Updated: Sep 29, 2018
AFTER our 1-1 home draw with AEK it was on to the ancient city of Athens where our fate was in the laps of the Gods. In the end the Gods of ancient Greece must have been looking after their own on a hot night in Athens.
Despite being the better team on the night we gave away another two entirely avoidable goals and crashed out of the Champions League qualifiers for the first time under Brendan's guidance.
When the draw was made plans were already afoot for our home tifo to be a dig at UEFA's “Champions League”.
If we were to make the group stages, where we could be drawn against teams who had finished third and fourth in their respective championships, we would first have to dispose of the champions of four different countries, including AEK Athens.
Making contact with AEK's Original 21 group was discussed to see if they would display a simple message banner in the Celtic Park away sector.
With them having similar political traits to ourselves it seemed reasonable enough to ask if they could echo our disgust at our respective clubs having to negotiate games against true champions, while others get a free pass to the UEFA “party” that with each passing season is becoming more and more exclusive to clubs from the big five or six cash rich leagues.
While we’re here, can someone please explain why Lokomotiv Moscow were seeded in pot 1 of the groups?
For one reason or another contact with Original 21 didn't go as it should.
For a large portion of the first leg at Celtic Park against AEK we had dominated but gave away a poor goal from a defensive perspective, with Lustig’s lazy defending allowing a cross to come in to our box when it should have been ushered out for a goal kick — although it was a tremendous finish.
We still believed we had a good chance of making it through in Athens but there was no doubt AEK had an advantage.
I had booked my flight to Athens before we had disposed of Rosenborg in the previous round, and there were a few others who had the same idea.
Despite it already being the third European away game of the season there was a good number who made the trip to the Greek capital.
Almost all were staying in the 4-star Stanley Hotel with its front facing windows overlooking a grassy roundabout where the Fallen Aviators' Monument stands.
The hotel was a step up in quality from the kind of digs that most of the bhoys usually stay in. It even had a swimming pool.
The economic situation in Greece over the past decade or so means that Athens is still a very affordable city for even those of us here who aren't that flush. Souvlaki is cheap and the places that sell it are everywhere.
One or two people in and around the Green Brigade have friends in Athens from the Mad Boys of Panathinaikos' Gate 13.
They helped out with teles and flag poles and one or two other essentials to ensure the Green Brigade presence in the stadium would be noticeable.
I only arrived early on the morning of the match having flown directly Edinburgh on a late night flight. I managed to catch some sleep at a friend's house until early afternoon and then headed from there to my hotel in Omonoia — an improving district of the city that is still synonymous with drug addicts, a five-minute walk from the Stanley Hotel,.
A couple of the bhoys, who shall remain nameless, even managed to get chased down a street by a few addicts.
For anyone unfamiliar with the city, although there are many historical sites, and none more impressive than the Acropolis which looks out over the city, it would also seem that everywhere you look is covered in graffiti art.
A short time later I made my way nearer to the Acropolis and to the district which houses the James Joyce bar. Usually avoid Irish bars (they are a rip off almost everywhere) but I was to meet a few Greek friends there and an Irish guy I know works there. I'll mention the bar again later (or its owner at least).
Celtic had advised supporters not to take the metro to the station and had put on buses leaving from the ancient marble Panathenaic Stadium.
Despite the advice, many of us made our own way there as the buses left really early.
The “safety” advice turned out to be a bit wide of the mark as once supporters arrived inside the gates of the Olympic Stadium they found a “welcome” banner from the Original 21 to us as friends.
Even my Gate 13 friends had to grudgingly agree it was a cool gesture towards us from their city rivals.
The Green Brigade had arrived early and took up pole position in the away sector. That's not always been the case in recent seasons with small numbers of members at some away matches, or organisation not what it should be on these types of occasions.
Despite being far from full the atmosphere inside the stadium was very good and everything you would expect of playing a European game in Athens. The pyro show they produced before kick-off was as good as I've witnessed at a European match anywhere. They didn't hold back at all. The police and press here would have had a meltdown but in Greece it comes with the territory.
In our sector there were a few smokes and flares set off. The scene was set for a memorable European away night and in some respects it was, it's a pity we won't remember it as being a night of triumph.
Original 21 had a message banner running the entire length of the curve they were occupying behind the goal we were attacking first half, in the words of Jock Stein it read: “Football without fans is nothing”.
Dedryk Boyata had declared himself unfit before the match; Brendan Rodgers later declared he was fit to play.
The defending was again far from convincing and Lustig was at fault again as AEK scored an early opener which was not quite a carbon copy of their equaliser at Celtic Park, but similar in many respects.
Despite the early setback the drum kept beating and the travelling support were in good voice. There were a number of songs given an airing that don't normally feature in the songbook; “A Nation Once Again” being notable.
It was a ropey opening 15 minutes of the game for Celtic and we were probably lucky not to concede a second within the first 10.
We slowly took control of the game and were unlucky on a couple of occasions, especially when McGregor put in a cross which was guided towards the far post by Griffiths but it sneaked just wide of the woodwork, or plastic as is more common now.
As the second half started we noticed Original 21’s banner had changed to read: “Football without UEFA is something”.
The killer blow for us came not long after the restart when AEK went 2-0 up and again it involved weak defending. Hendry was beaten in the air from a free kick lofted in and the header across goal was turned past Gordon.
The Celtic support continued to make a din despite the score and we were heartened as the team again took control of the match coming close on a couple of occasions before Sinclair headed high into the net to half the deficit. AEK were holding on as the clock ticked down. With less than 30 seconds of injury time remaining it looked as if we might sneak it when an unorthodox back heel from Jozo went just past the post. That was the last chance saloon though and AEK’s players and supporters rightly celebrated getting through what would be their toughest qualifier.
We were left to ponder on what might have been. For the first time Brendan Rodgers’ side had failed to get through a qualifier. On reflection most of us realised we had gone backwards, especially defensively. We still had enough to beat AEK but shot ourselves in both feet. No one could have been confident we wouldn’t suffer a hiding in the Champions League.
Quite a few of our bhoys and ghirls were heading straight for the airport to start the long journey home. The buses took most of us back into the city centre. I sat on a rooftop bar overlooking the lit up Acropolis. I still had another two days in Athens and the sunshine.
The next night the Irish owner of the James Joyce bar decided he’d had enough of the Celtic supporters singing and said “I don’t need to put up with this anymore”. He didn’t complain in the days before when he was making a pretty penny from their custom – what a rotter!
AEK as expected made it through the next qualifier and into the groups where they were pitted against our old adversaries Ajax, Bayern Munich and Benfica.
There were loads of potentially great trips in the Europa League for us so it was disappointing to again be paired with Rosenborg. The trips to Salzburg and Leipzig should be interesting though, despite the Red Bull.
The Rebel MC