January 21st already had considerable weirdness potential when I noticed that “Villarreal” was trending on Twitter.  I was – and here’s a sentence I’ve not typed before – off to a match between Celtic and Villarreal under-21s at Dartford FC’s Princes Park ground, in the “Premier League International Cup” (PLIC) – a title you’d normally associate with pre-season games in Asia between Manchester City and Chelsea, not a match between Scottish and Spanish top-flight sides at a Vanarama Conference ground. Somewhere, I had missed several meetings.

It transpired, though, that Villarreal was trending due to potential transfer activity with Arsenal. So, my evening was just going to be standard weird. Maybe even relatively mainstream for a non-league fan such as myself… and DEFINITELY mainstream for my mate Les, a complete NON-nerd, apart from a disturbing predilection for watching obscure football. I could have watched a PLIC match a ten-minute train-ride from my edge-of-London home, as Fulham were playing PSV Eindhoven in Motspur Park… another sentence I’ve not typed before… a “Premier League” match between English… er… Championship and Netherlands’ Eredivisie teams in a suburban Surrey training ground. But Celtic are my second team. Which is why I went to Kent. Why I had the option is less straightforward.

Aside from being a small step in the Premier League’s quest for world domination, the PILC is a piecemeal oddity, formally launched last October to give “some of the best young players in this country” the chance “to test themselves in competitive matches against some of the most talented young players in Europe.” The eight English clubs in the 16-team tournament have “category one youth academies.” The eight European clubs are “some of the top elite development teams from other European leagues.” And the PILC has been linked to the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan launched in 2012 to provide, amongst other things, “competitive opportunities for the 18-21 age group.”

However, a UEFA Youth League was launched in 2013 as the “Under-19s Champions League” and mirroring the Champions League group stages. This trod fatally on the toes of the “NextGen” competition, the brainchild of Brentford FC owner Matthew Bentham, which ran from 2011 to 2013, developing into an informal “Youth Champions League.” Uefa initially sanctioned NextGen, before getting wind (and envious) of its success. The games gave youngsters experience of competitive football in top-flight grounds with, at times, five-figure crowds. But NextGen had no chance once Uefa muscled in, even if the Youth League was played largely at training facilities with, at times, three-figure crowds.

The PLIC, as a determinedly “under-21” tournament, is a curious semi-successor. Villarreal entered the 2013/14 NextGen competition which never took place and Celtic were Uefa Youth League participants in 2013.  But the PLIC’s European line-up has a semi-random look to it. And while some games are played at “proper” stadia, others are played at… well… Dartford. Chelsea, Everton, Leicester, Manchester City, Norwich West Ham and Sunderland complete England’s PLIC line-up, with Norwich and Fulham’s relegation to the Championship not barring them. Athletic Bilbao, Benfica, Borussia Monchengladbach, Schalke and Porto are the other European entrants. It is only “Premier League-run” and venues don’t have to be Premier League, just English. An oddity.

A 2-1 win at Sunderland and a 1-1 draw at Everton, combined with Villarreal’s 0-0 draw with Sunderland left Celtic able to secure a quarter-final spot by avoiding defeat to Villarreal. And one Dartford steward was looking forward to a fine night’s football, having raved to all those in the bar who wanted to hear (and plenty who didn’t) about Benfica’s one-nil victory over Schalke. “The ball never left the ground once,” he enthused, which we interpreted as 90 minutes of short passing rather than no-one pinging the ball over the Princes Park stands. And after being assured that Celtic’s academy side were “pretty good, aye,” he then claimed Benfica had fielded “36 million euros (sic) worth of talent.”

Then the team sheets arrived. As Celtic’s first team were hosting Motherwell, with top spot in the Premiership awaiting them if they won, I wasn’t expecting to see any familiar names. So I was surprised Liam Henderson was in Celtic’s line-up, after the talented 18-year-old had scored Celtic’s second goal in the 2-0 win at Hamilton the previous Saturday, as we’d just seen on BT Sport on the telly in the bar. Nearly-new Celtic boss Ronny Deila has raised eyebrows with his squad rotations. Nevertheless, it seemed harsh on Henderson to go from rare first-team start to development squad in just four days, turning out alongside developing youngsters such as nippy striker Paul McMullan and midfielder Charlie Mulgrew… wait… what???

A double take did indeed reveal “MULGREW Charles” at number six, plus a few other names familiar even to part-time Celtic fans such as Les and I. Right-back Darnell Fisher made first-team starts last season, under Neil Lennon, and this. And centre-back and captain Eoghan O’Connell scored in the Scottish Premiership this season, albeit for Inverness Caledonian Thistle when his own goal gave the highlanders a 1-0 home win over Celtic last September.

The pace was ferocious from the start, even if the pudding of a pitch mitigated against a repeat of the Benfica/Schalke pass-fest. The mud was no surprise given the recent London weather and the fact that both Dartford and Greenwich Borough play their full home seasons on it. But La Liga-style football on a non-league surface looked odd. So it was comforting to see Celtic’s defenders hoofing occasional clearances into the proverbial Row Z (the stands at Dartford aren’t big enough for an actual Row Z). And it was perhaps just as well for Celtic that there was mud about for the ball to stick in as Villarreal moved it at lightning speed. On a proper Premier League carpet this might have been too much for the Celtic lads. Even as it was, the young Hoops were reliant on sturdy defending by O’Connell and centre-back partner Stuart Findlay. And behind them, Leonardo Fasan was, literally, on hand.

I don’t actually recall seeing live such a faultless display of goalkeeping skills as Fasan’s. His handling, decision-making and command of his area were all first-class. And in the first half, his shot, and header, stopping outshone the lot. He made three outstanding saves from medium and long-range efforts. And his save from one virtually point-blank header was better still. At the other end, Celtic struggled against a high Villarreal back-line which made catching forwards offside look fluent and seamless, while goalkeeper Miguel Banue shouted “offside” in the clearest possible English, with his hand aloft in a manner which would have made Arsenal’s Tony Adams eye-wateringly nostalgic.

As well as the “no pasaran” defensive spine and the potential and talent of McMullan and Henderson, there were encouraging signs that if Celtic were ever short of a psychopath in the number eight shirt, Jamie Lindsay had flashes of the necessary…er…“quality.” But it was still a surprise-and-a-bit when Celtic scored right on 45 minutes. Villarreal’s back-line for once pushed out en masse as Celtic played a free-kick beyond the far post, leaving their momentarily bewildered attackers all alone in the penalty box. Young Mulgrew picked up possession and side-footed the ball to McMullan, whose horribly scuffed left-foot shot looped over Banue and dribbled semi-apologetically over the line as we waited for an offside flag… and waited… and waited.

Once we realised there was to be no flag, there was as much puzzlement and laughter from the gathering as cheering, combined with lots of angry Spanish – not such a mellifluous language in that mood. The goal looked hilariously offside and while some suggested Mulgrew, with the oldest and wisest head on any two of the 44 shoulders on the pitch, had “timed his run perfectly” the consensus remained “hilariously offside.” And the “Celtic TV” pictures, whilst from a halfway line camera, suggested likewise.

The second half followed the same pattern, with whatever composure Villarreal lost in the post-goal maelstrom fully regained in the dressing room. If anything, the introduction of substitute Carlos Joel Melgareso quickened their pace…as well as leading one Scottish voice to wonder aloud if the name was “Charlie Mulgrew in Spanish.” However, Celtic defended in greater depth and with greater quality, restricting Fasan’s shot-stopping work to the bare minimum. Mulgrew had looked ready to depart the scene almost as soon as the second half started and came off after 55 minutes which, in such heavy conditions, will have restored some of his match fitness. But his departure didn’t diminish Celtic’s performance.

Our decision to sit level with the edge of the penalty area Celtic were attacking meant that myself and Les viewed most proceedings from a distance. But the final whistle drew a close to a very satisfactory and interesting evening’s spectating as Celtic held on to win, even if the Dartford steward’s hopes for a repeat of anything more than the Benfica/Schalke scoreline got trapped in the mud. One disappointment we did share with the steward was the attendance. The fact that both sides’ first teams had games that night probably had less effect than one Celtic fan suggested – especially as BT Sport had chosen St. Mirren v Dundee United as their live game over Celtic’s hosting of Motherwell. And rumours that pubs near the ground were closed as a precaution seemed preposterous, although two pubs myself and Les passed on the way to the ground were closed when we passed them again at about nine o’clock.

Those fans that were there went through the non-offensive version of the proverbial “Celtic songbook” (no controversial rhymes for Paul McStay or Davie Hay), with a stray Villarreal midfielder’s elbow into a young Celtic face mercifully halting The Fields of Athenry mid-dirge.
And there was a curious mix of accents. Scots, Irish and… FC United of Manchester fans, whose youth team had earlier played Dartford’s on an adjacent training pitch – a match I’m sure Les would have watched had he travelled alone, despite his protests to the contrary. There was also a Clapton flag about the place, so Les said. This, one must assume, was from the followers of Essex Senior League Clapton FC, who are currently gaining a reputation for (left-wing) political activism, rather than fans of the guitar, ahem, legend.

However, it was a gathering rather than a crowd, not near the steward’s prediction of “500 to 1,000.” With admission only £3, this represented a missed opportunity for locals who pay five times that amount for Vanarama Conference games of less than five times the quality. Celtic are in the quarter-finals and will win the group unless Everton beat both Villarreal and Sunderland which, judging by Villarreal’s display at Dartford, will be difficult. And as Fulham beat PSV, Celtic’s under-21s could soon be playing a ten-minute train-ride from my edge-of-London home. Last Wednesday’s experience makes that a very enticing prospect indeed.

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