He’s clumsy, error prone and has scored just five goals in his last 52 games, so why are Celtic fans and manager Neil Lennon so fond of Georgios Samaras?
Garbed in the yellow and black striped jersey known as the bumblebee, Georgios Samaras took flight across the Tel-Aviv turf.
It was the night of Thursday 17th September 2009, and as Celtic struggled to negotiate a tricky opener to their Europa League campaign in Israel, Samaras struggled to keep his balance.
What started as a trip soon became a stumble, and rapidly degenerated into something altogether more dramatic. The gangly Greek fell half way across the field, over the touchline and clattered into the concrete dugout, almost decapitating kit man and Lisbon Lion John Clark. The striker lay prone, clutching his leg. He would have to be substituted.
None of this was at all surprising for seasoned Samaras viewers. The first thing to note when observing Sammy (as he’s known amongst Celtic supporters) in his natural habitat is that he doesn’t do half measures. When he’s good he’s very good. And when he’s bad, he’s very...very bad. It stands to reason then, that when he fell it was the most show stopping, jaw dropping fall since Icarus fell from the sky as he tried to escape Crete - the island where Samaras was born.
The second thing to note is the equilibrium of the Samaras universe. Any moment of majestic brilliance during the course of a 90 minute game must be followed by a moment of slapstick bumbling. So it was that night in Tel-Aviv. With 25 minutes gone Sammy loped onto a perfectly weighted long pass from Gary Caldwell (a freak occurrence in itself), chested it down, and smacked a precise finish past Hapoel ‘keeper Vincent Enyeama. It was 25 minutes into the second half when the flight of the bumblebee took place and Samaras was brought crashing back to earth in more ways than one, his well taken goal forgotten as Hapoel scored twice in the last 20 minutes and Celtic welcomed a new addition to their pantheon of humbling away defeats in Europe.
Samaras first arrived in the East End of Glasgow in January 2008. The Heraklion native was a regular for Dutch club Heerenveen whilst still in his teens, and – believe it or not – one of the most coveted young talents in Europe. His goal scoring exploits in the Eredivisie persuaded Manchester City to part with £6m for his services in January 2006, but a considerably less impressive scoring record in the Premier League saw him shunted out to Celtic on loan two years later. There he enjoyed what he described as “a beautiful four months”, contributing a respectable six goals in 19 games as Celtic came from seven points behind to win their third straight SPL title. A permanent move to Parkhead followed that summer, and Samaras began his first full season as a Hoops player in spectacular style, netting nine times in just six matches. For a brief idyllic period, it was possible to mention how much money City had paid Heerenveen for him without bursting into laughter. Not easy, but possible.
Then the goals dried up. That was September 2008, and since then Sammy’s career path has been as bumpy as his voyage from the field to the dugout was that night in Israel. In May 2009, as the SPL title race came down to the final weekend for the umpteenth time, Samaras stated “If they are going to win it then fair play - but it's our mistakes that let them and I think we are a better team than Rangers.” Sure enough the Gers prevailed the following Sunday, a success their players were quick to attribute to Samaras. His comments had apparently motivated them more than the most furious Walter Smith team talk ever could.
In May this year it was Rangers’ turn to celebrate three league titles in a row, and once again they had a certain Greek fellow to thank. With seven minutes of the season’s last Old Firm match remaining, Celtic were awarded a penalty, and Samaras did the honours. His effort was pawed around the post by Allan McGregor, the game ended 0-0 and Rangers proceeded to win the league by one point. One measly point.
At the time of writing, Samaras is the proud owner of an astoundingly bad goalscoring record – five in his last 52 appearances for the ‘Tic.
You might wonder what the response of the Celtic management and fans is to this catalogue of incompetence. Has he been sent to train with the reserves? Is his every touch booed? Are there long haired effigies being burnt in the stands?
Erm, no. In March he was rewarded with a new deal that will keep him at Parkhead until 2014. In recent months manager Neil Lennon has described the Cretan (no, not cretin!) as ‘excellent’ ‘talented’ ‘technically brilliant’ and ‘unplayable’. And the supporters? You only have to hear the ripple of excitement that runs through them when Samaras trots past to know how they feel. There are some dissenting voices of course, a few Sammy sceptics, but their voices are usually drowned out by a chorus of ‘Ooh-ah Samaras, ooh-ah Samaras!’
“He is definitely a divisive figure,” says Herald columnist Graeme MacPherson. “There are some who feel he doesn’t score enough, often looks lethargic, and can occasionally be wasteful in possession. The critics would argue he is not someone who can be relied upon like Gary Hooper or Anthony Stokes to score regularly and get his team out of a sticky situation. Those who rate him, however, like Neil Lennon, can see other qualities; his quick feet, good vision, ability to compete physically and in the air. Most importantly, he offers something different to the rest of the forwards who are all mobile and quick but lack a physical presence.”
If Samaras has a saving grace, a get out of jail free card, then it’s his form against the rivals from south of the River Clyde. The aforementioned costly penalty miss aside, Celtic’s no 9 somehow always manages to transform himself from Mister Bean to Marco van Basten on Old Firm day. Last January he beat Rangers single handedly on their own patch, scoring both goals in a 2-0 victory at Ibrox. He produced another virtuoso performance the following month as Celtic ran out 3-0 winners at Parkhead. No goals this time, but tricks, flicks and showboats a-plenty, and at full time he ripped off his shirt to reveal the words ‘Just do it’ emblazoned across his vest. The extreme irony of this event was enough to cause several crowd members to spontaneously combust.
Against anyone that isn’t Rangers however, you can expect Samaras to demonstrate all the grace of an elephant on ice, the decision making capabilities of an Apprentice candidate, and finishing so bad it would make Ade Akinbiyi blush. Yet the fans still sing his name...
I’d like to present this phenomenon to you from a professional journalist standpoint, as if I was somehow removed from it and immune to the lanky forward’s charms. I’m not. I can sit and watch Celtic rack up a 4-0 lead with regular strike pairing Hooper and Stokes on song and still feel as if something’s missing, as if an integral part of the Celtic-viewing experience is absent - Samaras. It might be a splendid individual goal. It might be a piece of downright idiocy. But Sammy always keeps you entertained.