Home Bhoys or European Cracks? 

By The Way - Weekly Columns


By Frances Traynor This week Celtic will host Zenit St. Petersburg in the Europa League round of 32. Qualifying for Europe beyond Christmas has become the litmus test of success for many fans in recent years. Even though we haven’t actually progressed beyond any immediate post-Christmas round of European competition since 2004, it’s an article of faith to say “being in Europe beyond Christmas shows we’re making progress”. The build-up to Thursday’s tie hasn’t exactly filled us with confidence. The swashbuckling, free-scoring Celtic of last season has gone awol to be replaced by a pedestrian, blunt and occasionally boring side more reminiscent of Ronny Deila’s last season than Brendan Rodgers’ first. But still, we’ve already won the League Cup, have an eight-point lead in the league and, despite a typically (for this season) nervy 3-2 win over Partick Thistle on Saturday, we’re in the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup. A remarkable double treble is within reach. And we’re still in Europe. There was an interesting thread on Kerrydale Street last week entitled “Domestic dominance or Euro success?” with posters split on whether 10 in a row matters more than qualifying for the Champions League every year or reaching the latter stages of the Europa League. Domestic success gets us access to Europe, so it’s vital. But the limited competition that Scottish football provides does little to prepare any Celtic side for the challenge of playing sides with better talent and technique. That’s the quandary every Celtic manager since Martin O’Neill has had to wrestle with. Should he throw everything at Europe because that’s where the “real” challenge is and prioritise those ties over domestic competition? Or instead settle for winning the league and getting horsed out of Euro competition early doors because that’s our “level”? That we talk about this every single season shows there’s no easy answer, either for fans to accept or managers to come up with. Last week @pault1888 wrote that he felt he might have hit peak Celtic fan after Tom Rogic’s unforgettable winner in the cup final sealed the Invincible Treble. The only way, he reckons, is not so much down but a little bit flat because he doesn’t think anything is going to beat that incredible high for him. I can see his point – but I disagree. Because every season brings new opportunities for moments of football ecstasy. And I think those Euro highs can often – just – pip any domestic joy. I was a tot when Celtic won the European Cup, but Lisbon cast an enormous, welcome shadow over my family as it did, I’m sure, for every Celtic fan. I have a vague recollection of the 1970 semi-final against Leeds, mainly because my dad took my two eldest brothers and the rest of us weans were bought off with a cone from the van. My brother Martin’s main memory of the game is how packed in they were on the slopes of Hampden and how, when Celtic scored, dad threw his bunnet in the air and the one that came back down wasn’t his but he jammed it back on his napper anyway. In Seville, I was in tears in the Stadio Olimpico at the extraordinary sight of thousands of Celtic fans, banners draped along the running track, filling that dusty, neglected bowl in hope and expectation. (I wasn’t in tears at the end of the game, surprisingly, but that was because I was severely dehydrated in the 40C heat!) Can you tell me honestly that the Seville season wasn’t one of the best of your Celtic-supporting life, despite how it ended? Amazing highs. Inevitably followed by the lowest of lows. But we were there, we were competing and challenging against all the odds and so so close to the ultimate prize. Domestic success is our bread-and-butter, but those Euro nights? Like a Larsson header or a Boruc penalty save playing on an endless loop in your heart. That doesn’t mean I’m all in on the “who cares about winning the league if we can make the last eight of the Champions League or a Europa League final or even semi” argument. I want domestic success AND a team that can compete, to the best of its ability, in Europe. Am I being greedy? Of course I am, I’m a football fan, it comes with the territory! Am I being realistic? Yes, because even though Celtic obviously are nowhere near the elites of European football on a financial level, as a club we should and often do still make a decent fist of competing over 90 minutes (just not the last two seasons obviously...). We should never stop dreaming. The greatest highs are still to come. Keep the faith.