It may seem daft to say this in August, but Celtic have just salvaged their season. That’s not hyperbole: Europe is the standard by which the current team is judged, and having almost thrown it away, the fans would have been facing a season as interesting as repeats of Masterchef had they not turned it round against Shakhter Karagandy. They did it the hard way of course, as if we’d expect anything different, on yet another stirring European night at Parkhead.
Having lost 2-0 on a plastic pitch in Kazakhstan, Neil Lennon’s men had it all to do, but in front of an expectant and typically noisy home crowd, they rose to the occasion to add the collection of midweek memories for the current generation of supporters. Kris Commons’ thunderbolt in the dying light of the first half eased the tension and allowed the fans to believe that this wasn’t mission impossible. Georgios Samaras was again the European talisman, slotting in the goal that levelled the tie – worth noting that although Celtic’s team performance was excellent, Commons and Samaras continue to be the big game players. Finally, James Forrest’s injury-time winner from Anthony Stokes’ incredible run once again blew the roof off the old place and saved the Celts’ bacon.
Perhaps the evening’s most vivid memory, though, will be Neil Lennon sprinting down the touchline to dive into the ruck of jubilant players after the winning goal. No Celtic fan ever saw him run like that as a player, and it illustrated the sheer emotional release of a man who almost watched himself go from hero to zero in the space of 180 minutes of football. As it is, Lennon’s reputation remains intact and his team once again find themselves in the company of the European giants, where every Celtic fan believes they belong, regardless of the vagaries of football finances. Speaking to the TV cameras afterward, Lennon revealed his desire to draw Real Madrid in the group stages and many fans would share that. Barcelona, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Juventus and Manchester United have all visited Celtic Park in the Champions League but the European Cup’s most successful side have so far eluded Celtic and many would love to see that put right. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter – on Wednesday afternoon, few dared to even consider the possible permutations of the league stages and the utter relief and joy of being there is reward enough.
That said, amidst the drama and elation, it’d be easy to lose perspective. Shakhter are a very ordinary side and the Hoops came close to slipping on a disastrous and embarrassing banana skin. The warning signs are there for Chief Executive Peter Lawell and the Celtic board. The fans, and the manager judging by his exasperated tone when quizzed on signings after the game, expected more new faces to be in place by this stage. Everybody knows that Celtic’s policy is to buy cheap, develop talent and sell on for huge mark-ups. Most generally agree that it’s a sound policy. But there comes a point where over- frugality becomes a false economy. Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson are gone and, despite a couple of signings, the squad is weaker than last season. A first-choice striker to replace Hooper is the direst need. Neil Lennon knows the men he wants and Lawell has played cat-and-mouse with their clubs, trying to hold his nerve and drive down prices. He hedged his bets, hoping that the existing squad would have enough quality to make it into the group stages before using part of the Champions League cash to fund transfers. Lawell gambled, and he very nearly lost twenty million quid. Ironically, he owes a huge debt to the last-minute mazy run of Anthony Stokes, the man most likely to be sidelined should a new striker arrive. Having been bailed out, Lawell now has to show the fans that he understands their feelings, and give Lennon the financial backing he needs to bring the new men in. Otherwise Celtic might end up wishing they hadn’t qualified for the group stages.
For now, though, the fans can breathe a huge collective sigh of relief and look forward to another series of dramatic, tense, noisy, nail-biting, nerve-shredding and wonderful European nights.