Hartson lion in wait

IN the fraught, final moments of Celtic’s stomach-churning UEFA Cup semi-final on Thursday, the public announcer at Boavista’s Do Bessa Stadium asked whether the visiting support would be kind enough to remain in the ground for a few minutes after the final whistle. He might as well have asked them if the grass was green.

"Please be patient," he added, as if the fans were itching to catch the next bus home. Having sat through 78 stressful minutes in anticipation of Henrik Larsson’s priceless winner, eight months and 14 matches of an exhausting UEFA Cup run, and 33 long years since they were last in a European final,

Celtic’s support were hardly likely to be making a sharp exit on the threshold of such a momentous moment.

The ancient city of Oporto is proud to have been designated a World Heritage Site. When splashes of green and white eventually spilled, like tears of joy, into its streets, the scenes were redolent of another era. Punctuated by Porto fans peeping car horns, the revellers dared to draw parallels, at last, with the day in 1967 when Celtic conquered Europe in Portugal.

If Boavista’s cliff-like stands induced vertigo in the spectators, Celtic’s players were soon giddy with the prospect of next month’s match in Seville.

John Hartson, scorer of three goals in Europe this term, was in no doubt as to the magnitude of the team’s achievement. "They’ve spoken about the Lisbon Lions for years, and rightly so, but we want to contribute something to this great club. As players, we have a chance to do that now."

This will not be Hartson’s first European final. In 1995, he was part of the Arsenal side who lost to Real Zaragoza in the Cup-Winners’ Cup, having scored a penalty in a semi-final shoot-out against Sampdoria.

The Welshman will never forget that Paris showdown, its special atmosphere and the eight years he has required to reacquaint himself with the feeling. "I can remember coming into Paris, to the Parc des Princes, and it was just like a sea of red in front of us. There were about 60,000 there and I’m sure it will be the same in Seville. I know a lot of the fans have already booked their flights. I was only about 19 for the last one, so so it passed by me a bit. I’ll enjoy this one more."

The match on Thursday was a claustrophobic, clumsy excuse for a semi-final. Celtic, so harassed by their destructive opponents that they lacked composure even when they did have time on the ball, produced more than enough in previous rounds to suggest that the turgid spectacle was of Boavista’s making.

The home fans, some of whom bought souvenir substitute boards from the club, must have been tempted to hook each and every one of the 22 players.

Not that it mattered to Celtic. The prize was so valuable as to render irrelevant the means by which it was acquired. When club chairman Brian Quinn met Martin O’Neill after the match, the manager told him: "There’s only one thing to say about poor games, and that’s win them." What was good enough for Juventus and Internazionale last week was good enough for the Scottish champions.

It has been a hell of a ride for Celtic. Though this will be their third European final, after the exploits of 1967 and 1970, never have they needed to negotiate quite so many matches as this season. The consistency now demanded of those who aspire to silverware abroad is such that the opportunities for repetition are limited.

Neither will Celtic be able to win next year’s tournament by the same route, as there will no longer be a place in the UEFA Cup available to those who slip from the Champions League.

This is an adventure to be cherished. Hartson, like most of the non-Scots in O’Neill’s cosmopolitan squad, suspects his friends and relatives would be more impressed with progress in the UEFA Cup than they would be with a title Celtic have won 38 times already.

"Celtic and Rangers are judged on how they do in Europe. That’s been proved over the last few years. People keep knocking the Scottish game and saying that there are only two teams up there. To get the recognition we deserve we have to do well in Europe. Everyone will see this result and say, look at Celtic up in Scotland, they’re a good side. They’re in the final. It was a great night for Scottish football in general."

Hartson does not subscribe to the view that Celtic are punching above their weight, a convenient psychological ploy that has worn thinner with every passing round. Having seen off Liverpool, they should have been expected to beat Boavista and, if a win against Porto is against the odds, the shock would not be seismic.

"It’s where Celtic should be, if not every year, then every other year," says the striker. "We should be competing for these competitions with the players we have, the size of the club, and its support."

A pleasing by-product of this unpredictable season has been a reluctance to indulge in the kind of parochial outlook that tends to colour analysis of the Old Firm. It has been a complicated campaign, too rich in subplots and subtleties to be explained away in the black-and-white with which we are so familiar. It is not so easy to condemn Celtic’s league form when they are making history abroad. Rangers’ success need not be Celtic’s crisis.

It is also refreshing, if a little surreal, to hear experienced players refusing to pretend that this afternoon’s derby at Ibrox is uppermost in their minds.

Hartson admits that, were it not for his professionalism, there would be a strong temptation to save himself for Seville. "I’ll be jumping out of tackles," he quips before embarking on a dutiful, almost grudging, acknowledgement of the need to focus on the next match.

"You can’t legislate for injuries. It’s in the lap of the Gods. You could fall down the stairs at home or anything could happen. As long as it’s still mathematically possible for us to win the league, we’ll have to go for it.

"We know what the derby game means to supporters and we’d sooner be going to Ibrox on the back of a win than if we’d gone out of the UEFA Cup. You can imagine the atmosphere would have been really down and flat. Don’t rule us out of the Rangers game."

The irony is that, despite swapping Europe for the dubious charms of Scotland’s Premierleague today, Celtic will find themselves on a bigger, more glamorous stage at Ibrox than that which they experienced in midweek. It didn’t feel like a UEFA Cup semi-final, as a crowd of 11,000 gathered between two building sites for what was an ugly kickabout.

Even at the Praca Du Ribeiro, the old square down by Oporto’s shabby waterfront, Irish tricolors were competing with the grubby long johns that seemed to hang from every window.

The UEFA Cup is a tournament threatened by decline, restricted as it is by the riches of the Champions League. Extending their involvement beyond Christmas for the first time in 23 years is all very well, as is reaching the last four, but it was incumbent upon Celtic to wring every last ounce from what has been a rare privilege.

Their step into the final, and with it the history books, will brook no argument in the fullness of time. All that remains to be done is win it.

"What you have to remember is that the boys have a lot of experience," says Hartson. "We play in cup finals more or less every year, albeit against Rangers, but they’re a top- quality side. The bookies might go with Porto as favourites because they beat Lazio in the semi-final, and they might take into account their result against us last season. But a lot of people wrote us off, coming to Boavista. They wrote us off at Anfield. I don’t think you should write us off again.

"I have a good feeling about this."