For many a Celtic fan, the UEFA Champions League is the pinnacle of the season for them. Winning leagues, cups, even trebles are all well and good. Even piling misery on their rivals across the city can be the highlight of the season for some. But the prevailing opinion is that qualifying for the Champions League is the crown jewel of a Celtic fan’s season.
It’s a validation of their fandom to see their favourite team going head to head with the greats of football’s history. From Barcelona to Manchester United, Juventus to AC Milan. The list of top tier European clubs who have stepped onto Glasgow’s soggy streets expecting an easy three points and came away with their faces battered by the Celtic Park atmosphere is staggering.
Qualifying for the Champions League is the benchmark of which Celtic’s season and even Celtic managers can and are defined by.
Look at poor Ronny Deila, who was forever hounded after having two swings at the UCL (three if you count the life line handed to us after the Legia Warsaw debacle) and falling at the final hurdle of the play-off stage.
Brendan Rodgers coming in and qualifying for the UCL on his first try is nothing short of a minor miracle and sums up the impact that he has made since he was announced as the Celtic manager last May.
Rodgers has constantly touted Celtic as a ‘Champions League level club’ which is music to the ears of Celtic supporters. To them Celtic and the Champions League go hand in hand, stemming back to the famous year of 1967 when the Lions roared in Lisbon and brought the European Cup back to Glasgow.
Some of Celtic’s most famous results have come in the Champions League. The 2-1 victory over Barcelona, when Neil Lennon somehow masterminded a victory over Barca’s vast attacking arsenal with Efe Ambrose as a centre half. The 1-0 victory over Man United when Shunsuke Nakamura lit up Paradise with a sensational free kick and sent Celtic to the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time. The 4-3 victory over Juventus, where Martin O’Neill’s team of Celtic all-stars proved that the club could hang in Europe with the big boys.
However for a generation of Celtic fans the most famous European run and fondest memories of Celtic in Europe didn’t come in the Champions League, it came in the 2002-03 UEFA Cup. With living legend Henrik Larsson leading the pack, Celtic ran roughshod all the way to the final in Seville where they lost in heartbreaking fashion after extra time to Jose Mourinho’s Porto.
For many Celtic fans, Seville was the peak of Celtic’s modern day European runs. With the exception of the final result, the UEFA Cup run was their Lisbon Lions moment. As someone who was eight years old at the time, I took for granted the idea of Celtic making it to a major European final and looked forward to the next one. Fourteen years on and I’m still waiting!
I got into a discussion with a fellow I know on the Celtic bus from Livingston (shout out to the Jock Stein CSC) about whether or not it was better for Celtic to take part in the Champions League or Europa League.
Obviously this sounds like a silly question on paper. Of course Celtic would rather be in the Champions League. On top of the star studded, glamorous affairs that come with UCL participation, but there’s the financial rewards just for even qualifying to begin with. Throw in the TV revenue and the winnings you receive for gaining a win or a draw and Champions League just seems like the better option.
However for Celtic there will always be a certain end to the Champions League. If we get past the group stages, we’ll head into the last 16 and no doubt be drawn with a team such as Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich that live and breathe for lifting the Champions League at the end of the season. We’ll get tossed out on the street at the round of 16.
If we’re lucky, we’ll maybe reach the quarter-finals.
But barring a mysterious Arab sheikh pumping money into Celtic and letting Peter Lawwell spend money he didn’t even know he had in order to compete with these aforementioned European powerhouses, the chances of Celtic going deep into the Champions League are slim to none.
While the Europa League has changed since Celtic went on their UEFA Cup run (more big teams, the added carrot of automatically going into the Champions League the following season for the winner), it is still a highly lauded and desired trophy for those who participate in the competition.
I’m willing to bet that a Celtic team under Brendan Rodgers would make a real dent in the Europa League.
The improvements Rodgers has made to the Celtic squad since taking over have been gradual but noticeable. What’s even more impressive is that he’s made Celtic’s away form somehow better than home. Taking points off Man City and Monchengladbach at the Etihad and the Borussia-Park is something Celtic fans would have bitten your hand off for at the start of the season.
Look at the teams taking part in the round of 32 this season. While there are some big names kicking about (Man United, Tottenham, Roma), a good chunk of the teams are ones that Celtic could easily compete with. Ajax, Legia Warsaw, Gent, even the team we beat to reach the UCL this season in Hapoel Beer Sheva. You’re telling me Celtic fans wouldn’t love to be in Monchengladbach’s spot right now and going toe-to-toe with Fiorentina? Even under Deila, Celtic kept up with Inter Milan in the 2014-15 season and could be considered unlucky to have been eliminated at that stage.
We’re more likely go on a European run in the Europa League than we would in the Champions League. And while the Champions League comes with all the hoopla and grandeur, there’s a chance for Celtic to dig for something much deeper than money.
Celtic fans always wistfully think about the Seville marathon, occasionally wondering what would have happened had Celtic won that day. Who’s to say we can’t go for it again, except this time with a happier ending?
Brendan Rodgers has made it his mission to turn Celtic to a Champions League level club. It’s evident that he’s wanting to leave a legacy at Celtic Park. He can just as easily do that by following in the footsteps of Martin O’Neill and giving the fans a European journey to remember.
Kieran Polland is a self-proclaimed ‘Brendan Rodgers enthusiast’ and a journalism student at Stirling University. You can find him on Twitter @Kieran_Polland.