“I love it when a plan comes together …”
That was special, wasn’t it? Fighting right to the end. Right to the final whistle. The Celtic Way.
This is everything that was missing last week, everything that was missing on any number of occasions as last season drew to a close.
This was the Celtic Neil Lennon promised us when he talked about bringing back the thunder. This was a massive evening. That was a massive result.
Last week, in the aftermath of one of the worst Celtic results in eons, I said I believed this tie was over, because I honestly saw no way back for this team. Over the week, I became convinced that with the Celtic crowd in front of them, this team could actually make it. I thought we’d need a little bit of luck.
More, I knew we’d need an iron willed performance. On the night, all three came together in a perfect confluence of circumstance.
Yes, we were lucky. But we were also very, very good. They came devilishly close a couple of times, closer than most of our pumping hearts would have liked. Yet we did too, and when Stokes hit the crossbar with the goal gaping wide I thought, for a second, “Oh man, it’s going to be one of those goddamned nights …” It wasn’t.
I was wrong. I was wrong last week when I thought we were out, and I was wrong tonight when I saw that chance go begging.
And I love it. I am grinning from ear to ear as I write that.
I was wrong about a few things regarding this game.
I discussed team selection with my father earlier in the day, and I honestly didn’t want my namesake to play. I’ve joked for weeks that too often with him there’s no end product, and that he’s been living off a famous name! Tonight, I can smile as I know well that famous name is going to be slapped all over the papers tomorrow, and that I would have to admit to the people I’ve been saying this to that I was wrong, that tonight, when the chips were down, he delivered.
Oh yes, he delivered, and how.
No-one let us down tonight. The fans did their part, and they were magnificent. This team drew strength from them. I’ve spoken briefly about my young namesake and I’ll do so again in just a moment, but tonight was another enormous night from Kris Commons, one of my favourite players in the Celtic team, but also from a special player who I’ve held in the highest regard for years.
Commons needs no praise from me. The internet will buzz tonight with people lauding him, deservedly so. He has pulled Celtic out of the fire so many times it no longer surprises us at all when he pops up with a strike like tonight. It was a thing of beauty, but we’ve seen it from this guy before and before and before.
But Georgios Samaras is a special footballer. I’ve been a fan for longer than he’s been at Celtic Park, and I was defending him when others would have traded him for a clapped out Skoda and a box of Wagon Wheels. Samaras is a star. He has been extraordinarily loyal to a club where a lot of people in the stands don’t fancy him, and even on his worst day he never stops working.
Last week he was up front on his own, and he laboured under that pressure.
I blamed Neil Lennon for putting him in a position he’s not comfortable in and never has been, but tonight, out wide left, where he belongs, where he’s had the best games of his career, he was superb.
Samaras is essential to this team, playing that role. He is a big occasion player out there. He has starred against some of the biggest teams in Europe wide left, looking like he belongs on that pitch. This man would never be out of my Celtic team, and I was thrilled tonight that he popped up again when the chips were down, and demonstrated his importance to this team once more.
I am delighted he will, once more, be showing off his undisputed skills on the biggest stage in the world game. He earned it. He deserves it.
Young James Forrest though, well what can you say about him except that he deserves every bit of praise he’s going to get in the next 24 hours and beyond. The Champions League draw will have Celtic’s name in it, because he put in a performance of sheer quality tonight. His running had their defence terrified.
His positional sense when that final ball broke to him, and his composure, was a wonder, and a joy to watch. I said to my old man last week that the best games I’ve seen him play are those when he’s been played through the middle.
Does anyone else wonder how he’d be as an out and out striker? I’ve pondered that, especially on those days when I’ve criticised his wide play.
There’s something else though, and I need to own up here. After the youngster had been hammered, in a disgusting challenge that actually had me off my seat in fury as I watched it, he showed a courage, and the resilience, to get up and get on with the game that, honestly, I didn’t think he had in him.
I have complained that young James gets bullied off the ball in too many matches, that he is lightweight, that he tends to crumple when he’s put under serious pressure with tough marking. Tonight, as he slammed home that ball, he slammed my own doubts down my throat at the same time. Kid, you were fantastic. I couldn’t be happier for you.
And to our manager, Neil Lennon, I give nothing but credit. The tactics were right. The system was right. The passion and focus which I’ve thought were missing for months now, that was back in spades. The Thunder was back tonight, when the moment demanded it. His reaction as young James slammed in the winner was a reminder of how much he loves this club, and how much he has given to it in the last few years.
I have never doubted his passion, or his commitment, or his love. I have sometimes questioned his ideas. Tonight he ticked that box, on top of the others.
Respect, Mr Neil. Love and respect for the job performance tonight, the same love and respect I’ve always held you in for the way you’ve handled your personal issues.
Peter Lawwell and the board don’t get off so lightly, because their gamble was almost an horrendously costly one. They have a lot of making up to do after their own dreadful performance thus far. Their manager, those players, and the Celtic support who’s views they frequently disdain, got those men out of jail tonight. They had better step up their game, and rise to the level the rest of the club has scaled. They are fortunate men.
The signing of Biton will go some way towards easing my concerns. The tremendous sense of optimism I feel over that one should demonstrate clearly to anyone who thinks that myself and others are only interested in us signing big ticket players just how silly that view is. That we’re getting this tremendous young talent so cheaply is a credit to everyone at the club, and once that deal is done, yes, I will be a much happier man.
A quality striker, and a defender on top of that, and I will be pleased as punch, and looking forward to those big Champions League nights.
Neil Lennon said at the press conference after the game that he’d like us to get Real Madrid in the draw tomorrow. He’s right. They’re the one super-club we’ve yet to come up against in this tournament, and to play them would be something very special indeed. I am unconcerned as to what might happen to us in that encounter, because those games are what every fan should want for his team, and the reason I was so angry last Tuesday night.
For this is where Celtic Football Club belongs. This is the stage on which our club should always be found. This is the place our stature demands, the grand platform on which we should be showing the world exactly who and what we are. I don’t “settle for”. I don’t believe our club ever should. The Champions League is our natural habitat.
Tonight’s not a night for dwelling on bad things, or on dwelling on other clubs, but someone said something to me yesterday that drew a laugh and I’d like to share it now, here at the end, with the adrenaline still coursing through my veins and my heart still pounding way too quick to be healthy.
Tomorrow, our directors will be in Monaco, watching the Champions League draw in front of a glittering array of wonderful players and a bank of cameras.
A few weeks ago, another club from Glasgow sent its directors to watch a cup draw in a shopping centre pawnbrokers, in front of a baffled shoppers, and a Bank of Malta.
“And that’s the way it is …”
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