This season, Celtic are on the cusp of breaking Jock Stein’s Nine-in-a-Row record from 1974 and taking their place in Scottish footballing history. At the beginning of the year, Neil Lennon said that this achievement was ‘up there’ with some of the achievements of the Lisbon Lions. However, as Celtic’s crowning achievement the 1967 European Cup win cannot be matched.
Eleven lads from Scotland, lead by Jock Stein, broke the Catenaccio of Inter. The Champions of Italy were the strong favourites to win in Lisbon but Celtic went without fear, bravely attacking and deservedly became Europe’s Champions.
Football has changed a great deal since 1967, but in the last few years especially the divide between ‘big clubs’ and big leagues has grown. Celtic, Ajax, Feyenoord and Benfica are in the category of the former whilst leagues like Germany, England, France, Italy and Spain dominate the big five category. This year was unusual as it was the first year that the final had been between two sides that were domestic Champions since 2015 when Juventus were defeated by Barcelona.
Unfortunately, in recent years, big leagues have benefited from large TV deals and the Champions League is almost a playground for these big league teams. This means that teams like Celtic, who have the most spirited tradition and fan base, are often left embarrassed by elimination in the hectic qualifying rounds or if successful in navigating the labyrinth of qualifiers, you attempt to earn third place and earn a Europa League spot.
In truth, these days Celtic have practically no chance of winning the Champions League. The set-up favours those clubs from the bigger leagues and this is what brings in the global audience, clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, PSG, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Celtic these days and if they can qualify are merely a group stage filler, a team with a manic support that will fight until the bitter end. The punchy underdogs who are there to engage in this theatre but the Champions League is no longer a stage upon which Celtic can be expected to compete regularly.
Celtic are these days essentially a Europa League club in terms of squad and structure. But that is not that a bad thing, there are plenty of good teams in the Europa League but clubs like Celtic have a chance of winning it. Indeed Casinomir has a guide to all the European football and while Celtic would not be regarded as among the favourites they are not out of the running or regarded as no-hopers. The Scottish giants are at the upper end of the market and should be looking to push deep into the competition this season.
Last year’s European adventure was bookmarked with two dismal home displays, Cluj and Copenhagen. Lethargic matches where our defence was caught napping. Inside that six month period, Celtic were brilliant to watch in Europe. Occasional they rode their luck, but took their chances and we had some memorable nights under the disco lights.
The glamour of the Champions League was not there but the noise, the atmosphere and the euphoria when that ball hit the net certainly was there. Celtic are a Europa League club and it is something that we should be proud of, it is something that we should attempt to conquer whenever we are in the hat and hold the Champions League as a bonus. Something that we aspire to do is qualify for the Champions League, it allows us to attract better players and also a huge financial reward but really, our best chance of silverware is in Europe’s second competition.
2003 was Celtic’s closest to winning a European trophy since 1984, those that were present for both the Rapid Vienna fiasco in the mid 1980s and the Seville final versus Porto in 2003 will probably think that Celtic should have won those games. But these were both in Europe’s second competition.
This season we are out of the Champions League but in these desperate times, a bit of optimism is needed. The Europa League is a different opportunity for Celtic and in the next few years, the club need to focus their energy in creating new heroes after the domestic Ten-in-a-Row push is completed (fingers crossed) and conquering Europe once more.
And for this season while the supporters want more than anything to reach the magical Ten-in-a-Row, Neil Lennon will know that the longer he can stay in the Europa League the more chance he has of winning it and maybe, just maybe this could be Celtic’s season. Now that and Ten-in-a-Row would get very close indeed to matching Mr Stein’s awesome achievements in 1967. As close as it’s possible to get really.