Long Reads

Georgios Samaras and Celtic: a two-way devotion

The Greek word ‘Eutychia’ is a female given name that means ‘happiness’. When Eutychia Samara gave birth to her son Georgios on February 21, 1985, euphoria was the feeling that could precisely describe the state of mind of her husband Ioannis.

Ioannis Samaras had moved from Melbourne to Greece at the age of 13 with the football germ injected in his veins. One year before his son’s birth, he signed for OFI Crete, which was to be Georgios’ first – but not only – love.

As fate would have it, years later Georgios Samaras would fall in love with another team, where he would spend the most fruitful years of his football career. That club was Celtic and like most of the love affairs, their relationship would have ardent ups and downs.

Samaras started kicking a ball around the streets of Crete island’s capital Heraklion dressed in an OFI shirt. Football wasn’t a one-way path for Samaras, who also played tennis and basketball, but everything would change when his father enrolled him in the academy of his favourite team.

His talent would rapidly stand out and by the age of 16, he had attracted interest from several teams both in Greece and abroad.

“At 16, Georgios looked the same physically as his father – tall, powerful and very brave. He was not afraid to battle with defences,” former OFI coached Eugene Gerard told the Daily Record.

“The difference between Georgios and his father was in their mentality.

“Georgios has the physical presence and football qualities of his dad but has his mother’s brain.

“His mother, Eutychia, was the intelligent one in the family which is why he is better than his father as a footballer.”

When Heerenveen came knocking on his door, Samaras did the unthinkable for a 16-year-old kid who was taking his first footballing steps in Greece. He accepted the Dutch side’s offer and moved to Holland to ply his trade.

His mother moved in with him and his young sister to help the youngster adapt to his new environment.

He made his debut with Heerenveen at the age of 18 and he scored 25 goals in 88 games until Manchester City decided to sign him for £6 million, which was a record for a Greek player at the time.

The excitement of having moved to one of the best leagues in Europe would soon turn into disappointment, as he never managed to adapt to the demands of the fans and his coach Stuart Pearce.

Samaras was a forward defined by his dribbling, as well as his agility and pace, but he wasn’t the kind of striker English teams were looking for back in 2006.

Despite being 6ft 4 tall and having an exceptional aerial ability, at times he was indolent and rather sluggish; characteristics which wouldn’t sit well with fans throughout his career in the UK.

Sven-Göran Eriksson replaced Pearce in Samaras’ second season at the Sky Blues, but the Greek forward wasn’t part of the Swedish coach’s plans for the 2007/8 campaign.

On 29 January 2008, Celtic reached an agreement with Manchester City and Samaras moved north for a six-month spell, which was about to change his life.

“Celtic fans are always glad to see a striker coming in; I think most people were excited by what he might offer,” recall the producers of the History Bhoys Abroad podcast.

“There had been some murmurs from Man City fans about his lack of effort and work rate.

“All of that was instantly forgotten about when Samaras made his debut only a couple of days after signing and put in a convincing performance topped off with a great goal at Rugby Park.”

Celtic thrashed Kilmarnock 5-1 in the Scottish Cup, with Samaras scoring his team’s last goal and celebrating it in front of the visiting fans.

He would go on to score another four goals in the league, including a couple of game-winners against Aberdeen home and Motherwell away, to help Celtic clinch their third consecutive title.

His deal was made permanent that summer and Samaras hit the ground running in 2008/9, being named SPL Player of the Month in September.

Although Celtic didn’t manage to win the league, which fell into Rangers’ hands on the last matchday, Samaras scored 17 goals throughout the season to become the Scottish league’s third top scorer.

Samaras would start another season in style, scoring Celtic’s second goal in a game away at Dynamo Moscow for the Champions League qualifiers. That was the team’s first European away win in six years, although it was everything but an omen of a successful season for the Celts, who didn’t manage to win a single trophy.

‘Sammy’, as Celtic fans would come to call him, was – amongst others – at the receiving end of criticism either from fans or the team’s coach Neil Lennon.

“Samaras both frustrated and delighted Celtic fans, sometimes in the very same game,” explain the producers of the History Bhoys Abroad podcast.

“After a while, the consensus came to be that whilst he absolutely had the talent it didn’t seem as if he had the desire and work rate to match it.

“As more of a flair player who needed a bit more time on the ball to show what he could do that often didn’t get the chance to shine through in the rougher, faster, hard-tackling environment of Scottish football.”

Samaras had to bounce back from criticism and he couldn’t have thought of a better way to win back Celtic fans than what was about to happen on January 2, 2011, at the Ibrox against fierce rivals Rangers.

“There was a close title race going on and most supporters would have been happy with a point, especially when seeing Samaras was selected as a lone striker,” remember the History Bhoys Abroad podcast producers.

“However, he put in a match-winning performance and scored two goals in a game that is still remembered to this day.

“His manager, Neil Lennon came out afterwards full of praise and said he’d been ‘unplayable’.”

Samaras was back on track and three months later he would captain his team for the first time in a 2–1 victory against Inverness for the Scottish Cup.

A missed penalty against Rangers, however, turned Sammy into a tragic hero, as the Teddy Bears held on a 0-0 that kept them top of the league.

Rangers would go on to win their third title in a row, but Celtic would break their streak and secure the league in 2011/12.

After beating Helsinki and Helsingborgs in the Champions League qualifiers, the Celts returned to the group stage of the major European competition.

Following a draw at the Celtic Park against Benfica, they travelled to Moscow in pursuit of their first ever Champions League away victory. With the clock running down and the two teams level at 2-2, an Emilio Izaguirre cross was headed home by Samaras in a historic moment for the Scottish club.

The Greek became the first Celtic player to ever score in five European away games in a row, as he also opened the scoring in a 2-1 defeat from Barcelona at the Camp Nou.

Come June, the Celts had secured a domestic double, also winning the Scottish Cup, and Samaras was named Player of the Year for the 2012/13 season by the team’s fans.

His performances both domestically, as well as in the Champions League, attracted interest from abroad and Barcelona were reportedly keen to approach the player in January.

In a poll conducted by Mundo Deportivo in October 2013, 40% of the voters chose Sammy as the striker who the Blaugrana had to sign in the winter transfer window, ahead of the likes of Miroslav Klose, Nelson Valdez and Roque Santa Cruz.

The rumours never materialised, however, and Samaras stayed at the team to end a season that saw Celtic winning yet another league.

During the celebrations of his fourth league on Scottish soil, Sammy spotted young Celtic fan Jay Beatty in the stands. The Greek picked up the 11-year-old, who has Down’s syndrome, and carried him around the Celtic Park’s pitch with more than 50,000 home fans applauding the forward in a very emotional moment.

Days later he would travel to Brazil to participate in the 2014 World Cup with the Greek national team. Samaras scored Greece’s late winner in the last game of the group stage against Ivory Coast to seal a 2-1 victory for the Greeks and send them to the last 16 of the tournament for the first time in their history. Young Jay was watching the game alongside his father, who uploaded a video of his son celebrating Samaras’ goal.

The Greek forward invited Jay and his family to travel to Brazil and watch Greece’s last 16 game against Costa Rica, but they kindly declined the invitation as they had already booked their holidays abroad. Samaras’ bond with Jay was to be the icing on the cake for Celtic fans, who would reserve a space in their hearts for the player and vice versa.

“I love Celtic and I always will. I am proud to have played over 250 games for the club and to have played for the team for seven years, winning leagues and cups and had great nights in the Champions League,” Sammy told the club’s official magazine.

“It’s part of my life, my memories and part of the game I love. Until my end, I will be a Celt.

“I came as a 22-year-old boy and I left just before I was 30.”

Samaras departed Celtic in 2014 and after unsuccessful spells at teams such as West Bromwich Albion, Al-Hilal, Rayo OKC, Zaragoza 7 and Samsunspor, he hung up his boots in 2018 to take up a job in his childhood team’s board.

Sammy returned to Greece and his first love OFI Crete, but he will never erase all these memories from the Celtic Park.

“Once a Celt, always a Celt. That’s me. I had my ups and downs, but that’s life but in the end, I feel I did alright,” he added.

“In modern football, you don’t see a player commit to a club for many years but I did that because I loved the club.”

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