In his best-seller Fever Pitch – probably the best book about being a football fan that’s ever been written – Nick Hornby talked about the incongruous way in which we sometimes behave. As an Arsenal fan he has seen some of the best players in the world roll up at Highbury and the Emirates, many of them in the opposing teams.
He freely admits there are spectacular moments he wished he had never seen and players he wished hadn’t shown up on the night.
The example he uses to accentuate the point is, ironically enough, one involving the young Paul Gascoigne, who whilst at Spurs traumatised Hornby with his justifiably famous free kick in the 1991 FA Cup semi-final, which Arsenal lost 3-1.
Hornby has the football fans appreciation of that moment, its cheek and its artistry. But he regrets ever having witnessed it and freely admits that he had spent the entire week before the match hoping that Gascoigne wouldn’t be fit.
On Wednesday Celtic Park will be the place to be in football on this island, and probably one of the finest arenas of the game in all the world. For 90 minutes we will host the greatest club side of them all, and probably the greatest strike-force in the history of it, and there are few amongst us who are wholly happy about that fact.
Yesterday we learned that Messi, will be fit for the match, and I admit that my heart sank at hearing the news and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way.
He is the greatest practioner of the football art most of us have ever seen in our lives. Some will argue that Maradona was better, or that Pele reigns supreme, but for me Messi eclipses them all. The notion of watching him in competiton against my club should fill me with enthusiasm instead of this sick dread.
And I thought about Hornby’s assertion and I realised – and not for the first time – how right on the nose it actually is. I didn’t spend the week hoping Messi wouldb’t fit, I’ve spent months hoping for it! And in realising that, and accepting it, I think I can find it in me to appreciate the genius of the man even if, on the night, he tears my team to shreds.
I took a similarly open-minded attitude into the pasting we took at the Nou Camp; that result didn’t sear my soul the way some thought it should have – Sevco fans certainly think we were “humiliated” that night. But I can’t approach this one in that frame of mind because this one is at Celtic Park, this one is in front of the home crowd, and so this one feels different. I have to make a conscious effort not to feel horror at the prospect of losing like that.
So on the night I will try to simply watch and admire and enjoy.
Even if he takes us apart and we suffer enormously.
As it just so happens I don’t think we will.
For much of the first half hour in Spain I thought we held our own. It was the penalty miss and the loss of a goal almost at once that shattered morale and sent us spiralling towards that defeat. I think we’ve toughened up since then and the players are not as scared of trying to keep hold of the ball.
I’m not suggesting we’ll win – that’s something I don’t even dare to dream about at the moment – but I don’t anticipate a hiding either. It will be a long, tense, scary 90 minutes. But we’ve been there before, although not against a forward line this terrifying.
But this is Box Office stuff.
All the stars will be out for the night. The Celtic Park turf will be hosting a football team that can elevate the sport to the heights of artistic endeavour, and part of me is scared stupid by that but a bigger part of me is still thrilled by the sense of occasion and the feeling that we’ll be watching something very special indeed, something we should savour like you would attending a concert by a world class musician who was doing a one off in your home town.
Messi, Suarez and Neymar are coming to Paradise.
It’s incredible and it’s awesome and it’s the culmination of all the hard work in getting to these Groups.
And we want more of it.
We want to clear our diaries for next year and a visit from Ronaldo and Bale. We want to see Hornby’s Arsenal or Klopp’s Liverpool; imagine that, he and Brendan going head-to-head in the biggest competition of them all. We want to see Bayern Munich strutting their stuff, with the majestic Muller and Lewandowski.
This is where we belong.
On Wednesday night, football’s coming home.