I still well remember where I was when the news came through that Sion had been expelled from European competition, at the expense of Celtic, in August 2011. I was in the Laurieston Bar after work and although I couldn’t hear the TV I could read the banner headlines at the bottom of the screen that Sion were out we were back in.
The media had expected in advance that Celtic were to be reinstated but those of us of a certain age are always deeply suspicious of UEFA after the shenanigans of Atletico Madrid in 1974 and Rapid Vienna in 1984. Sion’s eccentric millionaire chairman had then threatened to take UEFA to a higher authority but in the end the Swiss were kicked out and accepted their fate. Celtic were still penalised to an extent. We would have been a pot 2 team in the draw but that event had already taken place so we were given the place in Sion’s group with Atletico Madrid, Udinese and Rennes.
Neil Lennon was in the throes of building a new Celtic team and although they lacked European experience the Celts performed well. A win and draw against Rennes, best remembered for Cha Du Ri’s calamitous own goal, and two draws against Udinese, the home leg being especially frustrating after a contentious late penalty gave the Italians a draw, were viewed as decent results. Two defeats to Atletico, 2-0 and 1-0 respectively, rounded off the group where Celtic had not qualified but given a good account of themselves.
The experience the new Celtic players learned from that Europa League group was absolutely vital. Within 12 months guys like Frazer Forster, Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper, Kris Commons and Joe Ledley had become established Champions League players with memorable wins over Barcelona and Spartak Moscow under their belts. Lennon was quick to state at that time how vital the Europa League experiences of 2011 had been in helping the team come to terms with the rigours of playing at the highest level of European football.
It occurred to me last night that history may be repeating itself as Lennon’s new charges fought out a fine 1-1 draw against a Rennes side which is currently the second best in France. Here is a team where the new signings are beginning to bed in and make an impression. Jullien, Forster, Elhammed, Bolingoli and Elyounoussi all look very capable and talented players and the hope is that Lennon can utilise them and build on the base of the team he had inherited in Ajer, Brown, McGregor, Forrest, Christie and Edouard.
It has been most heartening so far this season to see Celtic play in such an attacking fashion. 43 goals in 15 games is good going and it’s very refreshing to see that we have abolished the pussyfooting-at-the-back tactics employed by Brendan Rodgers which caused so much frustration and anger amongst the fans these last few seasons.
Who knows how far we can go in this season’s Europa League ? The hope is we will at least emulate last season’s last 32 achievement and even go further. The even bigger hope is that Lennon’s new side will emulate his old side’s record of learning quickly from their Europa adventures from this season and putting their experiences to good use in the Champions League qualifiers in August 2020.