GEORGIOS Samaras talks with conviction of his love for Celtic. Reciprocation has been a painful process. Not so very long ago the Greek was the go-to man for the club’s support – and the country’s media – whenever a blame figure was sought for on-field failings.
Prospects for a Celtic treble seemed scarcely believable after they lost three of their opening nine league games this season. A clean sweep would have been declared unthinkable, though, were it said then that six months on Samaras would be as influential a figure at Celtic as at any time in his four-and-a-bit years in Glasgow.
The striker has already completed his own personal set of Scottish medals but is looking to add to the collection with a win over Kilmarnock in today’s Scottish Communities League Cup final. One of only three current Celtic players to have earned a league winner’s medal at the club (Scott Brown and Mark Wilson are the others), Samaras was on loan from Manchester City when the SPL was clinched in 2007-08. But personal records don’t seem to matter to the seemingly insouciant attacker. To the detractors who misunderstand his mien and mood, not enough does. It is an accusation he is quick to slap down. “If I didn’t care about the club, I would have exited,” the 27-year-old says. “I have proved I care about the club, and love the club, that is why I am here after so many years.”
Samaras has survived different eras, and errors, because Celtic has got under his skin in more satisfying ways than he has got under that of others. It is testament to his mental fortitude, never mind his faithfulness, that that is the case. The stadium jeers and the jibes in print and phone-ins to which he has been subjected would have made most players bolt at the first opportunity. Instead, he has stuck it out, and been rewarded. He reportedly turned down offers from St Etienne and Rennes in the summer, having agreed a new three-year deal months earlier.
“I had thoughts to go, but not really to say ‘OK, that’s it, let’s find a team and move on’. I had bad times and I was thinking to go, but at the end something was calling me back,” he says. “What changed my mind? Just the people working at the club and the manager, the team. I said to myself that I couldn’t find better than what I have here. Playing good football, when we can, winning games, winning trophies, playing in Europe, I was always saying to myself I had something to prove.”
His turnaround in fortunes not only suggests his own judgment but that of his manager Lennon was pretty sound. The Irishman admitted at the club’s AGM that Samaras was the sort of player who could get him the sack. Now, with the league essentially won, he has proven to be one of the players to have taken his side to within three cup games of the club’s second treble in 43 years, and the fourth in their storied history. It isn’t difficult to see why the player should appeal to those in charge. He possesses the full package: physicality deriving from his 6ft 4in frame, pace, aerial presence – which brought him a rare headed goal in the 4-0 Scottish Cup quarter-final win over Dundee United last weekend – and vision. He just doesn’t always put these together tellingly, though he has profited from a wide left role that has relieved him of the requirement to score regularly. That prowess has deserted him in the past two years, but those entrusted with picking Celtic teams since 2008 have tended to retain faith in his ability to make some sort of contribution.
“I never had a problem with the managers at this club, not with Gordon [Strachan], not with Tony Mowbray, or Lenny now,” he says. “They always believed in me. It was just time to have a run of games and that is what I have done this year where I wasn’t in and out of the team. I was in every week, and trying my best to help. I don’t know exactly where the turning point was, I just try to look to the future.”
And the immediate future at that. The club’s run of 26 domestic games unbeaten doesn’t have a relevance to what could ensue this afternoon for Samaras, whose team are the shortest of odds to win the season’s first piece of silverware. “There are no such thing as favourites in a final. Ever. When the game starts it is 50-50,” he says. “Because it is a final we need to be more focused than an SPL game. It is one game, and then it is finished. In the SPL, you have time to recover in the next games. When it is just one game, 90 minutes, 120 minutes, and penalties, you just need to focus at the top level for anything that is going to show up in the game.
“It is not about priorities. We are Celtic and we want to go and win games and win trophies. We want that for sure. If we are not 100 per cent we are not going to win it. It is a nice feeling, going to win trophies. You feel good for yourself and we want to finish this competition in the best way. You don’t think about records, we don’t look about what we did in the past. We are looking at every game separately. We want to go on the pitch to enjoy our game and of course to win. But first of all enjoy because my team-mates and all the guys in the dressing room love football. We want to go on the pitch and express ourselves.”
It may chime with the popular perception of Samaras as a man impossible to read that he claims never to be afflicted by nerves before games. “I don’t know how many games I have played in my career but maybe only once or twice have I felt nervous before I went out,” he says. “Normally my mind is just focused and ready to go out. The one game I remember was with the national team. It was against Ukraine. We played 0-0 at home for the play-offs then we went out to Ukraine and had to go there and win to get to the World Cup [in 2010]. We won 1-0 but before the game I was feeling something.”
It is not only the grounding he has received in the game across 57 appearances for a country he will represent in the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine that has allowed him to develop a sense of detachment. “It is what I have gained with Celtic as well, when we play Champions League or Europa League; it is experience,” Samaras says. “For me, what I have learned at Celtic over these years, is that I have started to read the game more. I have learned more, I still will learn even more in the game, but for me at 27 I realise and I see things better than I used to in previous years.” Others are beginning to see him in a better light as a result.