Where Now Celtic?
Write when you have something to write about. Those words, plus an ever increasingly busy schedule, mean this is the first thing I’ve written in months. I wish it was under better circumstances.
Celtic’s season is over.
Okay, so technically we still have fourteen league matches to play. But with a twenty one point lead over second placed Aberdeen, and twenty two over third placed Motherwell who have a game in hand, we all know the league is done.
Some would have you believe it’s been done since the start of the season, but I don’t buy that. If we had played this season like we had last season then that lead wouldn’t be what it is and Aberdeen would be right up there challenging for the treble.
Yeah, there’s your armageddon in a nutshell.
I, along with many others, have continually said that we miss the challenge Rangers brought not Rangers themselves. Well if we’d been a little less consistent this season and Aberdeen didn’t have Hearts as a bogey team then maybe we’d have that challenge in the league. Certainly Aberdeen have got their act together enough in the cup competitions that they’re now favourite to win both of them.
But as good as they’ve been, we’ve been miles better. Last season we stumbled through many league matches, this season we’ve been virtually untouchable. It’s an improvement on last season and one we’re all glad to have seen. The unbeaten record is one we can be proud of, and it would be nice to keep it going to the end of the season.
Not crucial, not brilliant, just nice. It’s the cherry on top of the cake. It’s nice, but it’s the tasty cake you want. Cherry or no cherry.
Sadly, it’s the other parts of the season where Celtic have taken a nose dive. Under Neil Lennon, Celtic had reach the semi final of every cup competition from Ross County in 2010 to Dundee United in 2013. We’ve played at Hampden almost as much as Scotland have in the last few years.
Now this season we haven’t even reached the quarter final stages of either cup competition for the first time since 1981/82. In three cup matches this season, we won just one. The other two we lost at home! The first we lost to lower league opposition! In both cases, the entire Celtic team looked lacklustre.
On a bad day, I’d expect to see several Celtic players having a bad time of it. These days happen, and if you’re lucky you scrape through them with a lucky goal or a deflection or just a bit of brilliance from one of those players that aren’t having a bad day.
Not at Celtic though. For as long as Neil Lennon has been in charge, we’ve seen entire Celtic teams have a bad day at the same time. The first of those almost cost Neil his dream job to start with, and only a frank interview from Celtic’s then interim manager had people backing him to get the job full time.
But the sad truth is, that Ross County defeat was just the first of many times we’ve witness a Neil Lennon lead Celtic team inexplicably underperform in a cup game en masse.
The next time we saw it was against Rangers in the League Cup final of 2011. Despite beating them in the league at Ibrox with a threadbare squad, then coming back from 2-1 down with ten men to earn a replay that we won 1-0 in the Scottish Cup, our next match against our bitter rivals saw a dramatic drop in performance and Rangers were able to win the cup in extra time. Celtic weren’t at the races that day, and no one could explain why.
That victory was enough to allow Rangers to regroup just enough to pip us to the league title just as we looked to have had them where we wanted them. Meanwhile Celtic went on to win the Scottish Cup that season just to prove they could do it when it counted. So we can discount nerves now, right?
Losing to Rangers is bad enough, but to lose the next League Cup final to Kilmarnock – a team who had never won that trophy previously – was possibly an even bigger kick in the stones. Kilmarnock weren’t the better team that day, Celtic just simply didn’t turn up. Even on a bad day Celtic were better than Kilmarnock but, with an entire team having a bad day, luck (and a dodgy refereeing decision) were on Kilmarnock’s side. It was an almost identical story just a month later when Hearts knocked us out of the Scottish Cup to go on and gub Hibernian in the final.
You’ve been there, done that and got the trophy the previous season, so why on Earth did Celtic play both of those games at Hampden like rabbits in the headlights?
Then came St Mirren in the League Cup semi final – our third defeat in a row at Hampden – and this time there wasn’t even a dodgy refereeing decision to point at. St Mirren just wanted it more than we did and had enough quality to take their chances.
Look at those three teams. Kilmarnock in 2012 – a team we hammered 6-0 in the league the following month. Hearts – a team we had gubbed 4-0 the month before and 5-0 the month after. St Mirren – a team who hadn’t even scored against Celtic under Neil Lennon until that day!
Sure, every team has their day, but in each of those games we gave them it on a plate by having a team worth of underperforming stars! The game against Morton followed that same pattern. Morton were a team who slipped to bottom of the Championship the weekend after they beat us. That night we could have played for another 120 minutes and not scored. I still have nightmares of cleared corners, there were 27 of them that night after all. At least in the case of Aberdeen they’ve given us a real challenge in recent matches – late winners in the last two home games against them show that.
So why is that? Why have Celtic continually put in these performances where the entire team dip?
Is it the players? Possibly. There are only two common factors between Ross County in 2010 and Aberdeen in 2014 – Georgios Samaras and Scott Brown. Now, Samaras is the easy out because he’s the player who hasn’t signed a new contract and looks to be on his way out of the club. He shouldn’t have played and didn’t look interested yet again. Which is fine, apart from the fact he’s done that in other games we’ve won this season and he actually played the pass for our goal. Samaras is a problem, but he’s a different problem.
Scott Brown on the other hand is our captain. He’s the man you look to on the park to lead us when we need it most. That’s what wearing that armband means. It’s what it’s always meant. Do you think the likes of Billy McNeill or Roy Aitken or Tom Boyd would have got themselves booked early in the match and then hidden for the rest of the game? They might have got booked – they wear the hoops after all – but they would never have hidden. Brown was anonymous in a midfield where we were already outnumbered. I actually felt sorry for Johansen as Barry Robson and Willo Flood ran rings around him, abandoned by his own midfield partner.
Incidentally, I still can’t believe Willo Flood dominated anything. That in itself is a massive neon warning sign.
Is it noteworthy that Brown, the Celtic captain, was actually subbed off in several of the other cup defeats? Is that an indication that the manager has seen that, on occasion, there’s a problem with our captain? Is it noteworthy that Brown didn’t feature in the biggest victory of all under Neil Lennon – the win over Barcelona? Possibly. But then you also have to remember that Brown scored that equaliser at Ibrox when we were down to ten men. He was a driving force that day in ensuring ten men overcame eleven.
Maybe that more than anything shows what’s possible. I can only imagine what Neil Lennon said to the team in the dressing room at half-time in that match. Whatever it was, it worked a treat. I just wish he could recapture it. Especially in cup matches!
What all of this boils down to is simple. As Celtic, we’re used to winning. We want to win all the time, and we expect to do so. However, we also accept that we won’t win all the time and won’t win everything. That’s football after all. We expect players to have good days and bad days, we expect the opposition to try different things to ensure they maximise our bad days and minimise our good days. Aberdeen, to their credit, did exactly that on Saturday. They ran the midfield and kept Kris Commons quiet.
The problem we have is that we expect there to be heart in the performances, and far too often that heart is missing. If Kris Commons is marked out the game then someone else should be grabbing the match by the scruff of the neck and taking charge. That didn’t happen, it never even looked close to happening. It’s as if we care more than the players do, and that won’t do. Need any more evidence of that? See the response to being knocked out of the cup from Anthony Stokes.
“We just need to get over it.”
Thanks Anthony, but some of us are back at work this week with supporters of a third tier team who drew a fourth tier team and now have a very good chance of making a semi final at their own stadium. They don’t particularly like us so they’re rubbing it in quite a lot. There’s even a fear that they’ll win the cup in our stadium! We would really have liked to have got to the final at Celtic Park ourselves actually, but that once in a lifetime chance has now come and gone.
Which is another related issue. How many times have Celtic now underperformed and blown a great chance to do something historic? We’ve been in the Scottish Cup final at Celtic Park once in our entire history – and we lost that to Hibernian. We’ve missed out on the other seven finals at Celtic Park now. We’ve won the treble just three times since the League Cup was brought in after World War II and only one of those three has been in my lifetime. We could have won the league at Ibrox two years ago and we blew that one as well. Do you know why we all fear our work colleagues’ new team winning the cup at Celtic Park? Because we remember how bad they were when their old team clinched the league there in 1999.
And that’s just those we share a city and a workplace with. Aberdeen fans are becoming just as insufferable. They’ve already made one cup final, they have a great chance of winning that and have a great chance of sweeping the cups. They might just finish the season with more silverware than us. These are the same people who turned up on Saturday and spent all their time singing about how we were in the wrong country, how Jimmy Savile is one of our own, and more than anything how much they hate Neil Lennon – the guy they abused and threw coins at last weekend.
Get over it, Anthony? I wanted these eejits clamped in the only acceptable way possible – by getting their team pumped. You blew it, now we suffer the consequences.
We will get over it, but not for a while yet. For now we have three months of league matches left while two cup competitions go on without us. We just have to hope Inverness and Dundee United win them so we can at least be happy for former Celts John Hughes and Jackie McNamara and the damage is minimised and our workplaces are quiet again.
What do we have left for ourselves? An unbeaten record and a league-only clean sheet record, both of which are “nice” and short term. Neither actually matter, as is evident by the continued insistence that Chris Woods 1196 minutes somehow holds a clean sheet record when it’s since been proven that he never beat Charlie Shaw’s 1287 minutes.
We actually have several problems coming up. When we win the league, and we will, it will mean we have another three qualifying rounds to navigate to the Champions League. Peter Lawwell admitted last week that we budget for the Europa League group stages, so that means Celtic MUST win the first one and one of the next two to get there or the budget will need to be cut. From a purely financial perspective that’s actually quite risky.
Just look at this season for an example. We couldn’t have got a better draw, and yet after easily seeing off Cliftonville we then squeaked past an Elfsborg team who we all feel would have easily beaten us if they could only put the ball in the net. That’ll teach them to think Bangura is a striker. Then came Shakhter Karagandy, and the abysmal performance we put in over there – rescued thanks to the second leg performance… and the crossbar at Celtic Park of course. The fact is, this season’s draw was incredibly kind to us – it may not be this coming summer.
Worse still, the first of those three fixtures comes in mid-July, and thanks to the Commonwealth Games we’ll be playing that at Murrayfield in Edinburgh. Leaving aside the issues of playing in the heart of the Edinburgh Establishment, that first leg comes just days after the World Cup final is played. Or more importantly, it’s just a couple of weeks after Honduras and Nigeria play their final group match.
Maybe it’s time Izaguirre and Ambrose were rested. Don’t drop them altogether or they might not get to the World Cup at all – which I’m sure the players themselves would be annoyed about – but we should start using them sparingly so they’re fresh for what is arguably the most important fixtures in our season.
In fact, lets use this as a stick to hit Samaras with as well. You won’t sign your new contract? Fine, you’re not playing. We don’t care if you play for Greece or not, you won’t be here after the world cup anyway. If you want to change that, sign the contract and start showing an interest. You haven’t done that lately.
Who do we bring in? Youth. My favourite part of this season has been watching Darnell Fisher develop. He’s a good player, but he’s not even one of the best in Celtic’s youth setup, I’ve seen that with my own eyes. Lets see more of them. Give them a run in the team like Fisher has had, he’s clearly benefited from it. These runs in the team are part of their development. Give them a run, and play them along side more experienced players so they can get used to the first team. That’s the way things should be happening already. The lack of competition should have been an opportunity to do this, but sadly Neil Lennon has panicked every time he’s tried it and one result hasn’t quite gone right. Yeah, like all the results have gone right with the regulars.
And what of our manager? There’s been plenty of knee jerk reactions from “back the team, faithful through and through” to “Lennon out”. Yes, they’re both knee jerk because neither of them actually make any sense. You can faithfully back the team and still be critical of them when they disappoint, to think otherwise is just utterly bizarre. But to call for the manager’s head without any substance as to why is equally as bizarre.
But having said that, how many times are we’re going to sit through these carbon copy cup disappointments? Why are we still suffering from the same problems Neil Lennon met when he was interim manager? Four years ago we could accept that he was a new manager and still learning his trade. I like to think that every good manager is never done learning, but from what I can see this is one lesson Lennon hasn’t been able to learn.
I’m not going to point fingers at Neil Lennon for a disappointing Champions League campaign. Having squeaked through while the squad changed, we went into a difficult group with one hand still tied behind our back because we sold our goals and our midfield strength in the summer – players who wanted to go – and didn’t replace them. That problem goes higher than the manager.
What I do want though is a Celtic manager who can get the best out of what he has, and time and again that hasn’t been the case. I want a Celtic manager who uses this unique opportunity we are in at the moment to build a strong Celtic not just for now but for the future as well, and that doesn’t seem to be the case either.
Just what are we doing right now? Winning trophies? Not really. Building a Celtic team for seasons to come? Not really. Bringing through exciting players from our own youth academy? Not really. Competing with the big teams in Europe? Not really. We’re playing at all of those but is that enough for us?
About ten years ago I was slated for being frustrated that Martin O’Neill’s Celtic were slightly under-achieving. I truly felt that with just a little bit extra – like an away win in the Champions League group stages – we could have been challenging for the big one. For me, he proved it over and over that we could beat any team on our day. We could compete. We did compete, we got to Seville and knocked out Barcelona in successive seasons. But I was moaned at for being negative about great times. I think I was picked up wrong, I was merely expressing that as great as they were they could have been even better. It’s not like I didn’t enjoy them!
But I get the same feeling now. Celtic are doing better financially than they ever have, we’re heading for a third league title in a row and we’ve seen some great teams at Celtic Park in the Champions League. I lived through the dark days in the 1990s so I should be grateful for these days, right?
Sorry, but winning a league title with no real challenge and just turning up in the Champions League isn’t enough for me. I want a Celtic team who do the best they can. I want a Celtic team who burst a gut every time they take to the field wearing the hoops. I got that through the 1990s, as substandard as some of those players were, but I’m not getting that now.
I know I’m not alone in feeling like that because if I was then the stands would still be full, as they were in the 1990s. They’re not, and that’s not just because of the economy or even FoCuS. There’s an apathy on and off the park, and I’m pretty sure they’re fueling each other. That’s only going to get worse now there’s effectively nothing left to play for.
But what do I know? I’m just a 3000* word blogger who didn’t even go to the game on Saturday.
At the end of this season, like everyone else, I’m going to have a decision to make. Previously renewing my season ticket has been simple – do I want to go or not? Like most, I say yes. But this time it’s different. This time I have a baby who needs looked after when I’m at the football and whom I could easily spend the season ticket renewal money on. Indeed, he’s the reason I wasn’t at the game on Saturday – he needed looking after. My priorities have changed now.
So do I really want to pay hundreds of pounds to go and sit in a quiet stadium during the wet, windy, freezing months of the year, watching a team that I don’t know if they care as much as I do? If Celtic is an emotional connection and the club appear to be removing the emotion from it on and off the park, what’s left? An overpriced entertainment industry, much of which I can watch from the comfort of my own home.
That’s why the stands are emptying. That’s why people like me are questioning whether it’s still worth it. That’s why those in charge at Celtic need to act fast to arrest this trend.
What do they need to do? Ask Peter Lawwell. That’s what he’s paid those big bonuses for, isn’t it?
*3542 in this case.