I was lucky enough to spend some time with Celtic author, Tom Campbell, when he was over from Canada. Tom had kindly agreed to appear on A Celtic State of Mind Podcast to discuss, well, his Celtic State of Mind, and share the stories of his Celtic writing journey. It’s a great story and you will enjoy it when it’s released.
Anyway, I was still in European hangover mode and asked Tom his thoughts about Celtic currently in Europe and if Celtic had under achieved since winning The Big Cup in 1967.
The terse question was more to do with my mood than what I actually believed but Tom’s answer, which we will save for the podcast, allowed me to look at my own black and white opinion and look towards the more colourful facts that should always be considered, before you allow opinions oxygen.
Facts and stats can be used to skew opinions to suit but we do have such a large dose of hindsight to consider when looking at Celtic in Europe. On looking at this, my opinion that Celtic has under-achieved has merit but, that we are in a success period, gains weight.
It could be said that we operating at what has always been our level, winning the same amount of games per season that we have always done but it’s the change in competition that is more to blame for us feeling hopeless in Europe.
It goes without saying that when European football was in its youth, Celtic had a golden period in terms of quarter, semi and final appearances. From 1963 to 1976 we had two finals, three semi finals and three quarter final appearances in the Cup Winners Cup and the European Cup.
Since then, we’ve only troubled one final and two quarter finals. Slim pickings and worse when you consider that it was 23 years between quarter final appearances, 1980 to 2003, and our last quarter final appearance was in 2004.
The Champions League was born through greed in 1992. Since then we have managed to get out the group stages only on three occasions and haven’t troubled the tournament when it has gone down to single figures.
The decline of later stages appearances since the mid-seventies ties in with my experience of watching, listening and suffering European football. I started watching Celtic in 1981 and thought I would look at how many away ties we have won since then.
In 37 years I have ‘seen’ or have known Celtic only to have won away from home 30 times in 129 games. Since we started in European competition we have only won 47 times away from home in 177 games.
Based simply on this stat we have always been poor away from home. Victories are like us scoring from a corner kick – rare. So, what about our constant flirting with the later stages between 63 and 76?
Well, yes, we had a fantastic team. The Lions and then the Quality Street Gang. Scottish players were among the best in Europe and Stein was amongst the best managers in Europe. Feared and rightly remembered all over Europe.
This period benefited from the lack of numbers in the competition. Celtic had remarkable consistency during this time. They won the two or three ties required to get into the later stages more often than not. Yes, they did benefit from ‘favourable draws’, but they also beat some fantastic sides. That’s the luck of the draw and it is important.
From the mid-seventies onwards, there has been a failure to negotiate winnable ties and we have had some horror results. The modern game sees more European games than ever due to the changing political and geographical landscapes in late-eighties and early-nineties.
UEFA expanded competitions to satisfy the rich and to ensure votes from the small. This means that we are now playing the same amount of games to qualify whereas previously, this would have seen us win the competition!.
The move from the old knockout format to group stages has also put a slant on our perceived woes. Away games hold more weight now as points are at stake. Though our European away record, on sight, is poor in the good old knockout days, a poor result away from home wasn’t the be all and end all. It was either enough to get you through or overturnable in the second leg.
The number of games that we play against quality opposition has increased season on season. Due to that factor alone, it is harder for us to progress to the knock out stages and that’s before we start considering the financial challenges.
Our record since 2000 stands up well to other teams from small nations and can be looked at as being successful. We have a season of success then a few seasons of inconsistency and since the mid-seventies this is our most successful spell.
That we qualified for the Champions League two seasons in a row has to be termed a success. The last 16 qualifications, the last which was five years ago, and the one before that was four years previously, are high watermarks that don’t come along too often.
If we are using history as a barometer then we are due a last 16 qualification in the next two seasons as it seems to be on a familiar cycle. That we have had two Europa League last 32’s is also not to be sniffed at. We have a fantastic habit of every few years hanging on in when the odds are against us.
It’s difficult to comprehend that we are in a successful spell when we are playing as meekly as we have done in Germany and Austria. It’s difficult also to go out to a team as average as AEK Athens but it’s not a new thing and I hate to say that it will happen again, but on the other hand, magic and unforgettable victories will happen again.
Yes, we should always be looking to make a mark in Europe. We should always be looking to improve performances. We should always be looking to entertain and give a good account of ourselves. We should always want to be better but that want should never disparage what we have already achieved.
Even if we achieve all that we will still be inconsistent. We will still revert to type. Getting back to our golden period is beyond us. The sheer number of factors that are against us will make it virtually impossible to be that successful again. We should rightly celebrate those teams but we need to also celebrate what we have now.
Sammy’s two nights in Moscow. Men against Bhoys. That night at Anfield. Forrest in Rosenburg. Henrick in Boavista. Griffiths in Brussels. All need to be cherished in the context.
Tom’s legendary book is titled “The Glory and The Dream”. The title sums up Celtic. Domestic glory leads to us dreaming of doing something in Europe. It happens sometimes but not very often but when it does it’s worth remembering.
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