The 3-2 loss to St. Mirren made it three in a row for Celtic at Hampden Park, dating back to last year’s 1-0 loss to Kilmarnock in the Scottish Communities League Cup. It was a match in which Celtic were meant to stroll to victory. In that case, Danny Lennon would have done well to take a quote from Neil Lennon’s book following the massive upset. No one really did give St. Mirren a prayer in the build up, yet they are the ones that will march on in the competition towards a trophy which has once again eluded Neil Lennon and his team.
Previewing the cup semi final objectively, it made sense to give St. Mirren little to no chance of conquering Celtic on the day. They hadn’t scored against the champions under Neil Lennon in eight attempts leading up to the match, let alone beaten them. However, beneath the surface lied Celtic’s dismal recent record at the national stadium, as well as consistently shaky domestic form which was masked by two blistering performances against Hearts and Dundee United. The Hooper and Wanyama transfer buzz was yet another distractor. In that case, the result may not have come as an overwhelming surprise to some who could see through the media opinions and Frank McGarvey’s assurance of a Celtic victory.
As big an upset as it is, there are similarities between St Mirren’s victory, and Celtic’s remarkable European journey this year that can be drawn upon.
At the beginning to each season, it’s customary for most clubs to set targets which outline their aspirations for the coming year. It’s reasonable to suggest that Celtic’s would have been somewhere along the lines of making it into the Champions league group stages, and securing a domestic double at the least. It’s ludicrous to think that winning the SPL was not at the top of the list for Neil Lennon.
Those are some lofty targets for any other team in a European league; comparable to those of the best in the continent. However, Celtic aren’t currently in that category. They are an underdog in European competition, and that’s what suites them.
St. Mirren on the other hand, wouldn’t have been setting targets to challenge for the league. Perhaps one of them was to secure a Europa league qualifying berth, but even that seems ambitious given their current position in the table. With the nature of the SPL and the virtual guarantee of Celtic winning the title, most Scottish clubs place great importance on both domestic cups. As a result, its those one off games against Celtic and Rangers in a cup that become so meaningful.
For comparison’s sake, let’s imagine Celtic played a season in La Liga. They’ve beaten Barcelona this season, and lost with the last kick of the game at the Nou Camp. Over the course of a season however, it’s mad to think Celtic could challenge for the title against the likes of Barcelona, the Madrid sides, Athletic Bilbao, and Valencia.
It is in these scenarios – the one off games – that the true danger of an underdog is revealed. They’re the situations where complacency exists, even if subconsciously for the favourites, and overwhelming drive and motivation stews amongst the less favoured. Furthermore, the expectation of maintaining focus and achieving results in league competitions takes its toll when it comes to cups. We cite the recent FA Cup results as evidence of this. Tottenham, Liverpool, and Chelsea all stumbled at the weekend, even if the latter was able to make a miraculous recovery.
While the threat of an underdog exists in football and sport all over the world, the situation in Scotland remains curious but inspiring. There is no other league in Europe where such a gap remains between the countries top club, and the comparative standard of the rest of the teams in the nation. Accordingly, there is also no other league where for the top team’s superiority, they still remain relative minnows in terms of European standards.
Barcelona and Madrid dominate La Liga – for the most part. Galatasaray are the team of choice in Turkey, and FC Basel continue to be at the top of the Swiss league on a consistent basis. The latter two are definite European dark horses, however the difference between their leagues and the SPL, is that a substantial wealth of European caliber teams are currently challenging for the Swiss and Turkish titles.
Perhaps then, it truly is a testament to the dire state of Scottish football; the fact that so few teams can compete on a stage larger than their domestic one. One thing is for sure. It’s a setup which heightens the thrill of victory when one of the smaller Scottish clubs is victorious against Celtic. Accordingly, Celtic’s season in the Champions league has shown that a Scottish underdog is nothing to be taken lightly.
St. Mirren’s win over the league leaders highlights the power of the Scottish underdog. In fact, so many recent quality domestic results against Celtic coupled with the Glasgow men’s European adventure suggest that the term ‘underdog’ may be becoming obsolete in Scotland. Although recent results have contradicted the following statement, it’s not often that the less favoured are triumphant against what is perceived to be much stronger opposition. In that regard, is Scottish football getting stronger in European eyes, or does ‘the underdog factor’ simply heighten the gloom which has plagued the national league over the past few years?