CHARLIE Mulgrew has admitted he would rather qualify for a Champions League group stage with Celtic than win the William Hill Scottish Cup or League Cup.
Mulgrew had a calf injury and did not play as Celtic went out of the Scottish Cup at home to Aberdeen last weekend. That result, and Morton's remarkable Parkhead win in the League Cup in September, means Celtic cannot emulate last season's league-and-cup double. But Mulgrew said reaching the Champions League group again was an achievement in itself. "If you were offered the Champions League or a cup, I'd take the Champions League all day," he said. "I'd rather be in the Champions League and be competing in it every year. If that meant taking away a cup then I'd take that.
"Of course you want to aim high and want to do better - and we should have done better in the cups - but, as I've said, getting into the Champions League is a huge thing for us. The year before people were saying it was an achievement just to get in the Champions League, but once we got in and qualified for the last 16 the expectations rose again. What would have been good enough? The quarter-finals? It was a harder group, it was always going to be difficult with the money teams are spending in comparison to what we're spending.
"It has been a successful season. We got into the Champions League and we qualified again via three qualifiers. I know it is forgotten now because we're not in it anymore but the group we were in was always going to be hard and the expectation was based on the fact we had qualified the year before. It was an achievement getting in there. Obviously, cup competitions have been disappointing but we've done really well in the league so far and we are unbeaten. We'll assess it at the end of the season but hopefully we can continue our form in the league."
Mulgrew said he was not looking forward to Celtic having to play their home Champions League qualifying ties at Murrayfield if, as seems inevitable, they win a third consecutive league title. They currently sit 21 points clear at the top of the SPFL Premiership and face St Johnstone at Parkhead tomorrow. It was "not ideal" that the players and fans will probably have to travel more than 40 miles east to Murrayfield for some of the club's most important games of next season, said Mulgrew.
Because Parkhead is a Commonwealth Games venue it cannot be used for the second qualifying tie which could be held there on July 15, 16, 22 or 23, or a possible third qualifying round tie on July 29 or 30 or August 5 or 6.
Celtic have reached an agreement with the Scottish Rugby Union to rent Murrayfield for those dates. The Commonwealth Games end on August 3 and it is expected that Celtic would be able to use Parkhead again if they reach the play-off round held on August 19, 20, 26 and 27.
The value of a noisy home support was evident last August when Celtic lost 2-0 away to Shakhter Karagandy only to turn that around with a 3-0 win on a stirring night at Parkhead. Mulgrew recalled that match when he was asked about the likelihood of playing at Murrayfield.
"It's not ideal but if they need to do it they need to do it. If it comes to a situation like the Karagandy game hopefully the fans will get behind us at Murrayfield and travel to make it a big atmosphere. We'll need to see if and when it happens but we'd prefer it to be at Parkhead. I don't know if the crowd will be a big factor. If we don't get through it will be!"
Celtic had to beat Cliftonville, Elfsborg and Karagandy to reach this season's Champions League group and deliver another windfall of around £20m. "If you did go out it's not the end of the world as there's still lots to play for," said Mulgrew. "But it is massive for the club and the players. Everyone wants to be involved at that level. The players get to play at the highest level and the media get to cover it. It gives the whole country a lift. We want to be involved in it again.
"I don't know if playing one or two friendlies at Murrayfield would help us in advance. Maybe it could but we'll see what happens. The qualifiers are not easy. You want to go further but you realise that it is hard, and with the money that teams are spending in the Champions League you've also got to be realistic."
Celtic intend to extend their 24-game unbeaten run in the league and also their sequence of league clean sheets, which currently stands at 1035 minutes without conceding a goal. St Johnstone did score, albeit in a 2-1 defeat, on their last visit to Parkhead in September.
"People are starting to talk a lot more about it [going the whole league season without defeat] now," said Mulgrew. "I don't like thinking about it too much. But the manager and others are speaking about it so it's an aim for this season.
"Hopefully we can do it but we need to take each game as it comes and we'll deal with St Johnstone first."