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By Laura Bradburn (@LBrad88)
Watching Celtic Football Club isn’t always the most pleasant of experiences. The unforgiving Scottish weather can make the prospect of sitting outdoors for any prolonged period a disheartening prospect.
It was with that familiarly dispirited feeling that I made the journey from Dumfries back to my hometown of Glasgow on 7th November 2012 to watch my team take on the might of FC Barcelona. Fresh from a four-year period of total domination under Pep Guardiola, during which they won every possible prize in football, the Catalan giants arrived at Parkhead no doubt expecting victory to be a formality. The late Tito Vilanova had essentially picked up where Guardiola had left off, continuing to hone the specific brand of football Barça had become renowned for. I remember parting ways with my two friends at the turnstiles. They were sitting elsewhere in the stadium and my final words were, “Enjoy it! Messi might tear us to bits but it’ll be a joy to watch!” A joy it was, but for very different reasons.
Celtic came into the match on one of their strongest runs in the Champions League since their first participation in the competition a just over a decade earlier. Having comfortably overcome a lacklustre Helsingborgs side in the playoffs, they were on four points, having earned a draw at home to Benfica and an impressive 3-2 away win at Spartak Moscow. Even Barça found the Bhoys a handful, having had to come from behind to win 2-1 in injury time at Camp Nou, only two weeks prior to their visit to Glasgow. Manager Neil Lennon had been a player for the Green and Whites in the Uefa Cup in 2004, when the Scottish club had knocked out a Catalan side containing the likes of Ronaldinho and Marc Overmars. He was now in the hot-seat at Celtic Park and was masterminding a dominance of Scottish football that was, in part, due to the significant financial troubles and eventual demise of rivals Rangers earlier that same year.
Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, there was more to be optimistic about than I thought as I climbed the familiar concrete steps in the Jock Stein stand on that cold November night. Meeting with the family friends I sat with every week, we began our ritual of in depth tactical analysis over pies and Bovril. How would Kelvin Wilson and Efe Ambrose keep out an attack boasting the talents of Pedro, Alexis Sanchez and Lionel Messi? Could Joe Ledley and Victor Wanyama stop Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta from creating the triangles of passes that would undoubtedly prove our downfall? We never did reach a conclusion on those issues so at least, in that sense, we were no different to the majority of managers in world football at the time. As we made our way to our seats, I repeated my superstition of touching the giant picture of the great Lisbon Lions side of the 1960s that adorned the tunnel wall. If it ever was going to bring us luck, I hoped it would be tonight.
The ceremony around a Champions League match at Celtic Park is as spine-tingling an atmosphere as anywhere in Europe. As the instantly recognisable music blares out of the stadium speakers and the famous starred ball flutters in the centre circle, the roar that erupts in the east end of Glasgow is always beyond deafening. As a Celtic fan, it’s imperative that you drown out that music. To do otherwise is to do a disservice to every other fan in the stands and every player on the pitch. Once the whistle blows, we can’t do much about the events on the pitch – but if we can use that music and that atmosphere to put even a shred of doubt or fear into the opposition, then we will.
We did our best to do that on that night against Barça but it didn’t appear to have worked. The opening 20 minutes went exactly as we had feared. Messi and co passed the ball back and forth, searching for an opening like a burglar scouring a house for an open window. But with a corner won out of nothing for the home side, we were about to perform a smash-and-grab job of our own. A corner from the right from Charlie Mulgrew met the head of Wanyama, who headed convincingly past Victor Valdes. One goal up, the Kenyan had the place rocking.
We had found and exploited the only chink in the Catalans’ considerable armour. A back pairing of Javier Mascherano and Marc Bartra was weak aerially and, with Celtic possessing strong, tall, physical players throughout, set pieces were our best opportunity to get something against a side we’d never be able to outplay in footballing terms.
It’s perhaps an indication of just how much of an imprint the events of the last 10 minutes of the match had on me that I can’t remember the intervening 70 minutes. Looking back at reports, there are stories of both Iniesta and Sanchez rattling the woodwork, as well as our ‘keeper Fraser Forster reproducing the form that had caused the Spanish press to dub him “La Gran Muralla” (The Great Wall) after his performance at the Camp Nou a fortnight earlier.
Given that the night we beat Barcelona is the football match that I maintain is the best I’ve ever been to, it might seem strange that I can’t remember most of it. The only explanation I can give is that the second goal of the night is one I remember in such intricate detail, there isn’t really space for anything else from that night in my brain. 18-year-old striker Tony Watt, an £800,000 acquisition from Airdrie United nearly two years prior, had replaced Mikael Lustig in the 72nd minute. It would take only 11 minutes for the Coatbridge native to write his name into Celtic folklore.
As the 83rd minute arrived, Celtic were holding on to the slender 1-goal lead they had maintained for the majority of the match. Despite a dearth of possession and a significant lack of chances, they were still in front, hoping time would run out before Barca broke through. A clearance kick from Forster seemed pretty routine at first, perhaps even a waste. As it came down towards the feet of Xavi, most in the crowd and on the pitch were bracing themselves for another onslaught on the Celtic defence.
And yet, Xavi uncharacteristically swung at the ball, missing it completely. With Barça having been further up the park for a free kick, Mascherano was one of few players in their own half. As he and Watt chased down the ball, I remember nothing but silence inside Celtic Park. We knew Watt had the ability to outpace Mascherano and, as it became clear he would win the race for the ball, the stands rattled with the sound of 60,000 fold-down seats flapping shut. Every fan was on their feet. Watt met the ball inside the box and just to the right of Valdes’ goal. As he set himself to strike it, I yelled “HIT IT!” as loud as I could.
Above, Tony Watt celebrating his historical winner for Celtic.
The next minute is a blur. Arms flailing, fists flying and a deafening roar eclipsed all sense of space and time. It’s a euphoria I don’t think I had experienced before or have since. My team, my Celtic, were beating the best footballing side of my generation, and I was there to witness it.
As the commotion died down and I sat back in my seat, the disbelief that overtakes such a momentous event enveloped me. I don’t remember Messi scoring a consolation goal in the 90th minute or the final whistle blowing. I floated down the stairs with the crowd and out of the stadium; the next few weeks full of moments where I sat thinking “did that happen?”
It did happen and has since gone down in the already-impressive history of Celtic Football Club as one of its greatest nights. Striker Tony Watt said on that night that he hoped his vital goal wouldn’t be the best thing he ever did in his career. A swift and sharp fall from grace since has shown that very well may be the case. But I put it to him that there is no disgrace in such a memorable moment being the defining one of his career. There are many players who have made greater contributions to my club and played many more games, whose names I will not remember. But I will never forget the name of Tony Watt.
More so, I’ll never forget the night of 7th November 2012. It was on that night that the beauty of the game I love was there in crystal clear high definition. I witnessed the ability not only some of the greatest players to play the game, but also of my team, shocking the footballing world with a performance that brought us more pride than most other achievements in the club’s history. If there is only one negative to take away from it all, it’s that I may never experience such a high again. Even if I don’t, to have been there for that particular high is a price I would pay a million times over.
Laura is a talented Football blogger, who has written extensively for The Gentleman Ultra and The Football Pink, as well as on her own Blog.
All rights for the Tony Watt image are reserved to WalesOnline (http://www.walesonline.co.uk/sport/football/transfer-news/who-cardiff-city-signing-tony-10485704)
The featured image was shared on Reddit.