Some years back I was visiting the beautiful island of Crete. Those of you who know the island will know that the ruins of Knossos, the ancient Minoan city dating back around 4000 years are one of the main tourist attractions on the island. After visiting the ruins in temperatures of over 90 degrees, I headed into the small modern city of Heraklion. The shaded street cafes there are a good place to relax with a beer and just watch the world stroll by on a hot afternoon. My teenage son was dressed in his usual shorts and Celtic top and the owner of the Café effused over us. He explained in broken English, which to be fair was far superior to my Greek that his son had gone to school with Georgios Samaras. To say Samaras is popular in Crete is an understatement. He’s something of a local hero and if you ever visit that sun drenched island you’ll realise that it is very different to the rain lashed football fields of Scotland.
Samaras is undoubtedly a player who has divided opinion among Celtic supporters from the start of his time with the club in January 2008. Some were well aware of his struggles at Manchester City where he was regularly booed and seen as the whipping boy by many supporters of the then struggling club. He joined Celtic at a time when Strachan’s side were faltering in the title race and by March 2008 found themselves 7 points behind their ancient rivals. The season turned on a pivotal game at Celtic Park in April 2008 when Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink’s dramatic late winner sparked euphoric scenes among the home support and fuelled belief that Celtic could overhaul Rangers in the title race. The team won their final 7 league games to clinch a dramatic and unlikely championship victory and Sami played his part.
For some, his 7 seasons at Celtic were marked by inconsistency and a seeming refusal to use his considerable physique to dominate defenders. Others saw this as a cultural difference in the way some countries play football in comparison to the ‘get stuck in’ mentality in Britain. He was never going to be a Mark Hateley type of player, all aggression and elbows. He was a more cultured European footballer who relied on his change of pace and considerable skill with the ball to get past defenders. His languid style could make him look a little lazy at times but that belied a high work rate, indeed in some games he ran himself into the ground. However, it could be infuriating to watch him being brushed off the ball by the more robust Scottish defenders and then look imploringly at the Referee for a foul that was never likely to arrive. He may well have been given more protection in Greek and Dutch football but he needed to learn fast that in Scotland a more physical approach was tolerated by officials. Despite this, to see him in full flight with the ball at his feet could be exhilarating. His destruction of the Rangers rear-guard at Ibrox in early 2011 was a joy to behold. He was simply unplayable that day and scored a memorable goal before winning a penalty kick which he then converted in front of an adoring Celtic support. However, in true Samaras style he returned to Ibrox three months later and missed a penalty which proved crucial in a season where Celtic lost the title by one point. Of course, Celtic dropped silly points throughout that season, not least in that 2-3 defeat at Inverness in that torturous game but for those who didn’t fancy Sammi, that penalty miss at Ibrox is always mentioned as fatal to that league campaign.
It has been argued that his 74 goals in 248 games is a poor return for a Celtic Striker but it has to be remembered that he was often played on the left as a virtual winger and had assists in many more goals. Many of his goals were absolutely crucial to the club and we sang his praises after his late winner against CSKA Moscow gave Celtic their one and only Champions’ League Group Stage away win. He also scored memorable and important goals against Dynamo Moscow, Shakthar Donesk and a late winner in a game against Aberdeen which looked lost at 1-3 before he intervened and helped secure a memorable 4-3 victory. His contribution to Celtic’s European efforts was considerable and he scored twice in the Camp Nou in two very contrasting games. It is a mark of how European opponents viewed him to see the special treatment teams like Juventus and Elfsborg gave him. They clearly saw his as a major threat and Sammi did indeed save some of his best displays for Europe.
Sammi also seemed to ‘get’ Celtic and grew in his affection of the club and its ethos during his time in Glasgow. He once said…
“Even in the tough periods I felt Celtic Park and this club was my home.”
If you play in the English Premier League for a club finishing 11th or 12th the only thing you will remember when you retire is money.
There are no words to express the atmosphere in the stadium. I can’t find the correct words to express all I see, feel and hear”
Of course his relationship with young Celtic fan Jay Beattie, from Neil Lennon’s home town of Lurgan, has touched many. We saw him lift Jay from the crowd on the day Celtic were presented with the SPFL Trophy in May and more recently, a video posted online showing Jay watching Sammi score a late goal in the world Cup went viral and prompted the Greek FA to invite Jay over to Brazil to watch Greece in the next round. Sammi is clearly inspired by this brave young bhoy and said recently…
“This boy gives me so much strength, it’s incredible. There are no words. I feel his love so much. This love I feel, is also felt by many people in Greece.”
It seems though that we may well have seen the last of the enigma that is Georgios Samaras in a Celtic shirt. Celtic in their wisdom have decided his £20k weekly salary would be better spent elsewhere and didn’t offer him a contract as his current deal expired. How will he be recalled by the Celtic support in future years? I’ll remember his gangling figure ripping through the Rangers defence at Ibrox as he led Celtic to a memorable victory. I’ll also recall his overhead kick in the dying embers of that 4-3 win over Aberdeen on a cold winter’s day. Big Sammi was capable of such moments of brilliance in a Celtic shirt and despite his detractors did give reasonable service to Celtic. Some would argue that his moments of brilliance were too few and that other forwards would have been more effective and productive. There were indeed times when he could exasperate the supporters but that was often more to do with cultural differences in the game and our expectations of what a big, powerful forward should do.
So we say our farewells to Georgios Samaras we should at least recognise that he gave us some memorable moments during his time with us. I for one would like to thank him for his efforts at Celtic and wish him well in the next phase of his career. This often frustrating and occasionally brilliant player helped Celtic win 4 titles, 2 Scottish cups and a League Cup. For that we owe him our gratitude.