Aidan Smith: “Those embarrassing defeats might have turned you Eurosceptic. But just at those plums … ”

If a week is a long time in politics then a fortnight in European football for Scottish clubs can be an absolute age. When Dundee United crashed out at the qualifying stage, losing by a humiliating but alas not entirely unfamiliar 7-0 scoreline, you might have asked: “Pah, what’s Europe ever done for us anyway?”

Scott Arfield and John Lundstram celebrate Rangers return to the Champions League.
Scott Arfield and John Lundstram celebrate Rangers return to the Champions League.

You might have wondered if those bonkers Brexiteers had been onto something all along. Who knows, you might have come over all Nigel Farage, velvet collar engorged with Euroscepticism. At the very least there was probably some quiet nodding on the night Liz Truss remarked that the French were really quite slippery and she didn’t know whether she was coming or going with them.

Or … given that this was Thursday and the announcement of the Champions League groups you could still have been savouring – wow – Rangers vs Liverpool and – double-wow – Celtic vs Real Madrid and Karim Benzema.

Putting aside for a moment that Benzema, Lyon-born, is really quite slippery and defenders don’t know whether they’re coming or going with him, the Old Firm were soon to be taking on the winners and beaten finalists from last May. Could the draw have turned out any more exciting?

And at the exact moment Truss was putting le chat chez les pigeonnes, saying things the Tory Party membership wants to hear, Hearts were striving for the Europa League and maybe we would have an unprecedented three clubs playing group stage football in the main continental tournaments. In the end Hearts fell short, but still: two walking out to that bombastic theme tune is terrific.

For long enough the paranoid must have been convinced our clubs weren’t wanted anywhere near the top table. More and more qualifying rounds seemed to be added, specifically to trip us up and knock us out. It was as if the Champions League was turning into that bizarre inter-continental competition from yesteryear, Jeux Sans Frontieres, with our brave boys forced to travel, for instance, 4,000 miles to Kazakhstan in mid-July for the footballing equivalent of picking up eggs with industrial excavators or shinning up greasy poles in national dress - all the while thinking they could hear Stuart Hall’s sadistic guffawing behind the studio glass: “Give it up, you Scotch chumps!”

Dundee United’s debacle had brought despondency. It put the manager in trouble, soon after Motherwell’s Euro embarrassment cost their boss his job. But the gloom has lifted – at least until Benzema runs riot against Celtic and Mo Salah does the same against Rangers.

Maybe, though, this won’t happen. Rangers under Steven Gerrard and now Giovanni van Bronckhorst have matured into a formidable outfit for foreign competition and we wait with some intrigue to see what Angeball will look like in a Euro context.

The stunning thing about Celtic and Rangers’ most eye-catching pairings is their novelty. The Champions League can sometimes resemble an exclusive gentleman’s club: the same old vs the same old. For instance, there was a spell when Chelsea always played Valencia. This brought to mind the sarcastic observation of punk poet John Cooper Clarke about the Daily Express’ gossip column: “Where William Hickey meets Michael Caine/Again and again and again and again.” And it showed what the oft-threatened Super League and its gilded tedium might look like.

But while Rangers have encountered English opposition on many occasions down the years, and the host cities can well remember the visits of the Ibrox hordes, this will be the first time they’ve played Liverpool.

Celtic have played Real Madrid before but only once at this level which adds huge lustre to their Group F itinerary. Confirmation of those earlier ties in 1980 on the official Champions League website comes with the stat that Cristiano Ronaldo is Real’s top goalscorer in the competition – 105 strikes – while Willie Wallace’s total for Celtic is a modest 13. Ah, but Wispy when he turned out for Stenhousemuir, where he glimpsed a £10 note for the first time in his life, would find a box of toffee under his bench every Christmas, a gift from the McCowan’s factory next to Ochilview. Beat that Cristiano, with your half a million a week and your padded seat for those days when you don’t make the Man U team!

In 1980 in the old European Cup, just for champions, Celtic negotiated a hairy trip to Albania - where Danny McGrain’s beard almost got him barred - and then beat Dundalk to set up the quarter-final with Real. It was the more unsung full-back, Alan Sneddon, who turned the home leg Celtic’s way, first with a blistering shot palmed out to George McCluskey and then a lovely deep cross (cue Arthur Montford): “What a goal! What a beautiful goal, Johnny Doyle!” Incidentally STV wanted to screen the game live but Celtic, in deference to the 67,000 who’d snapped up all the tickets in record time, refused. Changed days.

Hearts’ disappointment at failing to make the Europa League was soothed somewhat by the Conference League draw producing a luscious Tuscan plum and those Gorgie aesthetes who admire Renaissance architecture, to say nothing of the fabulous food, will be looking forward to Fiorentina.

The pairing gives me the chance to re-tell a favourite yarn from Hearts’ first Italian adventure, Inter Milan in the old Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1961, when Alan Gordon, still a pupil at the esteemed George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh, popped along to the headmaster’s office to request time off lessons.

“I might not be selected to play, Sir, but it’ll be a great experience.” The beak bristled. “I don’t think so, Gordon, you’d just be setting a precedent. I’d have every little squirt dreaming up exotic ruses in order to skive school!”

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