Those Fine Margins
Well, the Flying Dutchmen came, they saw autumnal Glasgow, wrecked a chemist in a train station, sang songs about the pope, ripped out seats and flung them at Celtic fans, stewards and police, but they did not conquer. Turned out that, for all the hot air being released by the over-exuberant Ajax fans, the actual football team were a bit of a damp squib. Maybe it had something to do with the wet and windy Glasgow weather. Maybe they just aren’t anywhere near as good as previous Ajax teams who’ve visited Celtic Park. Or maybe, just maybe, this young Celtic team, playing without three key players, are better than what many outside Parkhead believe.
Of course, there’s also the magnificent Champions League home record, and the fact the crowd can be like an extra man on big European nights, but records and fans can neither prevent or put the ball in the net. No matter how loud the crowd, the weight of responsibility always falls on the young shoulders wearing the hoops. But those margins between success and failure are very fine.
Just ask Charlie Mulgrew or James Forrest. Both were, for different reasons, incredibly unlucky in the last game against Barcelona. And in the game before that Emilio Izzaguire was the unlucky guy when an off-target shot struck him on the leg and diverted into the Celtic net. The fine margins in those games were there for all to see; they went against us, and we felt it.
Last night was our turn to be on the right side of those fine margins.
First up, our penalty. For me, it was a definite penalty, but not exactly a goal scoring opportunity. The defender made a rash challenge by lunging forward a few inches and Anthony Stokes, like all strikers, made the most of it. Some refs might not have given it, but this one did, and James Forrest stepped forward like a man among boys and coolly slotted the ball home.
The second goal came about as a result of Beram Kayal who, having not scored for two and half years, tried his luck from over twenty yards out. It wasn’t the most powerful of shots and seemed to be heading straight into the keeper’s hands. Lady Luck then decided to play her hand and, as a hapless defender stuck out his leg, the ball ricocheted out the keeper’s reach into the corner of the net.
After the inevitable jumping around like a maniac I retired breathless to my seat where the worrying commenced. Being tagged back from one up would’ve been bad enough. But now, with a two goal lead, being tagged back would’ve been disastrous not only for Celtic’s Champions League dreams but also for my short, medium and probably long-term mental health. To summarise, I was now sh*ttin’ myself.
Luckily for me, though not for Ajax, their great comeback was not to be. They huffed and puffed and struggled to get the breakthrough needed against a stubborn and organised Celtic defence. And when they did manage to beat the defence, a combination of poor finishing and an in-form Fraser Forster kept them at bay. Again, those fine margins in action.
Although Ajax finally got their consolation goal in the dying seconds, and a fine goal it was too, there was still enough time left on the clock for me, the world’s biggest pessimist, to be worried. Thankfully the referee put me out my misery by not adding on any more time, which he could’ve done seeing as a goal had been scored.
And that was that…for the football side of things anyway.
Celtic’s campaign was finally off and running.
After three games we’ve seen how important those fine margins can be. In none of the games have Celtic outplayed or been outplayed to an extent that meant games were over and done with long before the end. With a bit of luck here and a bit of luck there the group table could’ve looked very different.
Adding-up all those ifs, buts and maybes won’t bring any extra points, but even pessimists of a nervous disposition can take great heart in appreciating the fine margins between all the teams in the group. And with that appreciation comes a narrowing of the margin between hopes and expectations.
So, when we begin the next round of games in Amsterdam, we do so knowing we’re capable of matching anyone anywhere. All we need is that little bit of luck on the night.