Martin O’Neill hails Celtic’s 14-year Champions League first “huge” for Ange Postecoglou

It is 20 years since Celtic’s hopes of Champions League group stage football were stymied by FC Basel in the qualifiers.

Martin O’Neill believes it is time for his old club Celtic to step up in the Champions League,  with direct entry to the group stages next season a "fantastic" boost. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)
Martin O’Neill believes it is time for his old club Celtic to step up in the Champions League, with direct entry to the group stages next season a "fantastic" boost. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)

Then manager Martin O’Neill will need no reminding of that. Equally so for the fact it is 21 years since the Irishman presided over an unforgettable ousting of Ajax to earn Celtic a place at club football’s top table for the first time. The Irishman still gets the chills at those hazardous assignments, which his European results helped him avoid before competing in the Champions League group stages in his final season, 2004-05. His legacy - a UEFA Cup final appearance in 2003, Celtic’s last post-Christmas knock-out European tie win the following year - allowed successor Gordon Strachan to benefit owing to his championship winning side gaining direct entry to the group stages in 2008.

Incredibly, the upshot of Celtic banking the same reward for top flight success last season is that Ange Postecoglou will become the first Celtic manager in the 14 years since to sidestep Champions League qualifiers. O’Neill believes the importance of that leap cannot be over-estimated - both for the attractiveness of the club to prospective signings and the training block the club will undertake before embarking on the defence of their cinch Premiership crown at the end of July.

“Is it a big selling point? Absolutely,” said O’Neill. “The club – and the same goes for Rangers – is the star and is its own selling point. But going straight into the Champions League is another story. If I’m plying my trade in the Dutch league, for example, I’m in a strong competition. But if a change to Celtic means going straight in the Champions League, that would be something to really think about. That’s where you boost your own image if you do well enough. It’s an easier task to recruit when you have that.

“There has been an upsurge in the Scottish game with Celtic winning the league and Rangers getting to the Europa League final. European football matters a good deal, obviously. You look at the Champions League but you look at the Rangers run. People sat up and took notice, especially the Dortmund win, and now it’s over to Celtic. To think the last time the club went straight in was 2008. Did I help Gordon Strachan get there? I don’t think he ever thanked me…

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“It’s huge. I think the biggest thing is not having to play teams you would beat in October, but are difficult in the third week in July, or whatever. Those games used to annoy the heck out of me. Going to Lithuania or something, those games really concerned me. People would say, ‘ach, you’ll win this easily’. No, you’ve had two weeks’ training. Going straight in is a huge boost for Celtic. Your whole outlook changes. You are not under pressure in pre-season, you are ready to go. It’s fantastic. After the start last season the manager [Postecoglou] had to almost disregard Europe and concentrate on the league. Now the expectation is higher. They are in the Champions League, and of course there will be great nights. But they have to address European football and compete. Celtic’s results in recent years have not been good enough.”

Martin O’Neill was promoting Premier Sports live and exclusive coverage of Armenia v Scotland (June 8) and Republic of Ireland v Scotland (June 11). Premier Sports is available from £9.99 per month and available on the platforms Sky, Virgin TV, Premier Player and Amazon Prime as an add-on subscription.

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