It now seems obligatory that a fracture develops at Celtic between those within the club and their supporters whenever Champions League qualification ends in failure. It happened a year ago, and it is happening now. And the players are hardly oblivious.
In the wake of the shambolic 4-3 defeat at home by Cluj that locked the door on football’s most prestigious club tournament, Neil Lennon’s men certainly didn’t help their cause in the way they squeezed past an admirably obdurate Dunfermline side in the Betfred Cup last-16 tie at Celtic Park on Saturday.
So uninspiring was the 2-1 win – achieved by a deflected James Forrest strike in extra-time as penalties loomed – the most positive development came with the subsequent quarter-final draw that gave the holders a home tie against Partick Thistle, who are the lowest ranked side left in the competition.
Aside from that, the spiky display from Mikey Johnston represented about the only other positive for Lennon’s side, despite the manager tactically expressing pride and delight in the “character” of players he needs firmly on side for the Europa League play-off first leg against AIK Stockholm in Glasgow on Thursday, a match Celtic dare not lose.
Johnston admitted that the goal he scored with a looping chip from 24 yards that broke the deadlock in 55 minutes wasn’t intentional. “I keep telling people I was going for the top corner [but] I saw Griff [Leigh Griffiths] making a run and tried to hit him so I got a bit of luck,” said the 20-year-old. “It was just what we needed at the time.”
The loss of an Andy Ryan equaliser late on was exactly what they didn’t need. And the grumbling from 23,000 home supporters told its own story. As did the fact that scores of fans didn’t even bother to wait for extra-time.
The disgruntlement, for all that the Cluj loss was ridiculous and for all that summer recruits Christopher Jullien and Boli Bolingoli haven’t impressed, simply isn’t commensurate with where Celtic are as a club. You wonder what sort of apoplexy would be besetting these self-proclaimed “faithful through and through” followers had their team not won the past nine domestic honours, courtesy of a record 28 straight cup victories, and be currently top of the Premiership. The sense of entitlement is decidedly unedifying.
In part, a growing faction among the Celtic support is unhappy because many of them are so deluded. They declared it fake news when they were told, through all manner of media outlets, that Brendan Rodgers would move on for a decent English Premier League offer. They did the same when told similar about Kieran Tierney. And allowing themselves to believe there was the prospect of Rafa Benitez, Jose Mourinho or Andre Villa Boas coming to replace Rodgers was as daft as some of the defending from their team in midweek.
But Lennon and his squad must live with fans who struggle with simple realities. And Johnston, for all his tender years, would appear to understand the lie of the land, not least because he is a Celtic fan himself. Thursday’s AIK visit is a potential season-shaper.
“We still have a lot to play for,” he said. “Europe is massive to the fans and we want to try and get a run there to get the fans back on side. Everybody has to find it within themselves. We are playing in a massive game for a massive club.
“We all have to be up for it. We are a winning club and not getting into the Champions League is a big blow for the fans. It would be good to get a good result to take over to Sweden.”
It would be very, very bad if they didn’t.