The game on Tuesday against AC Milan at Celtic Park is enormous.
Win it and Celtic have hope of Champions League football after Christmas. Lose and we are all but out of the lucrative competition, possibly with no European football at all. On the home front, going out of European competition I find myself recalling the seasons under Gordon Strachan when fan apathy was so chronic that Celtic Park was a shadow of itself; fans stayed away from the games and those that did barely made a peep during the 90 minutes. Lack of ‘big nights’ was blamed for that.
But getting to the situation we find ourselves has been a journey that has lasted around two years; the decline in quality in the Celtic team has been slow but it has been steady. Indeed I feel that this has become more apparent since the start of the 2013/2014 campaign.
All of the worries that my fellow Celtic fans and I have observed can be listed under ‘Causes for Concern’. We fans of the famous Glasgow Celtic have reason to pride ourselves on keeping an open mind yet a judgemental eye about all things in and out of football; the greatest example of this being the eruption of our former rivals. Celtic fans rightly commend each other for being cautious and doubtful of those in charge of our club; time has shown that unlike our former rivals, who did not do enough as their club was decimated by those in charge, Celtic fans rallied, made noise, were informed, informed others, and ultimately removed those doing the damage and the club was saved. One sections of the support criticised the promotion of John Reid to Celtic Chairman and indeed held silent protest for the duration his tenure.
A particular cause for concern I have is the well-publicised and awful decision to continue to pay the minimum wage rather than the ‘living wage’, a decision journalist Kevin McKenna, a Celtic fan, called shameful and a ‘betrayal’ to Celtic fans (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/23/celtic-fc-refuse-pay-living-wage-disgrace). I am not sure if I feel betrayed by the board at voting down the ‘living wage’ but I do believe that if the custodians of our club wish to use phrases such as the ‘Football without the fans is nothing’ to promote the brand at home and abroad, then it should show a little more respect to the fans. This extends not just to paying fans in their employ a decent wage to do their jobs but to also price merchandise (especially replica kits) fairly.
The living wage ‘concern’ however is not the subject of this piece.
The most frightening ‘causes for concern’ are entirely football related.
I began to think about most of these recently after the Ajax away game. The sense of sadness I felt that morning (I live in Seoul, 9 hours ahead of Scotland, so getting up for the Ajax game involved at 4:30am alarm) was completely outweighed by anger and disgust. The team that turned out in Match day 4 of the Champions League showed no sign that they were capable of winning it on the night. In fact I would go as far to say that I believed the players who played showed a complete lack of effort in a game that was completely winnable. Through my working day however I realised that not all players were to blame. I reasoned that Beram Kayal, a very limited player in my opinion, actually player out his skin in the match but was ultimately let down by these limitations. Kris Commons and Georgios Samaras were returning from injuries, and appeared to still be struggling with them, yet both played nearly all of the match. Charlie Mulgrew is a left sided defender and he is not and never will be a central midfielder. I felt that Neil Lennon was also very uninspiring on the touchline; he didn’t make enough use of the substitutions at his disposal and the team that came out for the second half, in terms of motivation, seemed to resemble too much the team that went off after the first 45.
As I said this game was completely within our ability and a win would have done much to further our chances of progression to the last 16 of the Champions League. Progression is what everyone wants; the board, the players the management team and the fans, but a major concern for me is that we are taking for granted that we will continue to feature in the Champions League.
No one can disagree that the football the players under Lennon are serving up is very poor at the moment. It was poor last season too so I don’t subscribe to the belief that the sale of Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper are solely to blame.
I feel the root cause lies elsewhere. Let’s look at our recent opponents, Ajax, as a comparative club in terms of size of club and league. The goal that Ajax scored against us was sublime; it was everything that you would want in a team goal, movement and accurate passing from central midfield linking up with the forwards before a neat finish. I can’t remember the last time Celtic scored a goal like it. So why do we see teams like Ajax scoring goals like it against us, while we have to rely on a different style of football to score? After all, we want to see Celtic play the ‘Celtic Way’ and in fact many fans would like to see us play the Celtic way and actually lose (in Europe at least) than the turgid hopeless style we played in Amsterdam a few weeks ago, when we suffered only a 1-0 defeat.
Ajax have a youth academy long envied in world football bringing through players that consistently make strides in the Dutch league and then move on to bigger and better teams. This raises something Celtic fans should be questioning – what is happening to our development squad players? Two and a half years ago we let 5 youth players leave on free transfers as they were failing to make the grade. Since then only Darnel Fisher has made an impact in the first team as James Forrest continued to cement his place.
I have also been considering the view of some fans that a ‘stiker’ coach should be employed at Celtic. If we continue the comparisons with Ajax; manager Frank De Boer, a former defender, sits beside his assistant Denis Bergkamp who remains, in my opinion, one of the top 5 European strikers of the last 20 years. But can we say that Ajax beat us because Bergkamp’s influence? Obviously not, but it led me to make the observation: Neil Lennon played football as a defensive midfielder, Johan Mjallby played as a defender and sometimes a defensive midfielder, Garry Parker played as a midfielder but I have been unable to find whether he was an attacker or a similar player to Lenny. Indeed Danny McGrain, Stevie Frail and Chris McCart were all defenders too.
Rather than this signalling that Celtic should do all they can to bring Larsson or Sutton to Lenny’s bench, I find myself asking the question; what has Celtic done to fill the void left since Alan Thompson’s sacking?
When Thompson formed part of the management team it has to be said that football we played then is so far removed from that we play now; we attacked from the middle and the flanks, we passed well in midfield, we scored goals; good goals. We don’t have a coach on the staff that plied his footballing trade as an attacker and this is the main area of the game that we consistently struggle with, both in terms of play and signings. I find myself recalling the major leaps that Aiden McGeady and Shaun Maloney made under the mentoring of Tommy Burns, God rest him, who was part of Gordon Strachan’s management team.
Across the last five seasons, we have signed several attackers who have ultimately made little to no impact on the first team. Under Lennon Brozek, Miku, Lassad, Murphy and Bangura were all signed but failed to suitably impress the gaffer to merit a run in the team. I participated in the beration of some of these players during games, but perhaps their poor performances are due to poor direction. It could be argued that Gary Hooper may have opted to leave for Norwich as he realised had progressed as far as he could with Celtic and our coaching team. You could hardly blame him for wondering if a group of coaches with a background in defensive duties could help him get into the England team as a striker.
And I haven’t even mentioned the change in Stokes who was signed as a six-yard box striker and now seems to be a wide forward, doing the work instead of doing the poaching.
This piece was not meant as a mudslinging attempt. There are several positives this season. Izaguire looks back to his best; Darnell Fisher has broken into the first team to provide relief; Virgil Van Dijk has been an incredible signing that not only gets better with each game, but has turned Efe Ambrose in a confident player again! All of those are at the defensive end of the pitch, and with the exception of James Forrest having an excellent season I find myself struggling to think of positives further up the park.
We are in Neil Lennon’s 5th season as manager including his interim period. Under him we have won two consecutive league titles and a Scottish cup, we have progressed to the last 16 of Champions league once and, all going well, we should cement another league win and still have the Scottish cup to compete for. Some would say that is acceptable but does our performance on the park show that we are making strides towards a level of invincibility that fans want as Rangers seek promotion to the top flight? (you can take it from here on in that any reference I make to Rangers will be to Newco and my position on their ‘return’ to the premier division is that they have never played there before…)
Are we making the moves towards being an unstoppable force in domestic football and therefore a force to be reckoned with for years to come in European competitions? The facts are there: we are unbeaten in the SPFL in 2013/2014 and we are still in competition to progress from Group H. But look a little closer and domestically we were close to losing to Dundee Utd (1-1 Mulgrew 90’) Hibs (1-1 Forrest 77’) and Caley Thistle (2-2 Matthews 82’). We also lost to Morton in the league cup which is beyond acceptable. In continental competition we came close against Elfsborg going through only 1-0 on aggregate; we then needed a monumental effort to overturn Shaktar Karagandy in our final qualifier.
Next season we will again face three qualifying rounds – if the second or third round of qualifiers were on Tuesday instead of Champions league match day 5 against Milan, would we have enough to go past them? Factor in to that the possibility of losing Ledley, Forster and maybe Samaras to contract expiry and transfer bids.
Rangers are 2 years away (pending implosion – but I’m cynical, they will make it by some intervention, corruption or maybe their fans will get their act together and pull the club/company out of the mire).
I believe that are sleep walking towards a perilous situation.
While we are spending money on Pukki, Boerrigter and Balde the football is not improving and young guys coming through the youth ranks aren’t getting a chance. James Forrest has come on over the last 2 seasons due to his exposure to better and better opponents. Darnell Fisher shows a lot of promise too and in periods with injuries that is an incredibly satisfying turn of events.
Contrast that with Tony Watt who initially showed immense promise in the league, not to mention the Champions League, yet he consistently was denied opportunities in the league. He has now been shipped out to Belgian outfit Lierse which to me must have went down in corridors of Lennoxtown as an admission that we cannot nurture his talent. What message does that send to Rogic, McGeough, Atajic, Herron and Twardzik?
It makes you question what future does Watt have when we have brought in Balde, Pukki and Fridjonnson while signing up Stokes on a longer term deal, and seeking to sign up Samaras.
People have speculated that it may be time for Lennon to move on – the idea being that 4 seasons is a season too long, similar to Gordon Strachan who lost the league in his 4th season to Walter Smith’s Rangers, a title that Tony Mowbray then Lennon could also not wrest away from Smith.
Are we making enough of the period that we find ourselves? Is Neil Lennon doing this club or himself any favours by neglecting to address how poor the teams’ football is? Are the board neglecting to address this too?
I love Neil Lennon and a scenario where he leaves the Celtic managers position is the last thing that I want. But I need to see improvements on the pitch and I feel that that will come from a concerted effort at the board and football management level to address the youth policy and personnel in the coaching department.
I feel ill at ease as we navigate through this unchartered territory we find ourselves in. There should be at least a degree of caution from Celtic.
We may not need to look over our shoulder in the league, but nor are we looking over our shoulder enough.