Cliftonville star Scannell holds out hope for a Celtic shocker
Ronan Scannell has seen it all at Solitude – or at least he thought he had. On Wednesday night, Celtic will roll up to the famous north Belfast venue – not Lurgan Celtic or Donegal Celtic, but the Scottish Premier League champions.
Lurgan man Neil Lennon will be in the dug-out well aware that this Red Army will believe they can torpedo the Hoops' European dream.
Scannell, now aged 34 and in the twilight of his career, has witnessed title glory, relegation scraps and financial battles but nothing quite as surreal or special as this.
Solitude will be packed to the rafters for the first leg of the qualifier and, if Tommy Breslin's men can somehow kick Celtic out of the Champions League, the players may as well start thinking about retirement as they will never experience a better feeling with a ball at their feet.
Hearts will be racing, supporters will be loud but when the first whistle goes at 7.45pm friendship will make way for fear and hope – fear of embarrassment but hoping for a footballing miracle.
"I was talking to a neighbour and he asked me what it would feel like to walk out at Parkhead against Celtic in front of 30,000 fans with the Champions League music in the background. I was getting goosebumps just thinking about it!" said Scannell.
"You just hope a moment like that doesn't pass you by and you make the most of it, stranger things have happened in football than us beating Celtic after two legs.
"It's vital we make the most of the first fixture on our tight, artificial pitch. They won't relish playing on it and a positive result would give us hope going to Glasgow.
"We badly need that because we know it's going to tough at their place. When we beat Swedish side Kalmar last year we kept things tight and hit them on the break.
"If Liam (Boyce) is up front on his own and everyone works together as a unit, anything is possible. We need to go to Scotland with some hope.
"But beating Celtic over two matches is a massive task. Their main focus is on getting to the group stages whereas we are just in dreamland playing against them.
"There's a lot at stake for them with regards to money but we will benefit financially from this and that's very pleasing because I can remember the lean times here. Marty Tabb let me go to Ards when budgets had to be slashed. This club was scraping for every penny and scrapping for its very existence.
"It's so pleasing to see it moving in the right direction under the right leadership. Hopefully, these matches against Celtic will leave a lasting legacy, see Solitude transformed and bring more fans to our matches."
Many Cliftonville players followed the Bhoys in their younger days when they dreamed of hitting the big time but veteran left-back Scannell got his kicks from elsewhere.
"It was Manchester United for me when I was younger, I wasn't really interested in Rangers or Celtic," added Scannell.
"The connection was strong with west Belfast and I used to play for a team called Celtic Boys and guys like Willie McStay used to come over for a bit of coaching.
"Boys from here supported Celtic and wanted to play for them but I was United through and through.
"However, I'm thrilled for the boys who have been brought up loving the club.
"If we beat Celtic we might not be allowed back into Solitude, they'll be driving us out of the city!"
Hoops boss Lennon (left) admits his side will be nowhere near their best during the games against the Reds.
Wednesday's contest comes less than eight weeks after closing their season with a William Hill Scottish Cup final victory over Hibernian and their preparations have been far from ideal – Celtic conceded 12 goals as they lost all four of their friendlies during a stint in Germany.
The former Northern Ireland captain has seen midfielder Victor Wanyama leave for Southampton and fears striker Gary Hooper, who has been struggling with a groin problem, has played his last game for the club as he seeks to join the Kenyan in England.
Nigeria defender Efe Ambrose will miss the clash at Solitude after being given extra time off following the Confederations Cup; Welsh pair Joe Ledley and Adam Matthews are expected to miss out through injury while trialist defender Steven Mouyokolo has still to sign a contract and the likes of Scott Brown, James Forrest, Charlie Mulgrew and new signing Virgil van Dijk have all missed part of the friendly action through injury.
Lennon has already raised the prospect of facing extra-time against Cliftonville at Celtic Park in the second leg and he admits they will need to dig deep against the Danske Bank Premiership champions.
Lennon said: "They are the ups and downs you have to cope with during pre-season but I don't think you'll see us anywhere near our best for another two weeks or so."