Old Lady deafened but unmoved by relentless sound and fury
WHEN, on the eve of the latest thunderous European night at Parkhead, Gianluigi Buffon sniffed that, against Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, he had played in front of spicier crowds than Celtic's impassioned disciples, it made you wince, wondering if the observation from Juventus' grand old 'keeper would come back to haunt him in emerald-festooned dreams.
It felt like provocation, an invitation for the most astounding fans in British football, supporters fiercely protective of this reputation, to rise once more as one, to be more deafeningly fanatical than ever. If that was actually possible.
And, goodness, Celtic's unreal faithful probably were. The noise was as incessant as it was deafening. There were moments when you felt the Old Lady of Turin must just be a little disquieted by the constant pressure of not being able to hear herself think as the green and white hoops surfed forward on the waves of sound.
Not a bit of it. Ultimately, Buffon was right when he had offered the relentlessly unromantic assessment that "no fan had ever scored a goal here as far as I know". No amount of sound and fury will stop Juve marching into the quarter-finals now.
Like so many of Europe's great clubs before them, from Liverpool in 1966 all the way through to Barcelona last November, few leave Celtic Park on these amazing nights with much to show. Yet, Juve were convinced they could cope and, with an initial helping hand from Efe Ambrose, and the imposition of inexorable quality, they eventually did.
It takes a team not just with considerable skill but also remarkable fortitude to step into Celtic Park at its most magnificently fevered, deaden the passion and steal away with anything.
Yes, a European night at Celtic. "The only show around," as manager Neil Lennon had put it. There was a great moment 15 minutes before the kick-off when the 3,000 Juve fans tucked in the corner began singing raucously and were shot down in a hail of boos. They hadn't seen anything yet was the tone.
And, sure enough, within minutes the show really unfolded as the familiar strains of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' rang from every corner.
Name a better sight or sound in sport. Having been privileged to see Anfield's version scaring Chelsea witless in their first Champions League semi-final meeting, it seemed unfathomable that any other rendition could compare, but Celtic's is from another world. The Juve fans just listened, silent and open-mouthed.
A giant banner was unfolded demonstrating a brilliant, enormous copy of the Clash's 'London Calling'. It may have been wildly early to dream of Wembley but why not? Paul Simonon, it appeared, was smashing his bass guitar on the Juve club crest. The message was none too subtle.
Those dreams were not going to be immediately smashed by Ambrose's mistake. Because their crowd is so special it has sometimes been easy to forget during their adventures in Champions League wonderland this term to remember actually what a decent side Lennon has fashioned.
For much of the game, they outworked their illustrious opponents. Ultimately, after all the home huffing and puffing, it took just a couple of clinical finishes to end the dream of Celtic reaching their first European Cup quarter-final for 33 years.
It was the difference between the highest class and highest endeavour, yet it felt desperately sad, as much as anything because these great fans of a great club simply deserve the best.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)