Three Years Ago Today: Memories Of An Incredible European Night At Celtic Park

It was on this day, three years ago, that Celtic faced the might of Manchester City in the Champions League. The English side, led by Pep Guardiola, had won ten games on the bounce domestically and were naturally heavy favourites to win the game.

I had a ticket for the match, but was unable to get the day off work. At the time I worked for Barclays in a big office block in Poole. My shift used to commence at 3pm and finish at 11, meaning I wouldn’t even be afforded the opportunity to watch the match on television.

As the day drew closer, I had considered how to get around the situation. I wanted to attend. European nights are always special, add English opposition into the mix and it’s even better. Man City was the club I had been waiting to face for some time. A new force in Europe, the Sky Blues had never experienced an atmosphere like Celtic Park and I was confident that the crowd would serve as an effective laxative for their star studded team.

A week before the fixture, I seized the opportunity of booking cheap flights from Southampton to Glasgow. I was to depart at 8am on the morning of the match and return at the same time the next day. The date rolled round with no arrangement reached at my work. Nevertheless, I trudged down to the train station, located right beside Barclays, and headed for Southampton Airport. Once in Glasgow, I got a taxi to Paisley Canal Street and boarded a train to Central Station, where I would meet a Celtic friend from Myrtle Beach (USA). I took out my phone in Central Station, called the Barclays Sick Line and left a message: “Hi, this is Liam Kelly from PBA, I won’t be in for my shift later as I have a really bad migraine and have been sick. I am going to the doctor this afternoon and hope to be in for work tomorrow – Thanks.”

The clock struck 11.15am and there I was, 460 miles away from my doctor’s surgery, going to the pub to meet my American pal. We met at a traditional Scottish pub, the name of which escapes me, and ate the unfamiliar delicacy of a Scotch Pie with beans… at least it is unfamiliar to us. As a season ticket holder, I had been to many European nights already, but for my American friend this was his first. He held no hope of Celtic winning. My smirk in disagreement led him to proclaim: “Aguero, Sterling, Silva.” I explained that the atmosphere would be incredible and that Celtic would always have a chance thanks to that.

Our home form in Europe has deteriorated from the fortress that Paradise once was. Modern football with its ever expanding finances for those lucky enough to be in the big five leagues, has left teams from smaller countries at a huge disadvantage. This has been the case for some time, but now the gap has widened to such an extent that our once proud home record, no longer stands to test. However, when the support is at it’s imperious best, Celtic Park transforms into a cauldron of noise, a passion espoused by 60,000 fans, giving the Hoops an outside chance of producing a one off result. Lazio, Leipzig and Zenit are recent victims to exemplify this point.

There was something in the air that day, besides the typical Glasgow rain, which led me to believe something special was in store. As I put the cutlery down on my plate and slurped the last of my Tennent’s lager, a drink we can’t buy at home, except a can of its ‘super’ form; we got the train to Port Glasgow to meet some mutual friends. One might wonder how a guy from Poole and another from Myrtle Beach can have mutual friends in Port Glasgow. It’s a crazy story, but the essence is that Celtic unites us.

We disembarked from the train onto the cobbled streets of the ‘Port town’. It was a far cry from sunny North Carolina and somewhat different from leafy Dorset too. Both of us were familiar with the area, but this was the first time we were together at the same time. A bus took us past the Ancient Order of Hibernians Hall, from which several Celtic buses leave for games, and up the huge hills towards a council estate. There, we had a chat and dinner with pals, before heading back to the town centre for a pint before the bus left for the game.

Celtic Development team were on TV against Man City’s Youth, but little attention was paid to the action as I was embraced by friends from the bus, who I hadn’t seen for a few weeks. The bus rolled up, the sky dark, wind lashing us in the face and rain swirling all around. We got on and the usual Irish Folk songs were playing from the stereo. “All across this ancient land, throughout the test of time, it was music that kept their spirits free, those songs of yours and of mine.” The bus sang along, a little half hearted as many had rushed home from work and were still trying to settle and get a drink into them.

A snarl up on the M8 motorway caused a bit of anxiety. I was only concerned about making kick off, others experienced a double whammy as they spoke about the form of Man City and the fact that Pep is such a top manager. Moments later, Police Scotland pulled over the bus, leading to a frantic collection of cans and bottles being hidden with the ingenuity of a political prisoner. Two officers walked along the aisle, responding to groans aimed their way, by saying they’re just doing their job. They weren’t as forthcoming with an explanation as to why they had driven us from the junction by Celtic Park, all the way back to Braehead.

Tension filled the air, but thankfully the police finally left us and, after a long sprint up Kerrydale Street, I made it into the safe standing area just as You’ll Never Walk Alone was being played. It’s not a new sight, but it’s every bit as breathtaking as the first time I saw it. As I recall this was prior to the disco lights being introduced and thus Paradise was lit up allowing a mass of green and white scarves to reveal themselves. Incredible stuff.

Then came the Champions League anthem. Always a high point of these occasions, the noise went through me as the Celtic support let out a battle cry in their own unique way. It reads like a cliche, but where the Celtic support is concerned it’s true. There’s nothing like it; no ground to equal the roar as that piece of classical music gets played over the tannoy. It’s something we began with the first game in the Champions League at the turn of the millennium and it’s a tradition that has stuck with us since.

Sometimes European nights don’t always match the hype at Parkhead. It is normally a spectacle to behold though. Yet this night things were different. Paradise is famous for its deafening noise in patches. Usually a pre-match build up spills into 15 minutes of passionate electricity. Thereafter, the crowd responds to the action on the field: roars at attacks and corners, bursts of deafening song after goals, the light show at 67 minutes and if you’re lucky then celebrations at full time. The Man City match was unique in the sense that the deafening crescendo of noise enveloped the stadium for the full 90 minutes. Much like the Barcelona match in 2012, it was an atmosphere to beat all atmopshere’s.

I think the acoustics were so special because of a combination of factors. Firstly, this was the first group stage game with the presence of safe standing. Secondly, Celtic were facing English opposition of high calibre, and lastly the match had so many flash points with the Hoops taking the lead on three occasions.

The noise hadn’t even slightly abated from a powerful rendition of the Celtic Symphony sweeping the stands, by the time Moussa Dembele put Celtic ahead in the third minute. I remember pilling forwards, hugging my friend in the row in front of me. The celebratory anthem of Ninetoes by Finder then swooped around the stadium, with people in all four stands jumping up and down bellowing out “De De De De!” It’s something I’ve never seen anywhere else in football. Normally you find an ultras section or a vocal stand who will sing and jump in unison. At Celtic Park on these nights, the full stadium becomes involved.

Moments later Celtic got a corner, raising the version of the Lonesome Boatman to new heights as the full Lisbon Lions stand and standing section linked arms bouncing up and down whilst humming that distinctive Irish tune. I can vividly remember looking across to the City fans thinking they must be absolutely shocked at the noise here. It was as loud as I’d ever heard it.

Despite the atmosphere, which the BBC later reported was louder than a Jumbo Jet at takeoff, City levelled. The goal came in the middle of the stadium singing the Fields of Athenry, a song intrinsically linked to our club’s formation, which hadn’t been aired in that manner for some time. I wondered if our moment had gone when Fernandinho struck that equaliser, but Celtic responded by going on the attack again.

Kieran Tierney burst down the left on 20 minutes and I can still see in my mind’s eye, Tom Rogic’s delightful through ball into his path. Almost level with my standing position, Tierney put the ball across and unbeknown to us a deflection was the thing that guided the ball beyond the goalkeeper. Once more it was hugs, disbelief and sheer emotion in the stands. The Capo on the megaphone sang Just Can’t Get Enough, which got going in the North Curve. By the time the second loop of the songs came around, the Jock Stein Stand was leaping, an incredible sight seeing bodies jumping about. Then it was “Sha-la-la Kieran Tierney.” Phenomenal.

Our ecstacy lasted eight minutes before Raheem Sterling dummied Craig Gordon and finished beautifully. It was a wonderful goal, met with a sigh as if to acknowledge that fact. The atmosphere was still very good thereafter, though there was a certain amount of panic whenever City crossed the halfway line.

Half time came as a relief for me. I pulled down the chair and took a seat, my throat hoarse. I turned to my friend stood in front of me and said “We can still do this, they’ve never played in anything like this.” There was a real sense of believe in Celtic Park. Others felt the same. City were rattled and we knew something was in the offing for us.

Play got underway in the second 45 and Man City fans could be heard singing “We’ve got Guardiola,” to the tune of Glad All Over. Their efforts were met with a cheer as if to say ‘it’s nice to know you’re here’. The atmosphere always takes a moment or two to get going in the second half as people return from the toilets and catering area. No such luxury was afforded to fans that night though, as a bouncing cross from Tierney found its way to Dembele, who took a touch with his thigh and then bicycle kicked the ball into the bottom corner. This was beyond our wildest dreams. Celtic Park absolutely erupted. No words can do the noise justice.

It was ten minutes of sheer bedlam. Party songs out in force, Willie Maley, The Celtic Song, so many others from our diverse repotoire. The version of Ninetoes at that point had almost every person in the stadium jumping and I’m not just saying this, you could genuinely feel the concrete steps move beneath your feet.

Our joy was short lived again. Nolito scored on 55 minutes to make it 3-3. I can’t picture the goal that well in truth, I just remember feeling annoyed that we had squandered the lead for a third time. Often, the atmosphere may take a dip for a while and pick up in spells. Not this night. Instead, Parkhead rose to its feet and drove the team on with song after song.

As the game drew to a close, the Bhoys were a bit under the cosh. In response, Celtic fans belted out Sean South of Garryowen. Rebel songs are not often heard outside of the standing section at home games these days. However, to my surprise, all 60,000 rose to their feet and joined in. It was a remarkable scene, only bettered by the loudest rendition of Grace that there has ever been. What other club could sing such an emotional song of such significance?

By contrast, we offered the team a spine tingling rendition of Cmon You Bhoys in Green, bouncing end to end and reverberating around the full stadium as the side stands joined into the action. The scene was captured on TV and seeing the footage later, the camera panned round showing the stadium jumping in unison. Clyve Tyldesley and Steve McManaman were commentating on the match and laughed whilst remarking “The stadium is actually shaking, it is literally rocking. These fans are the very best in the world.”

The finest moment for me arrived in the final few minutes when a loud rendition of Let The People Sing started. As the support reached the point “Open up your hearts and I’ll sing for you this song,” Craig Gordon made a superb save with his forearm from a powerful strike. This raised the bar, leading to a real boisterous scream “Let the people sing their stories and their songs,” the noise was indescribable. It left me with a lump in my throat and brought a tear to my eye. I looked at the full stadium on its feet singing this beautiful Irish song, the tri-colours decked on the tiers and the flag flying high above the North Stand. What a club this is. A cultural, political, charitable and football institution.

As good as we were off the pitch that night, we were sublime on it. Everything about Celtic was demonstrated.

The full time whistle sounded: Celtic 3-3 Man City. I got back to the bus with no voice and headed down to Port Glasgow on a high. The only surprise was Radio 1 was playing on the stereo!

I woke up the next morning for my early flight home. I got the train from Southampton Airport to Poole, and walked right past Barclays on my walk home. A quick shower and change had me ready for work and I walked in with a pair of my mum’s glasses on so that my migraine wouldn’t play up when staring at the computer screen. I had to fill in a return to work form and explain that wearing glasses to work was my prevention strategy. As such, I had to keep this act up for a couple of weeks before it was forgotten!

 

About Author

Hailing from an Irish background, I grew up in Bournemouth with the good fortune to begin watching Celtic as a young child during the Martin O'Neill era. Still living on the south coast, I have a season ticket at Paradise and also travel to European away matches when possible. At the age of 19, I published my first Celtic book (Our Stories & Our Songs: The Celtic Support). Then, last year, I published my second book (Take Me To Your Paradise: A History Of Celtic-Related Incidents & Events), which is sold in Waterstones and official Celtic FC stores.

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