtic supporters would struggle to name more than one player from each of the diddy rump. They’d outgrown the rest of us, for sure. So how much longer, wondered the Celtic family, could England and its Premier League ignore our romantic history and our “60,000 – house full” signs? But I still supported them in Europe. That team had charisma.

Well, Celtic are still here. In a reduced state with fewer starry players, empty seats, no Rangers and no serious competition. For my lunch hosts of a few years back, a season-ticket’s sole purpose now is Champions League access. They no longer troop along for the bread-and-butter of Motherwell (league runners-up, in case that was missed), far less the pie-crust of Hibs.

Lennon, as manager, has struggled manfully against all of this. Boredom did for his team in the domestic cups but he produced three titles and an unforgettable win over Barcelona which – let the records show – was cunning and controlled but wasn’t anti-football.

Angry Pars Man and others may argue that this situation is largely of Celtic’s, and Rangers’, own making. Domestically, yes, although Celtic can’t be blamed for their internecine nearest-and-dearest disappearing off like they did. In Europe, though, I have huge sympathy for our regular Champions League entrants. UEFA’s vain and ugly desire for the tournament to swamp all others is to be deeply regretted, but it is still what we like to call the European Cup, a gigantic pot which Billy McNeill – he was the skipper, don’t you know – had no difficulty lifting above his head in Lisbon despite running for 90 minutes in a non-breathable strip, possibly without his own teeth, while lacking the fragrance of the Inter Milan players and an address outwith that 30-mile radius.

For last night’s final back in the Portuguese capital, Celtic laid on a jolly for the surviving Lisbon Lions – a nice gesture. The silvery-haired heroes mustered for a photo before the flight and almost had to lean on the cup. 1967 is a long time ago and a triumph which a Scottish team will probably never repeat. The tournament is arranged against clubs like Celtic now. These Hoops are having to jump through so many hoops.

Lennon must have looked at season 2014-15 and thought: “Really?” For so many reasons including his modest budget and the prospect of his two best players leaving for the second summer in succession. For another title being greeted with even bigger yawns. For the chat to continue to be about the “goldfish bowl” of the Old Firm, when the reality for him had been much worse, far more sick and a deep embarrassment to Scotland, the likes of which no one should have to suffer in the name of football.

“Really?” must also have been the response to three qualifying rounds.

Three of them and this time at a rugby stadium. Any Celtic conspiracy theorists out there – and I believe there might be one or two – could be forgiven for thinking their dear club will eventually be required to enter the competition before the old season’s ended, with their goalie playing with one arm tied behind his back, their main striker in drag – and without any recourse whatsoever to their It’s a Knockout joker card.