Forget about the pre-season kick-abouts. The real thing starts tonight as another European campaign kicks off with a Champions League qualifier against HJK Helsinki.
The Finns are currently ranked 191st in Europe with a coefficient of 5.081. To put that into some kind of perspective, prior to their match against Panathinaikos, Motherwell were sitting five places above them in the standings. How would you feel going into a two-legged tie against Motherwell having to win on aggregate in order to progress to a shot at the majors? (For the record, Celtic are currently 63rd – that’s 128 places above HJK – with a coefficient of 32.728 and falling).
But this isn’t Motherwell, of course, and we have to assume a certain level of football ability on the part of tonight’s opponents that’s way beyond anything we see regularly in the SPL.
Not only that, but the vast majority of their players are Finns. They have a noble tradition of playing hard and fair, dating back to the Second World War. During the Red Army’s attack against the Mannerheim Line it wasn’t unusual for a single Finnish part-time ski trooper to fend of several divisions of Russian T-34 tanks armed only with a pen knife and ten Capstan Full Strength.
These are hardy souls who, unlike the BBC, don’t count snooker and darts as ‘sport’. Apart from the more genteel pastimes they like to participate in, such as judo, ice hockey and skiing off cliffs, they also seem to excel at driving supercharged hatchbacks at breakneck speeds through dense forests in the snow. There may well be some connection between this and the adult male Finn’s penchant for strong drink which, in my limited experience, is more than a match for anybody. It might also explain one of Finland’s cultural exports to the world; the Moomins. If you don’t believe me try watching ‘Attack of the Hattifatteners’ (episode 15 of series 1) after half a crate of Stella Cidre and a couple of Jaegerbombs.
(As an aside, while we’re trying to find a new name for that new team that’s sprung up in Kinning Park in order to make a clean break from that other team that is now defunct, we could do worse than refer to them as The Hemulens, or the Hems for short. They’re described in the Moomins synopsis of characters as: “Creatures that believe in order and like to boss other people around, but find it difficult to listen to anyone and lack a sense of humor. Many Hemulens like collecting stuff, and have little time to think about much else.”)
HJK will be no mugs, but if we can’t beat them over two legs to qualify for the play-offs (when the half-decent qualifiers join in) then there can be no excuses. We need a good performance from the Hoops tonight, straight from the kick-off, and a nice, comfortable two goal lead at the interval to take the edge off. A clean sheet would be a bonus. Leave the sucker punch unsucked, for a change.
Despite the Cassandras of the media predicting a nuclear winter for Scottish football after the events of the summer, it looks as if it will be pretty close to a full house tonight. We’ll see what conclusions they will draw from that in tomorrow’s chip wrappers.
And finally, Esther, I remember a few years ago a supporter of the club that used to be Rangers (IA) phoned Real Radio bemoaning that their goalkeeper at the time wasn’t being picked for the Scotland national team. The presenter had to point out a glaringly obvious flaw in the caller’s argument. “Anti Niemmi? He’s Finnish.”
“Naw he’s no’” came the reply. “He’s only 26.”
Enjoy the match and make plenty of noise or George of the Jungle will Nokia heads together (see what I did there?).