MARTIN O’NEILL leaping sky-high on the side lines at Parkhead with the crowd rocking behind him is one of many enduring images of the former Celtic manager when he was at his zenith in Glasgow’s East End.
His successor at the club, Gordon Strachan recently singled out an iconic image of the late Tommy Burns flying through the air after a victory against Spartak Moscow in 2007 describing the win as “The best night I had at Celtic Park.” Excitement in one of British football’s most exhilarating amphitheatres has recently been in short supply.
The demotion of the club from the Champions League to Europa, the exit of Neil Lennon and the absence of the Celtic v Rangers derby since April 2012 have all contributed to the current inertia as the club journeys through a transitional period.
With Hearts becoming Scottish football’s first Living Wage employer pressure is mounting from fans for Celtic to follow where they once led.
With all that in mind the Scotland v Ireland fixture couldn’t come at a better time.
Walk into any Celtic bar and you’ll find an infectious enthusiasm about the forthcoming Euro qualifier and the return of O’Neill almost a decade since he left.
He will of course be joined by his assistant and former Celtic player Roy Keane, another iconic figure who many fans would have selected to become Hoops’ manager when he was in the frame earlier this year.
It’s fair to say most Celtic supporters have a strong feeling for the Republic of Ireland. At the same time, apathy for the Scotland team has finally subsided in the Strachan era.
“As a Scotland fan who stopped following under Craig Levein I can say without doubt that I along with many others have a new sense of optimism under Gordon Strachan,” said Celtic supporter Martin Mooney (33) from West Lothian.
“His type of management and the team’s attacking style of play has got me excited about the national side. I think most Scottish Celtic fans will be supporting Scotland; I don’t know many who won’t be but I know that the biggest majority have a soft spot for Ireland and if Scotland don’t go through those fans will be following them in Euro 2016.
"One thing’s for sure Parkhead “will be rocking next Friday night in Glasgow when we join our brothers from across the water to support the teams.”
We are a long way from the dark days of the 1970s when Celtic players were roundly booed by a heavy Rangers influence in the Scotland support.
Or are we? The saga of Glasgow born former Celtic player Aidan McGeady and his choice to play for the Republic of Ireland is one that has dominated headlines in Scotland for many years. To a lesser extent James McCarthy another Glasgow born Celtic supporter has also came in for some stick.
Scotland manager Gordon Strachan in his typical deadpan fashion suggested the supporters should be allowed to boo.
“Are you going to ask them to pay 60 quid and then tell them they can’t say something?” he said: “As long as you don’t have that nastiness about it, then that is fine. But we have all been booed. I used to come here [to Celtic Park] regularly and get booed. It didn’t bother me. And that was when I was the manager. ‘It is part of football. It is like pantomime stuff. As long as it is pantomime humour, then we don’t mind that. If it goes beyond that, then that’s not fine.’"
The “nastiness” to which Strachan is referring is the sectarian and/or anti Irish resentment directed at these Scottish born players who chose to play for Ireland. Obviously, Celtic supporters are philosophical about Scots born players from the diaspora choosing to play for the land of their grandparents. Others perhaps have still have to come to terms with it.
But let’s keep the ball on the deck; the relationship between both sets of supporters is likely to be magnanimous even in a game as tight, competitive and important as this. Gerry McGrath originally from Dublin spent nearly 20 years in Edinburgh: “I’d like to see the team win that needs the points the most to qualify. I’m looking forward to a decent game and want to see both sides do well if I’m honest,” he said.
“The SFA haven’t come out of this well, an increase in ticket prices has led many Scotland fans to opt for the pub. Reports suggest that unsold tickets for the forthcoming game have been snapped up by Ireland fans on the SFA website after the FAI were offered a measly 3,000plus tickets. The fervour is building and there is undeniably an added interest for Celtic supporters on both sides. Beyond the game taking place in Paradise, managed by two of the club’s former managers, the players who cut their teeth under O’Neill at Celtic include Aiden McGeady and Shaun Maloney. The latter will be returning home to be pitched against his old mentor.
Speaking ahead of the game he said: “I am indebted to Martin O’Neill for giving me an opportunity in the professional game when he really didn’t have to. “I was only 18 and wasn’t really a regular in the reserves. I understand what a good boss he is. “I am not surprised he has Ireland playing the way they are. He is a superb man-manager. “To be honest, it’s probably similar to the view I have of Gordon Strachan. “I don’t think I can put into words how thankful I am to Martin O’Neill — but I hope he doesn’t have a positive result next month.”
Celtic and Scotland captain Scott Brown has been in inspirational form for the national side and his performance in the win against Georgia has encouraged an ever-growing confidence. Strachan is also spoiled for choice when it comes to keepers with former Celt David Marshall and current goalie Craig Gordon both featuring in a strong pool.
Whether it’s Parkhead or a packed-bar, Scotland v Ireland on a Friday night in Glasgow will undoubtedly feel like the centre of the universe, already the atmosphere is building in a city where football is the life-blood and heroes on both sides are playing at home.