Thursday, October 01, 2009

Friends reunited

Another European game rolls around and, refreshingly, we’re simply concentrating on what is likely to prove a mildly diverting match up of two teams keen to impress in Europe’s second tier competition to prove that they deserve to feast at the Champion’s League banquet.

Or not. One of these days Celtic or Rangers are going to enjoy a serene build up to a match. But not tonight for Celtic. Not when we can relive a glorious episode from 25 years ago involving a stunning fightback, fans misbehaving, Austrian play acting, UEFA dithering, fans losing the plot, players being attacked and Celtic getting dumped out in the Lancashire night.

Yes Celtic and Rapid Vienna. Do the names not just roll of your tongue, so redolent of the glamour of European football? Only if your idea of glamour is being sick round the back of Stagg’s nightclub after a dozen lagers and a dodgy kebab.

It’s getting rarer and rarer that I can say this but I’m too young to remember it all. Like Arthur Scargill, tight shorts and 5 Star I have only really experienced the madness of what went on second hand.

I summarise: Vienna beat Celtic 3-1 at home and turn up in Glasgow expecting to seal the deal with ease. On a raucous night Celtic lead the Austrians in a Vienese waltz and win 3-0. Relations between the players during the match are less than comradely, a legacy of alleged stamps by Peter Grant and Alan McInally in the first leg. Perhaps feeding off the players, or perhaps it’s the other way around, The Jungle is at its intimidating best.

Or worst. Because it now seems clear that objects were thrown on to the pitch that night. Bottles? Who knows? It’s almost certain that no Rapid players were hit by anything bigger than a coin but one of them claimed to have been hit by a bottle.

Sad, pathetic, unfortunate but forgotten. No, not quite. Rapid complain and UEFA do their normal twists and turns before deciding the match must be played again. A neutral venue, Old Trafford, is chosen.

Celtic have chances but Rapid take the game 1-0. That was the football. A hard one to take for sure but just another game really. Well, not quite. Celtic’s supporters behaved so badly that night – at least two Rapid players attacked, the team bus belted with bottles – that Celtic’s next European game was held behind closed doors.

Squalid, shameful etc, etc. But long gone now.

Aha. Not quite it would appear.

Rapid released a special red away shirt to pay tribute to the strip they wore that night so keen are they to celebrate a win on a night when 22 men were sent out to play football in a bearpit of violence – an atmosphere that was not intense or intimidating but actually threatening and ugly.

Former Celtic players, including current coach Peter Grant, hit back, talking of their hurt and anger at being "cheated" out of the game. Frank McGarvey actually seems to be in need of counselling such is the extent to which he still seems haunted by the manner of the defeat.

Such has been the ferocity of dormant anger being stirred up that Celtic have actually stepped back from their original stance – marketing the game as 25 Years On – to appeal for calm lest any over zealous supporters lose the plot.

It’s been a strange build up to be sure. The press have, of course, loved it. It’s all left Tony Mowbray keen to concentrate on the game but few people that keen to let him. Stephen McManus has spoken of being embarrassed at the build up – an admission that Peter Grant should probably have a long hard think about.

Anyway a game there most certainly is. And one Celtic could really do with winning after the Hapoel Tel-Aviv second half horror show.

After knocking out Aston Villa in qualifying and the putting three past Hamburg in their first group game Vienna would look to be favourites. Mowbray needs a reaction from his players to the roasting he gave them after their below par win over St Mirren. He’ll hope that and home advantage is enough.

But everything we’ve seen from Scottish teams in Europe this season points to it being a long night for Celtic. Our technical deficiences, and Celtic have played enough poor football this season to be lumped into the same SPL grouping, have been glaringly obvious. It’s those failings that lead Mowbray into the displays of frustration he showed last Saturday.

So a Rapid Vienna win? Possibly. Celtic are dangerous because they have the potential to confound us all, to come together and play some excellent football. Maybe they’ll do that tonight, maybe not.

They’ll miss McGeady and if he is proved unfit then they’ll need to refocus some of their attack because I doubt Mowbray will want to play Pat McCourt at this level just now. Big players like Scott Brown will need to raise their games and shake off the lethargy that had them huffing and puffing in Paisley.

This isn’t mission impossible for Celtic. It’s just that right now they don’t seem to be able to sustain enough form to make it mission very likely either.

Still it’s only a game. And let’s hope everyone remembers that and uses tonight to bury the lingering resentment of 25 years ago. Even in football life is simply too short.

*The game is on Five tonight. So if you're on Freeview and you've not retuned yet it might be best to leave it until after the final whistle.