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Bhoys to men

Published: November 9, 2012 | 10:03 am
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YOU can tell how old a tree is by the rings on its trunk.
But the hoops on the shirts of Celtic’s newest legends merely disguise how young their wearers are.
In civvies, some of those who did most to topple mighty Barcelona are barely more than saplings.
Kitted out in green and white, they were gnarled and strong as centuries-old oaks.
Tony Watt, just 18. Adam Matthews, 20. Victor Wanyama, 21.
All three younger than the youngest of the Lisbon Lions, the 22-year-old Jinky Johnstone, their appearances added together still fewer than he’d clocked up by then.
That’s not an attempt to spark a debate about whose was the greater achievement, the team that Jock built or the one Lenny’s building.
They grew up in such different eras, played a whole different sport in many ways.
Johnstone and Lennox had to be hurdlers and ballet dancers to dodge the scything boots of their day, Wanyama and Watt need to be both strong as weightlifters and fast as sprinters to survive the 21st Century’s rollerball.
But two facts are unarguable. One, that by the time Lennon’s side face Benfica in their next group match, they’ll already have played as often just to have a chance of making the last 16 as Stein’s did to win the trophy itself.
And two, that a younger and far less experienced manager than Stein is working miracles on the biggest stage with a squad younger and far less experienced.
Yes, they won the biggest tournament of all at their first attempt. But, as pros, by the time they padded into Lisbon, the Lions were already fully-grown beasts.
Keeper Ronnie Simpson was 36, centre backs Billy McNeill and John Clark 27 and 26. Bertie Auld, the man who made the midfield tick, was kicking 30. Stevie Chalmers, the striker who snatched the winner, was almost 31.
Against Barca’s brilliant buccaneers, Celtic’s oldest operator was 27-year-old Georgios Samaras.
Their heroic keeper Fraser Forster is just 24, as is stopper Efe Ambrose. To think that their plans had been badly affected by injuries to James Forrest and Gary Hooper, 21 and 24, shows just how green Lennon’s group really are.
But naive they were not. Those saplings would not bend no matter how hard Barca huffed and puffed.
In Wanyama, they had the kind of specimen managers pray for, someone young and supple yet massive and powerful at the same time.
Finding him must have felt like Matt Busby did when Duncan Edwards emerged for Man United in the 50s or the Belgians of Beveren did when Yaya Toure first ploughed through their midfield a decade ago.
In Matthews, they had a truly modern full back; right-footed but able to play on the left, good going forward, excellent on set-pieces and — most important — with blistering ten-yard recovery pace under pressure.
Never once in all the times Messi and Pedro and Dani Alves — and the rest — got at him did he dive in.
He jockeyed, he got goal-side, he made tackle and after precise tackle. He was immaculate.
And as for Watt, the baby of them all?
I wrote after his performance at Tannadice on Sunday that he had to be given a chance against Barca, because his pace and touch and finishing — no matter how raw all of them still are — are harnessed to a terrific amount of self-belief.
So fair play to Neil Lennon for deciding when Mikael Lustig’s race was run that throwing his prodigy on was the way to go.
Not the easy way, because that would have been to switch Matthews to the right, drop Charlie Mulgrew to left back and bring on Beram Kayal. But the right way.
Javier Mascherano couldn’t handle his pace. Jordi Alba bounced right off him. And when Forster’s booming kick whizzed through Xavi’s air-clearance, keeper Victor Valdes hadn’t a prayer of stopping him.
Watt got it dead-on when he said later that dreams are made of moments like these. Dreams, fantasies, legends, careers… you name it.
There’s no doubt that Celtic’s incredible concentration, desire and sheer bloody-mindedness in the face of Barca’s non-stop tsunami of attacks only highlights once again their domestic failings on all the same fronts.
After all, how can a team hold out under so much pressure against Messi, Xavi and Iniesta, yet ship the same lead under virtually no pressure from Dundee United?
But that’s for Lennon and his coaches to sort out before they get back to league action this weekend.
After their last-gasp anguish in the Nou Camp, I suggested that despite the defeat, the performance might well do more for their confidence at the highest level than even victory away to Spartak Moscow had.
Wednesday’s amazing victory proved this has been the case.
Sure, they’re not even close to being through yet. Portugal’s capital might have been the scene of their great-ever triumph, but when it comes to visits to play Benfica they’ve played three, lost three and the aggregate’s 0-7.
Turn those stats on their head a week on Tuesday, though, and there will be no more argument.
Lenny’s Lions really will have their own indelible place in history.


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