Champions' League: The Only True Test Of Celtic This Season

With the SPL title looking nailed on this season, here's why a good European campaign is a must for Celtic to have anything other than a boring year...
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With the SPL title looking nailed on this season, here's why a good European campaign is a must for Celtic to have anything other than a boring year...

Celtic’s 4-0 aggregate win over Helsingborgs saw them through to the group stages of the Champions League for the first time in four years. Entry to the main tournament was pretty much normal in the glory days of Martin O’Neill and Henrik Larsson, and Gordon Strachan’s team were also regular participants, but it’s a goal that has seemed increasingly distant in recent years.

The qualifying games may have had their nervy spells, and Celtic owe a debt of gratitude to keeper Fraser Forster for keeping them in it at times. Nevertheless they were clinical and professional performances the like of which we haven’t seen for a while, given the team’s tendency to shoot themselves in the foot in European ties, especially away from home.

  Qualification was essential for the club, not because of pound signs but because of pride. It was about putting Celtic back where everyone associated with the club believes they should be – mixing with the European elite.

The rewards for that newfound winning attitude are massive, and not just in financial terms. Let’s start with the money though. It’s well documented that the business limitations of Scottish football mean that Celtic operate on a shoestring compared to clubs of a similar size in other European leagues. To put it in perspective, a big-money signing for Celtic would be something in the region of three million quid; the kind of fee a mid-table Premiership club would pay for a benchwarmer.

The figures being reported for CL qualification are huge for a club working on that level. £4.4m for qualifying and £2.75m appearance bonuses for the group games is already a significant sum, but the real money is of course from the TV pot, which should see the Hoops net another £8m. Take into account something in the region of £5m in gate receipts from the inevitable full houses at Parkhead and we’re looking at over £20m regardless of results.

Some have written that qualification was essential to make up for the hole in finances left by the demise of Rangers but, in truth, the sale of Ki to Swansea already pretty much covers that. However, the club’s debts are often reported to be in the region of £6-9m, so they could pay that off and be well in the black. What qualification also meant is that Lennon was able to pull off a couple of last-minute moves in the transfer market and while he didn’t exactly break the bank bringing in Efe Ambrose, Miku, Lassad Niouiou and Lubos Kamenar, it’s unlikely he could have got anyone in had the worst happened against Helsingborgs.

  To put it in perspective, a big-money signing for Celtic would be something in the region of three million quid; the kind of fee a mid-table Premiership club would pay for a benchwarmer.

But it’s not about the money for Celtic fans, players or for Neil Lennon. Qualification was essential for the club, not because of pound signs but because of pride. It was about putting Celtic back where everyone associated with the club believes they should be – mixing with the European elite. It was about laying to rest the ghost of recent poor European results. And it’s also about finding a platform where they can win genuine respect and acclaim this season. If Celtic win the SPL, even at a canter as many expect them to, they’ll receive very little credit for it because with the new Rangers club in Division 3 there is, supposedly, no competition. A flawed argument, and one that offers little respect to the rest of the SPL but nevertheless how many will see it.  If Celtic and Lennon want to win plaudits it has to be through good performances and creditable results in Europe, otherwise the season could be perceived as a non-event.

In this respect, just taking part is not enough. There has been plenty patronising punditry from the media, mostly but not entirely south of the border, suggesting that little Celtic are cock-a-hoop just to be allowed to play with the big boys. Lee Dixon’s comments immediately after the Supercup final were typical – after bigging up the chances of all the English teams in his analysis of the CL draw, his verdict that Celtic get to go to Barcelona and Benfica and that “they will enjoy that” will stick in the craws of Celtic fans and players. Celtic people aren’t daft enough to think we’re going to win the group, but equally we’re not there to make up the numbers. We’re there to fight Benfica and Spartak for second place. Simple as that. We may or may not achieve it but we need to have given it a good shot to be satisfied, and finishing without even a parachute into the Europa League would be a bitter pill to swallow.

 If Celtic win the SPL, even at a canter as many expect them to, they’ll receive very little credit for it because with the new Rangers club in Division 3 there is, supposedly, no competition.

So it’s about money and pride and putting Celtic back on the map, but for the fans it’s really about getting those legendary European nights back to Celtic Park. Fans used to the road to the UEFA Cup Final in Seville, Champions League wins over the likes of Juventus and Manchester United, and nail-biting penalty shoot-outs against Valencia have something big to look forward to again. And that, to Celtic fans, is everything.

Follow @johnclarke1 on Twitter

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