Back in September 2001 I made the trip over to Paradise for the final Champions League qualifier v Ajax, we held a 3-1 lead from the first leg in Amsterdam and it was with a certain amount of confidence that we took the Stena Line over that Autumn day.
The new Millennium had brought renewed hope that under Martin O’Neill we would once again take our rightful place in European competition, for the previous 20 years since a quarter final defeat to Real Madrid in 1980 our performances had been pretty dismal, first and second round exits were the order of the day, we had fallen so much from the golden era of the 60’s and early 70’s when we were European elite, it was a depressing time, I remember every year when we would play in the early rounds in Europe and after defeat it was so deflat- ing for a few days, we only had local dominance to look forward to and even that was beyond us in the 90’s.
The arrival of one Martin O’Neill in 2000 changed all that, in fact changed everything! No longer were we playing second fiddle to our great rivals in Govan, a decade of misery was over. We also had in place during the sad, bad 90’s a new regime at boardroom level, wee Fergus came, promised and delivered, a new business plan put in place, a 61,000 all seated stadium positioned at our original home in Paradise, Irish financier Dermot Desmond brought in to provide a long needed response to David Murray, and finally a Manager of quality who knew how to get things done on the playing field, the new millennium brought everything into place, we didn’t know it then but we were about to witness 20 years of continuous success, and to top it off a presence in European football which befits our great club, after two decades of the ridiculous we would now have the sublime.
The European Cup began in 1956, Hibs being the first Scottish and British team to take part, the English refused to enter just as they did with the World Cup in 1930, sure didn’t they invent the game? For the first 11 years Latin teams dominated: Real Madrid with the first five, Di Stefano and Puskas; then Benfica with Eusebio and the two Milans with Rivera & Facchetti before the greatest night in Celtic history in ’67 in Lisbon: European royalty. Man Utd and Georgie Best in ‘68 followed by the Dutch with first Feyenoord denying us a second title and then the magic of Cruyff and Ajax.
The powerful Germans of Bayern, Gerd Muller, Beckenbauer followed suit before Liverpool and the English teams had their day in the sun, former Celtic great Dalglish led the Reds to great glory followed by Forest, Cloughie and one Martin O’Neill, then Villa, it was the English heyday in Europe, 6 in a row, even now with the megabucks in the EPL they can’t repeat that success with just 6 Champions Leagues in 30 years. The 80’s had a mish- mash of teams winning with Hamburg, Steaua, PSV, Porto, indeed there is a suggestion that those years from the English teams winning to the end of the 80’s were the poorest standard for European football?
The 90’s then witnessed the introduction of the Champions League with straight knockout being replaced by the group stages, all at the bequest of the big clubs who didn’t want to go out of Europe in the first round anymore. In the last 30 years the competition has been domi- nated by a few select clubs, Real Madrid 7, Barca 5, Bayern 3, AC Milan 3, Man U, Liver- pool and Chelsea 2 each; Spain, Germany, Italy and England get 4 clubs into the group stages every year, and by all accounts it’s going to get worse with UEFA deciding to avoid a breakaway ‘Super League’ they must pander to the elite of Europe.In other words,those with the biggest finances. That means in effect teams like PSG and Man City who have never won the European Cup/Champions League get preference over storied European winners like Ajax, Porto, Dortmund and Celtic, just because of their deep pockets from hedge fund merchants in the US, Russia and Qatar.
Whatever about the machinations of the European power brokers in 2021 we can always look at a wonderful European history for an Irish/Scottish club in the East End of Glasgow, 60 years ago next year Celtic took their first baby steps in Europe in the old ‘Fairs Cup’ losing to Valencia 6-4 on aggregate. The following season Celtic reached the semi final of the Cup Winners Cup, amazingly while winning the first leg 3-0 they lost 4-0 away to MTK Budapest and missed out on a first final. Spurs had won the previous Cup Winners Cup with the great Jimmy Greaves their talisman, probably the best goal scorer ever in football, Greaves sadly passed away recently, he was my first footballing hero in the mid 60’s before I found Bobby Murdoch. Another great goal scorer passed recently, the great Gerd Muller, World Cup winner with Germany and European Cup 3 in a row with Bayern, another footballing legend.
The following season seen the arrival of the great Jock Stein but before he stepped into the Parkhead hot-seat Celtic made a first acquaintance with Barcelona in the Fairs Cup losing 2-0 on aggregate, over the decades they would become the most welcome team to Paradise especially on one famous night on the 125th anniversary, the Scottish club with Irish roots and the Catalans, both with incredible history, ‘Mes que un club’! In the ’66 season
Celtic again reached the Cup Winners Cup semi final but went out controversially 2-1 at Anfield after a perfectly legit Bobby Lennox goal was disallowed, while it was so disappoint- ing the European appetite was whetting and of course in ’67 that big cup would make its way to Paradise after a night of all nights in Lisbon. Defeating Inter 2-1 will always remain the great- est milestone for our great club, it puts us in an elite group of clubs who have achieved that level of esteem, indeed some of the top English teams like Man City, Everton, Arsenal and Spurs have never had their illustrious name carved on the top trophy in world football.
From ’64-’74 we were European elite more or less; two semi finals and then Lisbon; a quarter final defeat to AC in ’69; we lost another final to Feyenoord in ’70; followed by a quarter final defeat to Ajax in ’71 and a semi defeat to Inter in ’72; and finally another semi defeat to Atletico Madrid in controversial circumstances in ’74, it was a wonderful time to be a Celtic supporter and I was part of it; my first game v Benfica a 3-0 victory in ’69, 3-0 v Fiorentina in ’70 and of course the 2-1 victory over ‘Super Leeds’ at Hampden in April ’70 along with 136,500, it was just a magical time to be travelling to Paradise, and I thought it would never end, but sadly it did.
Except for one final sortie in the European Cup in 1980 when we reached the quarter final and defeated Real Madrid 2-0 at Parkhead but lost 3-0 in the return leg, in reality from the mid 70’s for 25 years we were also rans in Europe, it was just a miserable, miserable time. Some Celtic fans might be happy winning the SPL and beating Rangers but I’m afraid for me it’s all about Europe, somehow we have to find a way to be able to compete in the Champions League on a regular basis.
For two decades every sort of half bit European side came to Glasgow and over the two legs would deliver elimination in the early rounds. I mean such ‘household names’ as Olympiacos, Wisla Krakow, FSV Zwickau, Innsbrook, Timișoara, Rapid Vienna, Neuchatel, Hamburg, Sporting Lisbon, Zurich, Croatia Zagreb and Bordeaux.
There were some great nights against some of the better teams: Juve and Liam Brady, Atleti- co in Spain before behind closed doors, Forest on a passionate night in the frost at the City Ground, Dortmund pre-Lambert, Liverpool and a mazy length of the pitch run by Steve McManaman to deny us victory, ‘Jackie’ Dziekanowski’s 4 goals v Partizan, but at the final whistle all delivered the same result: early exit from Europe for another season.
It would nearly take me a week to get over it, another year without European football after Xmas, it was desperate times and we had a Board who didn’t seem to realise that we had fallen so far behind in the challenge for Europe, the old Board were happy enough with a few league titles and an odd cup victory but then the 90’s put paid to even that, it was the worst of times.
When the European Cup was formed in 1956 it was over a decade before Celtic made their entry into the famous old trophy. The same thing happened when it was changed to the Champions League in the early 90’s: it was a full decade before the name ‘Celtic’ was pulled out of the crystal bowl by some exotic blonde or maybe even Billy McNeill; the clip of Cesar lifting the big cup in Lisbon would flash up on the big screen as Zadok the Priest could be heard in the background. This was a whole new ball game. It was razzmatazz and show business: 32 teams, eight groups of four, with six games before Christmas.
Live on terrestrial TV and the new Sky digital service, worldwide coverage and yes, millions of Euros flooding into the coffers but, of course, those who reached the business end coined the serious money the prophetic words on the steps of Paradise, ‘I will do everything in my power to deliver success for the football club’, we didn’t sense hyperbole or bullshit, we knew that things were about to change.
The man who said his Dad told him to ‘walk to Parkhead if Celtic ever came calling’ was the right person at the right time. Leicester’s Chairman and fans couldn’t believe he would leave the EPL for the SPL, but they didn’t know the attraction of Celtic, O’Neill did and he brought Lennon, Sutton, Thompson, Hartson and made a team to compete in the Champi- ons League and destroy the Rangers monopo- ly in Scotland. In his first Celtic v Rangers game his team destroyed the ‘bears’ 6-2, he had made a statement, the Rangers domi- nance was over, now for Europe.
So we come back to the penultimate qualifier in Amsterdam. For a quarter of a century we would have went out quietly to the Dutch masters but that night Bobby Petta played like God and we took a 3-1 lead to Paradise. It was one of those games – we were already qualified in a sense – all we had to do was keep things safe at the back and we were through but that’s never the Celtic way…
Ajax scored in the 10th minute and for the next 80 minutes it was nail biting time as we tried to hold on, I was up high in the North stand and it was an emotionally draining experience but as we went into the final minutes the whole stadium was engulfed with an outburst of emotion as we realised that we were on our way to the Champions League, it was like that day we stopped the 10 for the ‘bears’, the North stand was rocking and as the final whis- tle went it was euphoria, Celtic were in the Champions League for the first time.
The draw in the first campaign delivered Juve, Porto and Rosenberg; I was there as we beat Porto who became the first Champions League opponents after the Rosenberg game was changed due to the death of the Diana. After almost 30 years Celtic were among European royalty once again, the stadium was at bursting point as the haunting Zadok the Priest was heard over Paradise for the first time and then ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was belted out like never before in the new stadium from the serried ranks of Celtic supporters who had waited on that day for a lifetime.
We unluckily lost to Juve 3-2 in the first game but defeated Rosenberg at home; unfortu- nately we lost away to both Porto & Rosenberg setting a precedent which would dog us in Europe over the next decade. The final game was a massive 4-3 victory over the ‘Old Lady’ Juve in a bouncing Parkhead, I was behind the net where Del Piero scored a beautiful free-kick to open the scoring but in a game of to and fro our result was just too little to take us through even though we had gained 9 points and displayed a confidence in our first attempt at Champions league glory which augured well for the future. My son Kevin accompanied me to the game, the generational change, 30 years earlier at his age I had attended my first European game.
After elimination from the Champions League we dropped into the UEFA Cup and faced up to Valencia, their first ever opponents in Europe way back in ’64! After losing 1-0 in a passionate Mestalla, Celtic took the game to the Spaniards in an even more passionate Paradise and a Larsson goal took the game to extra time and the dreaded penalties.
We were again behind the net at the Lisbon Lions end about central and just above the nets when Henrik almost took the head of us with his penalty and Celtic were out. Of all people to miss, the man you would put your house on to score but that’s football. Dixie Deans did it back in the ’72 Cup semi and Anton in the ’90 cup final, Paul McStay in the League cup final with Raith, and big bad John in a final with the ‘bears’.
2002-03 would of course see the Celts back in Europe in a big way, despite an early elimination from the Champions league by Basel. It was a blessing in disguise and victories over FK Suduva, Blackburn, Celta Vigo, Stuttgart, Liverpool & Boavista seen Celtic back in a European final for the first time since Milan in ’70; the first time in Europe after Xmas since Madrid in ’80. It was a long wait. Like 80,000 others we headed to Seville for the final, without tickets of course.
Mary, my grandson Oisin and I headed to the Algarve for the week and drove up to Seville on the day of the final, despite not having tickets it was a wonderful occasion, we watched the game in a wee pub among Celtic and Porto fans, it was a disappointing finish to lose 3-2 but Porto and Mourinho showed the following year that they were a team to be reckoned with, winning the Champions League.
The following season Celtic made the groups stages again but once again the away form let us down, losing away to Bayern, Lyon and Anderlecht. Two wins at home against Lyon and Anderlecht and a good draw with Bayern weren’t enough to take us through so we were in the UEFA Cup again. Once again we were on our way to Barcelona where we carved out a brilliant draw in the Camp Nou courtesy of magnificent displays from Marshall & Kennedy. In the home leg a Larsson knock down let Alan Thompson put the tie to bed and the Celts were in the quarter final again against Spanish opposition in Villarreal, after defeating Barca it felt as if another final was on the cards and I applied for and got tickets for the final in Gothenburg but to no avail as the underestimated Spanish put us to the sword.
The next campaign was slightly disappointing as we finished bottom of a group with heavyweights Barca, AC Milan & Shakhtar, but we were becoming established as regulars in the Champions League, albeit a long way off ever competing at the business end. The following season brought Gordon Strachan as Manager and Artmedia, enough said about that, but how football can bring wonderful changes in a short time.
Three years before Lisbon we lost to Rangers in the cup final and the Celtic end was deserted at half time. In the next two seasons WGS brought Celtic to the last 16 of the Champions League: wonderful nights defeat- ing Man U on the way with a bit of magic from the little Japanese star, Nakamura. One of my best nights at Paradise and compared to beating Leeds at Hampden ’70. After two great displays against AC Milan we lost to a very late goal from Kaka for a place in the last 8. We really were mixing it with the elite in Europe once again. Paradise was earning a reputation for the most atmos- pheric stadium in Europe, highlighted by Kaka, Costacurta, Maldini, Messi and Xavi.
The next campaign Strachan again took the team to the last 16 where the mighty Barca awaited, despite losing 3-2 at home we made the trip to the Catalan city, it was almost becoming an annual pilgrimage now, the Michael Collins bar across the square from the Sagada Familiar became our main host for a few days as the Celts bowed out 4-2 on aggregate.
After a couple of miserable years in Europe the Neil Lennon initial era provided some memorable nights, great home and away wins against Spartak Moscow and a classic victory over Benfica before one magical night against Barca on the 125th anniversary. The stadium personified what it meant to be Celtic, a magical montage of green and white hoops, a Celtic Cross and the anniversary 125, and the team responded with an outstanding 2-1 victory over Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, if anything it probably represents the greatest victory ever at Paradise over the 5 times European Champions and the world’s greatest ever player.
Qualifying for the knockout stages once again brought Juve back to Paradise. We were confi- dent but an error early doors from ‘timebomb’ Efe Ambrose let the ‘Old Lady’ cruise to a 3-0 win (5-0 on aggregate). I thought that night he should never have got a game again. We had felt confident going into the game but his defensive lapse sold the bacon. I honestly think that night was the beginning of the end of our second period as a real European contender; the last decade has seen us sliding down the ranks as a team to be feared in Europe.
One more CL group stage with the elite would see Barca, Ajax & AC Milan visit Glasgow but we were off the pace highlighted by a 6-1 defeat to Barca, a result we’d never ever have seen coming in 50 years in Europe. Our status as a Champions league team was suffering after defeats to Legia Warsaw, Maribor and Malmo in successive years and miserable Europa league campaigns.
The arrival of Brendan Rodgers gave hope of a return to previous levels of competing in Europe but despite two draws with new boys on the block Man City, Celtic were embar- rassed by a 7-0 defeat at the Camp Nou and it got even worse with an aggregate 12-1 score line against PSG, it was remarkable that a Manager of his calibre could not see that Celtic could not play an open game against teams like Barca and PSG, but he persisted and they got hammered, it was embarrassing, despite all Neil Lennon’s faults he could put out a team to defeat Barca.
In the last few years our participation in Europe has been confined to the Europa League after CL qualifier defeats to AEK Athens, Cluj, Feren- cvarosi & Midtjylland, it says a lot about how the club are being run at the moment, although there were two memorable nights when defeat- ing Lazio home and away, the Romans with the fascist fanbase were given a special Celtic Park welcome, ‘Lazio Vaffanculo’ amid images of the fascist general Mussolini after his execution by anti fascist fighters causing his granddaughter, an MEP, to call for a ban on Celtic. While the team might be letting us down in recent times in Europe despite unsurpassed success in the SPL, the support base will never let us down.
Paddy was born in Belfast with Donegal and Tyrone parents. He spent the 70’s in Long Kesh. He has been going to Paradise since the Benfica game in Nov. 1969. He lived in Donegal for 30 years but now lives in Galway. He returned to University at 50 and became a secondary school teacher of history and English.