CELTIC last night provided their fans with the sort of start to the season they most definitely did not want. July has yet to run its course, and already Celtic are managing to find new ways to underachieve even when everything appears to be pitched in their favour.
Last night they managed only a goalless draw against a side who, judging by interviews in newspapers, had been treating their brush with fame as merely something to tell their grandchildren about.
It might be something their grandchildren will be telling their own grandchildren about, should St Patrick's triumph after the second leg of this European Cup preliminary tie next week in Dublin. On last night's showing, this is far from an impossibility.
Celtic will always be an unfathomable lot. Last night they had 56,000 fans noisily backing them in their recently completed, state-of-the-art stadium. They even had a new coach to try and impress.
It is safe to say they did not do that. They left the field to a chorus of booing from those fans who had at least decided to stay the full course. The general manager, Jock Brown, it was plainly clear to see, does not hold the franchise on being the object of Celtic fans' displeasure. The performance of the players last night saw to that.
The last time most of these Celtic players were spied was at the world's most prestigious football tournament. Last night they were appearing in European football's greatest competition and, from the start they made, they showed every sign of a team suffering from travel sickness.
St Patrick's began in determined fashion and within a minute had cut a swathe through the Celtic defence, Trevor Molloy twisting and turning before firing in a shot that ought to have troubled Jonathan Gould more than it did.
Celtic momentarily showed signs of a side befitting so grand a home. A fine move involving Regi Blinker, Henrik Larsson and Harald Brattbakk ended with the latter's shot being saved by Trevor Wood.
St Patrick's first clear-cut chance arrived when the former Dundee striker Ian Gilzean stooped low to send a header from a corner into the side netting.
On one of the last occasions he played here, six years ago for Dundee, the towering forward was sent off after a set-to with Peter Grant. This time he bounded out on to the pitch at the start clutching a bunch of flowers, as did all the St Patrick's players, and then hurled them into the crowd. Any rancour that remained was instantly forgotten. Indeed, last night seemed altogether too friendly. The atmosphere was never likely to encourage a truly rousing game of football to break out.
Celtic geed up their fans with a rally midway through the first half. A Craig Burley chip was touched over the bar by Wood, while Blinker, for all his troubles last season, seemed intent on making a point. Certainly, he provided a couple of telling crosses, but they remained unspoken for. Larsson had a header well saved, but St Patrick's held firm, thanks mainly to keeper Wood. Five minutes before half time he saved brilliantly from a Burley header, and then bravely blocked Larsson's effort after the Swede had pounced on the rebound.
By the start of the second half the rain was teeming down, but the game was resolutely refusing to burst into life. The downpour certainly did not revitalise Brattbakk, who had been replaced at half-time by Darren Jackson.
You hardly know what to say about the Norwegian. He looks to have skill in bundles, but there is something terribly lacking in his game. If it is his confidence, it can hardly have been improved by being hauled off in front of the huge crowd after a mere 45 minutes' work. And, mark you, his teammates were not any more impressive.
Only news of Rangers' first-half toils in Liverpool were keeping the Celtic fans from showing more concern at their own side's failings. Alan Stubbs came closest to opening the scoring for the home side in the second half, heading narrowly wide after picking up a lofted Paul Lambert free kick. Shortly afterwards, a Burley shot whistled over the bar.
Jackie McNamara was taken off in favour of Simon Donnelly as Celtic strove to turn possession into goals, a move not well received by the crowd.
St Patrick's, for their part, were defending with great fortitude. For sure, they might have been stringing players from one side of the pitch to the other, but it was, of course, effective and Patrick Dolan's team did not look like they were ready to give anything away.
Indeed, the best chance of the half fell to the away side. With five minutes remaining Paul Osam released substitute Martin Reilly. Parkhead fell silent, but the striker shot narrowly wide, prompting a mass barrage of booing from the Celtic fans.
© The Scotsman 23/07/1998