Englishmen Against Bhoys

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15 days into April 1970, events at Hampden Park turned on their head all the wisdom and predictions of how Celtic would fare against English opposition.

Bobby Murdoch collected a pass from Jimmy Johnstone and fired a goal into the bottom left of the Leeds United goal, giving a Celtic a 3-1 aggregate lead and sending them on their way to another European Cup Final.

Except this had not been the script. When the Scottish champions were drawn to face the English league’s top team, the overwhelming belief south of the border was that this would be an easy victory, in spite of Celtic having won the tournament only three years previously.

In the wake of Celtic’s 2017 six-in-a-row league triumph, the Leeds story is very apt.

This year’s success has attracted more publicity than normal in the English media, partly due to Rangers being in the top league, but also because of Brendan Rodgers’ place in the Celtic dugout.

The accepted wisdom is largely that Celtic’s success is irrelevant, evidence of what will happen when one team has more money than the others in a one-team league. And again there have discussions about how Celtic would fare if they somehow ended up in the English Premiership.

Linked to Scottish football’s general malaise, the expectation is not good.

Many pundits and fans of English football would expect Celtic to instantly struggle, face immediate relegation and possibly flounder in even England’s second top tier.

One piece of evidence to support this has been Celtic’s performances in Champions League games. The Scottish champions have been mocked this season for their 7-0 humiliation at the hands of Barcelona, but it is worth noting that English clubs have not been exempt from this; consider Arsenal’s 10-2 aggregate drubbing from Bayern Munich.

The problem with this issue – whether or not you believe Celtic would sink or swim in England – is that it is fundamentally an abstract discussion. Rather like the question of whether a team from one era would beat their modern counterparts, reaching a decision is often based on personal prejudices, rather than hard facts.

Obviously Celtic don’t play in regularly England and so any comparison lacks factual rigour – and yet there is a way to gain at least a partial insight. Not by discussing friendlies, however instead by considering Celtic’s European record against English teams.

This approach clearly has its drawbacks.

The relatively small number of times that Celtic have played English sides, spread over numerous decades, means that it is rarely the same team being compared. And Celtic’s performance in a couple of games can’t guarantee how they would perform over an entire season, but at least it gives a marginally more concrete basis for discussion.

Celtic first played English opposition in the 1965-66 season when they met Liverpool in the European Cup Winners’ Cup and their most recent southern opponents were Manchester City in this year’s Champions League. Including those games Celtic have played English teams ten times, equating to 20 games overall.

The overall record is reasonably strong. In those 20 games, Celtic have won seven, lost six and drawn seven. The Scottish champions have scored 22 goals, conceded 24 giving a negative goal difference of -2. If we assume that an English league season runs for 40 games this is equivalent to 56 points across a season (7 x 3 points for a win, 7 x 1 point for a draw; all doubled to equate to 40 games).

It is often said when managers are planning their season that 35 points is often enough to be safe in England’s top league (albeit based on 38 games). If then Celtic were to secure 54 points in their first season in the Premiership, this would clearly equate to a successful endeavour. But of course this is not the full story.

The 20 games Celtic have played took place across the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, across three competitions.

So perhaps instead we can consider what Celtic’s record has been in more recent times.

Discussing the last 20 years is an appropriate starting point, especially given that it is after the start of the league changes and TV deals which have created such a financial gulf between England and Scotland. This may gave a more realistic and rounded view of what Celtic’s immediate prospects would be if they made the journey south on a more regular basis.

Since 1997, Celtic have played English clubs seven times, giving a total of 14 games.

This is split across Champions League and UEFA Cup games. The results are generally positive for Celtic. From these 14 games, Celtic have four wins, four defeats and six draws. They have scored 17 goals, conceded 19 and again have a negative goal difference of -2.

Once more it is worth considering the impact this would have in terms of points.

The games above would give Celtic an equivalent of 54 points (4 x 3 points for a win, 6 x 1 point for a draw, multiplied by three to give 42 games overall). If the magical 35 points meaning safety number is true (even allowing for 42 games versus the actual 38), then once more Celtic would apparently easily survive, although obviously not come close to winning the title.

Again though it could be argued that 20 years is too long to consider, and that including UEFA Cup games isn’t relevant given the lack of importance that many English clubs attach to this competition. This then gives the chance to discuss Champions League only, all of which have happened in the last ten seasons (2006-07 onwards).

In this time, Celtic have played three English teams (Manchester United twice, Arsenal and Manchester City). In the eight games they have won one game, lost four and drawn three; this involved nine goals scored and 17 conceded, meaning a negative goal difference of -8. This would be equivalent to 30 points in the Premiership (1 x 3 points for a win, 3 x 1 point for a draw; multiplied by five to equate to 40 games).

This last scenario is obviously most negative to Celtic as it places them below the potential safety of 35 points. In this regard it is perhaps clear that Celtic would fail. However it is worth noting that all of these games have been against top four sides in England, and thus it takes no account of what Celtic might do when facing all other teams, especially those sitting towards the bottom of the English table.

None of this evidence is designed to make the case if such Celtic moving to England would be a good thing or is even likely.

Doing so would change Celtic’s entire structure to no longer be a ‘Scottish’ team, to say nothing of the morality of Celtic being thrust into the English top tier at the expense of other sides that have tried to gain entry through legitimate footballing means.

In addition even if the above statistics are correct, there is never a guarantee of success. If passionate fans and full stadiums alone were some barometer of achievement then Newcastle would be a much stronger position. Celtic would however have advantages that English clubs do not, such as a much greater ability to tap into a global diaspora of Irish and Scots that may associate with the club, and all of this on top of the financial riches available in the Premiership.

Another notable game which perhaps summarises southern misconceptions towards Celtic was against Blackburn Rovers in 2002 on the road to the UEFA Cup Final. Celtic struggled to win 1-0 in Glasgow, leading to jibes from the Blackburn staff that it had been ‘men against boys’, meaning the English side would easily triumph in the return leg.

The stands at Ewood Park did resound with that chant, but in fact it was ‘men against Bhoys’ as Celtic easily swatted Blackburn aside 2-0, giving a comprehensive 3-0 aggregate score. Celtic similarly disposed of Liverpool in a later round.

On those days it was clear that those in England who assumed Celtic could not be expected to compete were proved wrong. Might these events be an example of what would happen should Celtic ever make the Premiership journey?

Matthew Marr is a Celtic fan and occasional blogger from Glasgow. His work has appeared in various publications and websites.

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