RESPECT. It is one of Uefa’s buzzwords and a ubiquitous part of their Champions League livery. But it is a commodity in short supply when it comes to the play-off round tie between Celtic and Malmö.
The verbal fall-out from Wednesday night’s first leg at Celtic Park has been almost as compelling as the action on the pitch where the Scottish champions emerged 3-2 winners from a breathless 95 minutes.
Billy McNeill was ever dignified as captain. Brown has developed a very different persona
Uefa’s disciplinary department will certainly be casting a close eye over the remarkably intemperate comments of Malmö goalkeeper Johan Wiland whose interview with Swedish newspaper Kvallsposten has caused such a stir.
“They are pigs, all of them, that’s the way it is,” Wiland said of the Celtic players. “You just have to try to stay cool and do what we have to do on the pitch. Leigh Griffiths [who scored twice for Celtic], well, I don’t know what to say, he behaved like a child, tugging shirts all the time.”
Malmö defender Rasmus Bengtsson was also critical of the way Celtic conducted themselves on the pitch, aiming his post-match barbs at captain Scott Brown and substitute striker Nadir Ciftci.
“There were some players who talked a lot,” Bengtsson told another Swedish journal, Sportbladet.
“You probably know who I mean. They have a captain [Scott Brown] and a few others who like to talk. But that’s the way it is at this level. One player who came on [Nadir Ciftci] was not particularly nice. The first thing he wanted to do when he came on was to talk. He had more focus on that than his performance. And I don’t think it was to their advantage that they were running around focusing on other things.”
Whether the Malmö players are an overly sensitive bunch or not, there is a trend developing of Celtic provoking a negative reaction from opponents to the manner in which they go about their business.
After the previous qualifying round against Qarabag, the Azerbaijani club were left railing against the immediate post-match response of Brown to the goalless draw in Baku which took Celtic through 1-0 on aggregate.
“They did everything on the park except try and play football,” said Qarabag midfielder Gara Gareyev.
“They verbally provoked us and if we misplaced a pass they ran up to us and laughed at us. Their players intentionally went to ground too.
“It was the Celtic captain who was the worst. Before the match, I had sympathy for them. But after this game, my memory of him and the Celtic players is not very pleasant. I won’t be supporting them in future rounds.”
The video footage of Brown screaming in Garayev’s face in response to the offer of a handshake is certainly not in keeping with the kind of behaviour many would expect of a Celtic captain.
Times have changed since the club’s greatest skipper, Billy McNeill, almost moved his opposite number Roberto Perfumo of Racing Club to tears with his sporting magnanimity after the brutally ill-tempered World Club Championship play-off between the Argentinian side and Celtic in 1967.
Perfumo feared McNeill was seeking retribution after the final whistle of Celtic’s controversial defeat in a game which saw six players sent off. Instead, he received a handshake, a request to swap shirts and a ‘buena suerte (good luck)’ message from the ever dignified McNeill.
Brown has developed a very different persona in the role since it was handed to him during Tony Mowbray’s ill-starred tenure as Celtic manager.
The thousand yard stare in the tunnel as he prepares to lead the team out has become a trademark for the 30-year-old midfielder, a symbol of the aggression and commitment he brings to his work to generally positive effect for Celtic.
Brown has unquestionably been instrumental to Celtic’s success in recent years and has also transferred that level of influence to the international stage where he has been pivotal in Scotland’s current push for Euro 2016 qualification.
“Some people want to change him but that’s just nonsense,” observed former Scotland manager Craig Levein. “You will never do that, it’s impossible. He is a character and that’s the way he plays, he’s in your face and he can’t keep his mouth shut at times but he is such an endearing boy when you work with him and, OK, he has other parts to his character that are a little bit, well, different but he is a great boy to work with, a great boy to have around and he is a great example.”
If Brown is indeed incurably juvenile with some of his antics towards opponents, even the great McNeill might accept the flaws in his character are worth putting up with.
It was McNeill, when Celtic manager, who once observed: “Angels don’t win you anything except a place in heaven – football teams need one or two vagabonds.”
There is no doubt Celtic will need Brown at his most effective in the Swedbank Stadium on Tuesday night if they are to finish the job against a Malmö side buoyed by the second of Jo Inge Berget’s away goals in stoppage time of the first leg. Berget, who had an unfulfilling loan spell at Celtic last season, was understandably more conciliatory in his post-match assessment of some of his former team-mates.
“I don’t want to say that they are a group of pigs,” said the Norwegian midfielder. “They have some tough players. We knew before the game that it would be tough so you just have to roll with it.
“Did we try and get to Scott Brown? No, everybody can get to Scott Brown and he can get to you as well. That’s how he is as a player. He is always talking and going at 100 per cent.
“I know how he is, but we had a friendly conversation during the game. What was the conversation? I just said he looked good with his hair! I just shook his hand at the end and said ‘see you next week’.”
In a play-off tie which has now taken on the complexion of a grudge match, it remains to be seen how much respect there is in the handshakes at full-time in Malmö.