If Uefa are in need of a Scottish voice to talk up the merits of the Europa League, they could do worse than turn to Kieran Tierney.
As Celtic begin their group stage campaign against Rosenborg in Glasgow tonight, Tierney will have no truck with anyone seeking to downplay the significance or stature of European football’s second- tier tournament.
While he is as disappointed as any Celtic supporter at the club’s failure to qualify for the Champions League group stage this season, Tierney insists the Europa League offers a stage and challenge which should be fully embraced.
For the talented Scotland international, it is a competition which will always hold a special place in his affections. It was almost three years ago, on 1 October 2015, that the then 18-year-old Tierney was handed a surprise European debut by then manager Ronny Deila, pictured, against Fenerbahce at Celtic Park. It was only his fifth first-team appearance but his performance in the Europa League group-stage fixture against a Turkish side full of high-profile players is recalled fondly by Tierney as the night his now stellar Celtic career was launched.
“I never thought I’d be starting that game,” he says. “I remember the build-up to it when I was being shown video clips of Nani and Robin van Persie in attack for Fenerbahce – I was thinking ‘you’re joking – no chance!’.
“I was quite nervous and scared at first but once the game started, I forgot about that and just tried to play my normal game. I did pretty well and it was from there I really got my chance in the first team. It was Ronny Deila who gave me the opportunity and I thank him for that.
“I would say that was the night it really started for me as a first-team player for Celtic. I didn’t play every game after that but he (Deila) trusted me in more big games after it.
“Emilio Izaguirre got a red card in one game soon afterwards, so I played in more European games. But that was the one that kickstarted it for me.
“I remember we went 2-0 up through Leigh Griffiths and Kris Commons, then conceded right before and then again just after half-time which kind of killed it. I would have loved to have got the win in my first European game. But the atmosphere was great and just to be on the pitch for a European game was brilliant.
“I was up against Nani in the first half, then he switched wings. It was some game to come into and after that my confidence grew. It gave me belief that I could play in Europe and I just wanted more of it.
“If you look at the Europa League, every team in our group is a hard team. This is a great tournament. People don’t understand how good it is. It’s prestigious and for me it’s a huge honour to play in it. I don’t take it for granted and I know how tough it’s going to be in this group against Rosenborg, Salzburg and Leipzig.
“Atletico Madrid won it last season and that just shows you the strength of the competition. Chelsea and Arsenal are in it along with some amount of other great teams this season.”
The first step for Celtic as they set their sights on progressing from Group B into the knockout phase of the tournament is tonight’s reunion with familiar foes Rosenborg. Since losing 3-1 on aggregate to Celtic in the second qualifying round of the Champions League earlier this season, the Norwegian champions have been on an impressive run of form which has seen them win nine and draw one of their last 10 games.
“We know what we are coming up against in a way,” said Tierney. “They have been on a good run recently, so it will be a tough game as always but we are looking forward to it.
“We went a goal down to them the last time we played them at Celtic Park but the way we responded to win 3-1 that night was great. So we know we can come back against them if we need to. But we want to go out there and play well from the start this time.
“Rosenborg will be more confident but that’s something we just need to deal with. We are a few games further on in our own season, our fitness is better.”
While Celtic are currently on a run of four successive clean sheets, their performance levels have not been consistently convincing. But as they look for improvement after Friday night’s goalless draw at St Mirren, Tierney is not overly concerned.
“It’s hard to say how far we are from our best at the moment,” he said. “A couple of results haven’t gone our way but it’s not the end of the world. It’s still early in the season in the league. Now it’s the first game of the Europa League so there is still everything to play for. We can’t be too hard on ourselves yet.”