Tonight when the Champions League anthem starts prior to the Barcelona – Arsenal game, most of us will be miles away from the action. Many, like me, will feel anticipation at what’s to come, but that will be tempered by a horrible sense of frustration.
For a while, and it doesn’t seem that long ago, that was the stage on which our club belonged, and I don’t believe football changed enough in the interim period for us to have forgotten that or to have decided to settle for less.
Some clearly do, but on a night like tonight I can’t help but think of all the “what might have beens” and the missed opportunities.
I missed a lot of big nights like tonight, back when Celtic truly felt comfortable on the European footballing stage. For one reason or another, mostly having to do with attending university and being skint, there were moments of magic that I wasn’t present for.
Juventus at Celtic Park was one; I was at night school at the time and I missed one of the greatest home experiences in the history of our club.
I was sitting in the very place I am now, watching on the telly, on the night we beat Barcelona.
When we knocked them out of the UEFA Cup in 2004, after a tremendous result in Spain, I was in a pub in Stirling with a good friend of mine.
“We now live in a world where Celtic has knocked Barcelona out of Europe,” I told her, as we went through to the quarter finals less than a year after we’d got to the final itself.
In those years, and for years to come, as Gordon got us through two group stages, it seemed as if we really were one of those clubs, that this was our playground, that we were one of the big boys. We had a home record which was the envy of every other side in Europe; nobody felt good about coming to Celtic Park.
We were always capable of shutting out teams and producing a shock.
Except back then no-one considered those results as such.
A lot of Celtic fans accept our new “reality”, as if this was something we were forced to live with through no fault of our own. In truth, we’re here by choice, a choice that was made within our own club. This is something few can realistically dispute.
That choice has limited our ambitions and shrunk our horizons to the point where many can’t see past domestic accomplishments like racking up league titles and the occasional cup run. I grew up seeing Celtic win nothing; I will never be nonchalant about seeing us triumph here at home, but as someone who was getting used to seeing the kind of European triumphs my father and his generation almost took for granted growing up, I want more of that.
Ronny Deila had me last season, when we got through our Europa League group and went up against Inter. We played well enough during both legs to inspire confidence that, perhaps, the European nights were coming back again.
The way we went backwards this season stunned me, and it worries me that we might not be done on the downslope just yet, making it all the harder to reach the peak again.
People talk right now as if we last moved forward in Europe a decade ago; it’s not true, as we’re all well aware.
It’s only three season since we beat Barcelona at home and got through a tough group to take on Juventus. They beat us resoundingly, and the following season started with a relentless weakening of our team which still infuriates me today.
What’s happened to us was not inevitable. We’ve gone backwards and lost our way because of decisions taken inside Celtic Park. The squad that night against the Spanish giants included Joe Ledley, Giorgious Samaras, Victor Wanyama, Kelvin Wilson, Adam Matthews and Fraser Forster.
Within a year all but Forster was gone. He wasn’t far behind.
What infuriates fans most is how little of the money from the sales of these guys was reinvested in the squad. Neil Lennon was horrendously let down in losing those players and being unable to replace them; his accomplishment in getting through to the Round of 16 should have been rewarded.
Instead he was betrayed and there’s no excuse for it.
Tonight, when Barcelona takes on Arsenal a lot of our fans will be watching with great interest but a weary resignation that this stage is beyond us. It’s not. It’s only three years since we last took our place in such exalted company and there is no reason why we should not aspire to be back there again quite soon.
Our failures have been failures of ambition and imagination, not a consequence of circumstances beyond our control.
The first step on the road to achieving is believing.
When we start to act like a team that belongs on that stage we’ll be there again.
I do not doubt it for a second.