Brian Viner: Pumping up the volume at atmospheric Parkhead

For the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance read Henrik Larsson on a big match night for Celtic
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The Independent Football

Last Monday night I sat in seat 21, row U, at the Royal Variety Performance in Edinburgh's Festival Theatre; the following night I was in seat 8, row F of the upper north stand at Parkhead, which in a sense is Glasgow's festival theatre, to watch Celtic v Bayern Munich.

It was quite a double-header, as 16-year-old Hayley Westenra, from New Zealand, would doubtless agree. She sang for the Queen on Monday, and on Tuesday led 60,000-odd Celtic fans in their anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone".

I wonder which of these experiences she found the more nerve-racking? As for me, the Royal Variety Performance was duty, Celtic v Bayern Munich sheer pleasure. I had never previously been to Parkhead for a match, let alone for a match of such significance.

Normally, one leaves a goalless draw with a sense of disappointment, especially as a neutral, but at Parkhead I was thrilled from the first minute to the last. Or, to be more accurate, from well before the first minute, to way beyond the last. There cannot, across the entire continent, be a more exciting football stadium to be in on a big European night. Which surely boots into touch any notion that Martin O'Neill might leave Celtic for an English club with no tradition of Champions' League football. Those supporters of Tottenham Hotspur who still think that he might go there would be better advised to pin their hopes on Bill Nicholson making a comeback.

A theory with more substance is that O'Neill will leave Celtic - for Liverpool is my own hunch - because the Scottish Premier League is risible, and he is tiring of wet afternoons in Kilmarnock. Yet it is the very risibility of the SPL, and comprehensive wins on wet afternoons in Kilmarnock, that all but guarantee Celtic a place in the Champions' League every season. Besides, is the English Premiership any less of a joke, competition-wise? The former Chelsea and Everton player Pat Nevin once told me, while he was running Motherwell, that he resented criticism of the SPL from south of the border, since in percentage terms the Premiership was just as much of a closed shop. There, four teams from 20 could win the championship; in Scotland it was two from 10.

Since Nevin made that perfectly valid point, the élite group of clubs capable of winning the Premiership has contracted from four to three, Liverpool and Newcastle making way for Chelsea. So, proportionately speaking, Scotland's Premier League is now a more open competition than its counterpart in England, where the jostling at the bottom has become a more exciting, less predictable spectacle than the strutting at the top. English people inclined to laugh at Scottish football should think before they shriek.

They should also go to Parkhead, to watch Celtic in Europe. The small band of Bayern fans last Tuesday can hardly have failed to feel intimidated, not because the atmosphere was threatening, but because there was so much of it. I have never heard such a huge repertoire of chants and songs at a football match, nor heard them delivered at such volume.

And as at the Royal Variety Performance the evening before, one person above all was the recipient of almost embarrassing levels of reverence and awe.

The audience in Edinburgh stood up straight when the Queen arrived, and stood up again when she returned to the royal box for the second half, after her interval tub of vanilla. The thought irreverently occurred that if she had then picked her nose and flicked it, someone in the front two rows of the stalls would have borne the royal bogey on a plump cushion to a waiting footman.

For the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance, read Henrik Larsson on a big match night at Parkhead. The difference being that the Swede is treated more like a deity than mere royalty.

Of course, in any football stadium where one man is revered, another is usually reviled. At Parkhead that unfortunate distinction was claimed by Bayern's Owen Hargreaves. "If there's one thing I cannae stand more than an Englishman," growled the fierce-looking man in the seat next to me, "it's a **** who pretends to be an Englishman." I smiled and nodded, in what I hoped was a Clydeside accent.

It was revealing, incidentally, on the subject of Anglo-Scottish relations, to be in Scotland in the aftermath of England's triumph in the rugby union World Cup.

Across the front page of the sports section of the Sunday Herald, a respected broadsheet, was emblazoned, in huge red letters, the word "WARNING". And after it, in letters almost as big, "SOME OF YOU MAY FIND THE FOLLOWING PAGES EXTREMELY DISTURBING. THE REST OF YOU WILL BE INTERESTED TO LEARN THAT ENGLAND WON THE RUGBY WORLD CUP". In the main body of The Scotsman the following day, there was no reference at all to England's remarkable win in Sydney.

All of which makes me think that a pact is long overdue between those Scots and English too old for the playground: we'll stop being so damn patronising towards them, if they'll stop being so damn chippy about us.