Champions League: Celtic to play at Murrayfield

CELTIC will have to play the home legs of next season’s Champions League qualifiers away from Parkhead, with Murrayfield emerging as a possible alternative venue.

Alex Song and Xavi attempt to block Georgios Samaras during last season's match between Celtic and Barcelona. Picture: Robert Perry

Celtic Park is hosting the opening ceremony for the 2014 Commonwealth Games on 23 July and the likelihood is that the pitch will have to be relaid before it can be used again for football.

Glasgow 2014 staff reckon it will take “weeks” before the playing surface is ready for Celtic, and the Scottish champions will be forced to look for another ground. Hampden and Ibrox are also out of the running because they, too, are Commonwealth Games venues, so the home of Scottish rugby is being considered.

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Celtic played their first home game this season on 23 July when they met Cliftonville in the second qualifying round of the Champions League. Eight days later they played host to Elfsborg in the third qualifying round.

If the Parkhead side are to participate in next season’s competition, it is likely they will enter at the same stage as this season.

Celtic have accepted they will have to play the second and probably the third qualifying rounds (Q2 and Q3) away from Celtic Park but are hopeful their home pitch will be ready if they progress to the play-off stage.

A Celtic spokesman said: “In the event of Celtic’s qualification, Q2 and possibly Q3 would be played away from Celtic Park. We are presently considering possible venues for these matches.

“We would of course plan to be back at Celtic Park for the European Play-Off rounds, if successful, and the start of the season.”

Manager Neil Lennon stressed last week how important qualifying for the Champions League is to Celtic, both financially and in terms of prestige.

Around 58,000 were at Celtic Park for the Play-Off round match against Shakhter Karagandy and helped create a raucous atmosphere as Lennon’s side overturned a 2-0 deficit, winning 3-0 to qualify for the lucrative group stage.

Lennon later described the result and reaching the Champions League proper for the second successive season as “the greatest thing I’ve ever done in football”.

Last season’s run to the last 16 of the elite competition earned the club £22 million in television and prize money. This season, they will receive £14m for reaching the group stage to go with the £1.8m for participating in the Play-Off round. By contrast, if they’d lost to Karagandy and dropped into the Europa League they would have been guaranteed just £1.87m.

The stakes are incredibly high and Celtic will be mindful to avoid anything that threatens their qualifying prospects. Murrayfield is the biggest stadium in Scotland with a capacity of more than 67,000. Celtic are unlikely to need a stadium that size for the early qualifying rounds. However, there appear to be precious few alternatives.

Celtic attracted crowds of 30,000 and 40,000 for the matches against Cliftonville and Elfsborg and no other available Scottish football ground could accommodate such numbers. The biggest club grounds are Easter Road (20,000) and Pittodrie (22,000).

Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park would be a handier venue for the Celtic support but its capacity is just 18,000.

The opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games will feature the athletes’ parade, with up to 4,500 participants from the 71 competing nations taking part.

A Glasgow 2014 spokesman said: “Glasgow 2014 is committed to returning Celtic Park to its pre-Games state as part of the Venue Use Agreement.

“Glasgow 2014 is developing contingency provision for an alternative venue for the fulfilment of the club’s competitive 2014 fixtures that are scheduled to be played at Celtic Park during the period of the organising committee’s use of the venue should that be required.”

The east end of Glasgow is undergoing major redevelopment and regeneration as a result of the Games.

Celtic Park is situated at the heart of the action, with the athletes’ village currently being constructed nearby. A stone’s throw from the ground are the new Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome and the Emirates Arena which will host the cycling and badminton events in 2014.

Murrayfield has hosted football before, with Hearts playing a number of Uefa Cup and Champions League qualifying matches at the ground between 2004 and 2006. The Edinburgh side first played there against Braga in a Uefa Cup qualifying round match in season 2004-05 after it was claimed the pitch at Tynecastle was too small for European matches.

Murrayfield was also the venue for Hearts’ and Hibernian’s friendly matches against Barcelona in 2007 and 2008 respectively.

Almost 58,000 watched the Hearts v Barca match, the largest crowd to attend a football game in Edinburgh for 51 years.

Celtic playing home games away from Parkhead is not without precedent. They made Hampden their base for the duration of the 1994-95 season while Celtic Park was rebuilt. However, taking their games to Edinburgh presents a new set of challenges.

While Murrayfield’s capacity more than meets Celtic’s needs and its proximity to Haymarket station is a bonus, playing in Edinburgh would mean an 80-mile round trip for the majority of the club’s supporters.

The Games will also mean Hampden becoming a football-free zone for the best part of a year. The national stadium is the athletics venue for 2014 and will close to football in November.

The playing surface will be raised and an athletics track constructed, reducing the capacity to 44,000. It means this season’s domestic cup finals and semi-finals will be played at alternative venues.

Any Scotland home games after November will also be played elsewhere.