A Cause for Optimism

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Don’t get me wrong.  There’s no way I’m happy with the current state of affairs.  10 points adrift of a Rangers team whose manager admitted last night that even winning the treble may not save them from a summer of misery, such is the state of their financial situation.  Some would call that a crisis.  Apparently “some” does not include the Scottish Media.

Marginally ahead of a Hibs team who have spent a more than fleeting amount of time cashing in their star players every time the Glasgow clubs come calling and yet still manage to be playing better football than most of Scotland.  Indeed should they win their game in hand over us and the points difference between us remain the same they would force us down to an unthinkable third.

On the immediate face of it, we are so far up a certain creek without a paddle we can taste it let alone smell it.  But to look at Celtic and the position they are in now is to completely ignore the important bigger picture.  The Kilmarnock game on Tuesday night was a perfect example.  Yes, Celtic lost the match and in this business it’s results that matter most.  But losing the match was just the tip of the iceberg.  In that one match you could see Celtic’s past, Celtic’s present, and Celtic’s future.

For the past, you just had to look at Aiden McGeady, Artur Boruc and Lee Naylor.  Three players from the Gordon Strachan era of Celtic.  Three players who have had much better performances than on Tuesday night.  If it wasn’t Boruc and his long range kicking missing anything in a bumblebee shirt, it was Lee Naylor’s bizarre defending.  By the time he was substituted for Brown as Celtic went chasing the match, Lee Naylor had managed to put in one very well timed last ditch challenge and been a spectator as Kilmarnock set up the only goal of the game from his wing.

Meanwhile, on the other wing, Aiden McGeady was having another in a sequence of poor games recently.  It can’t be easy trying to do everything yourself.  This is a player that for the last 6 months has had to be Celtic’s main talent.  Fair play to McGeady, there have been times he’s been the difference between three points and no points this season already.  I don’t buy those that say he doesn’t have it and that his “current form” is the proof of what they’ve been saying all along.  If you’re noticing his “current form” he must have had “previous form” at some point in the past that was better.  Yes, it’s not working for his currently and maybe he needs rested.  Maybe the fact he got booked out of pure frustration meaning his suspension is now due will give him that little break from the first team that he might need.

Three players, all of whom were mainstays of Gordon Strachan’s team, all of whom are having a bad time of it right now.  The truth is that had Braafheid not had to return to Germany to collect his belongings, he would probably have got the nod at left back instead of Naylor.  If I were to be brutally honest, I’d almost rather Celtic had sent Naylor to collect his belongings – if it weren’t for the fact that I suspect if we had sent him he’d have come back with Frank Ribery’s belongings instead.

If those three represented the past, the future was there to see in the newer additions to Celtic.  Jos Hooiveld in the centre of defence is already looking like a fairly competent purchase.  He hasn’t done anything bizarre or misguided anyway.  His positioning has looked sound, and if his interviews are anything to go by then the heart is definitely there.  A future Celtic captain? Only time will tell, as will more difficult tests than playing against relegation candidates like Hamilton and Kilmarnock.

Another is Ki Sung-Yeung in the centre of midfield.  I’m not sure what to make of him yet.  On the one hand, he has already hit a decent set piece for Celtic.  Not quite on the same scale as Shunsuke Nakamura, but then not many in the game are.  Besides, “Wavy Davy” seems fairly capable of adjusting to the more physical side of the Scottish game, something fellow Asians have previous taken a bit of time to do.  But there are other things he’ll need to adjust to at Celtic.  Staying on his feet unless someone tries to break his leg for instance.  Being alert and in the right place at the right time is another.  I’m not sure many have noticed, but while he doesn’t seem to have a particularly bad period in a match, he does also seem to disappear a bit.  But he’s young, these things may come in time. 

Possibly the most exciting prospect, at least for the next few months, was the striking partnership of Marc-Antoine Fortune and Robbie Keane.  For two players who had never been teammates until that morning, they seemed to show an awareness for each other than I haven’t seen from two Celtic strikers since the days of Larsson and Sutton, or Larsson and Hartson depending on which one Martin O’Neill was playing that week.  Okay, so this particular partnership didn’t get a goal against Kilmarnock, but can anyone realistically say that was down to either one of these two?  When I say realistically I think you can forget those who have already decided Celtic have wasted their money bringing in Keane.

OPTA statistics were quick to illustrate on Twitter that we had one of our worst nights of the season for shots on target. A whole SIX as it turns out. My memory of them were mainly from tight angles while surrounded by defenders. The one really DECENT clear-cut chance we got was from a Glenn Loovens header – and he missed the target with that.  Despite the relatively poor show on shots on target, people were still telling us that the Kilmarnock keeper had a great game.

Which brings me to the present.  Celtic aren’t just suffering from being in a transitional period.  They’re suffering from the worst run of bad luck I can remember.  If it’s not the complete lack of any decent decision from a referee in Scotland – yes, I’m going to put that down to luck for now – it’s coming up against inspired goalkeepers.  Cammy Bell was the latest in a long line of great goalkeeping performances in recent months to keep Celtic out.  Both Hibernian and St Johnstone have a Graham Smith in goals who was praised for a string of saves last month in matches against us.  Robert Olejnik at Falkirk, John Ruddy at Motherwell, Janos Balogh at Hearts – even Alan McGregor at Rangers have all been man of the match candidates when playing us.  How many inspired goalkeepers are we going to play against this season?

Celtic have hardly had luck with injuries either.  Tuesday night saw not just Hinkel go off in the first half, but in between Hooiveld picking up a knock and Mowbray getting Thompson ready to replace him, Kilmarnock got their goal.  Scott Brown, last season’s players’ player of the year, has spent most of this season out injured.  Shaun Maloney hasn’t been spotted much this season either.  Danny Fox was only at Celtic for a few months and in that spell had two injuries that kept him out for more than a match or two.  Marc-Antoine Fortune scored his first two goals for the club and followed that up by a month on the sidelines.  Andy Hinkel was missing for the visit to Ibrox – a visit which coincided with the first of Fox’s injuries so we had neither first choice full back for arguably our toughest match of the SPL season so far.

So here we have a Celtic team, who keep coming up against inspired goalkeepers, who can’t keep the first team fit long enough to put together a consistent run, who can’t get a break from a referee in any game for love nor masonry… sorry, money… is it any wonder things haven’t quite clicked yet?

That to me is the key point – we haven’t clicked yet.  It’s not that Celtic are bad.  We’ve just shipped out a bunch of the old guard and brought in the new guard.  In my eyes, we’ve improved the squad – and that’s just from what I’ve briefly seen of most of the new guys.  Since Gordon Strachan left, I’ve only really been disappointed about losing one player – Shunsuke Nakamura.  He left because he wanted to try something else.  You can’t stop that, you just thank him for the four great years of service and wish him all the best.  But what of the others?  Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink might be missed by the medical staff.  Gary Caldwell will be missed by the other teams as he was often good for an own goal.  I raised a very wry smile on Tuesday night when I heard on my way back from Rugby Park that he’d scored his first own goal at Wigan – didn’t take him long, did it?  Scott McDonald may have been a good goal scorer but at a profit of more than £2.5 million you can’t really complain too much.  Well maybe he could.  Barry Robson’s heart might be missing from midfield but personally I think his limited abilities in there will be better served at Middlesbrough than at Celtic now as we had better quality in there before this transfer window.  Chris Killen, Willo Flood… will we even notice they’re gone?

Meanwhile, we got in the likes of Morten Rasmussen.  Who wasn’t excited at seeing someone score a poacher’s goal for Celtic on Saturday?  We’ve needed that for some time.  Maybe he would have got a chance against Kilmarnock if we hadn’t run out of substitutions.  When you’re left with one and you’re not creating chances for the strikers, you have to beef up the midfield – not change the striker force.  Diomansy Kamara may have looked absolutely knackered after his first half an hour of first team football in months, but for that half hour his quick thinking and quick feet created many of Celtic’s early chances.

For three years I’ve been saying we need to improve the squad and improve the standard of football we play.  Now, finally, we seem to be doing that.  The problem we have currently is that it has taken too long to get to this point.  The longer we waited to improve, the harder it was going to be to make the changes  necessary to get that improvement.  The transfer window system certainly doesn’t help matters.  If Tony Mowbray has made one mistake in his short time at Celtic it has been not realising sooner that he wasn’t going to be able to improve with what was already at Celtic.  That decision trapped him for months with a withered squad that he later came to realise wasn’t good enough.

No one can say Celtic haven’t gone out of their way to help Tony Mowbray out with his quest for improvement over the winter transfer window.  In an ideal world you wouldn’t make so many changes to your squad so quickly in the middle of the season.  But this is far from an ideal world.  Those changes needed to be made and now they need time to gel.  They need time to get to where we all want them to be.  I must admit I had a little nagging feeling even on Monday night that the Kilmarnock game might be coming just a little too soon for us.

For me, there are now two goals for this season. Finish at least 2nd in the league – preferably by less than 10 points so we’ve at least improved on our position now and have something to build on for next season – and win the Scottish Cup. I know no one wants to see us lose the league to them EVER, but then we should have done something about it this time last year and didn’t.  We’re still suffering for that mistake now.  If we can somehow still win the SPL, then brilliant, but I find it difficult to see Rangers dropping enough points coupled with us not.  Unless of course we gub them at Ibrox at the end of February.  Maybe then their heads will go down.  If that happens, who knows.  Certainly the noises coming from both Tony Mowbray and Robbie Keane over the last day or so seem to indicate they don’t think it’s an impossible task.

For all those calling for Tony Mowbray to go I say this.  There isn’t any realistic option that’s better currently.  We’ve all heard the names that get banded about as a possible replacement.  For me they fall into either “unrealistic” or “more of the same”.  Not that it matters now anyway.  If this season turn out to be an abject failure, we can start again next season anyway.  Making a change now just writes off this season entirely and I don’t see the point. I’d rather hope for the best and maybe get something from this season than just give up now and resign ourselves to getting nothing.

Besides, if we do somehow turn it round from here, just imagine how good May is going to feel. Remember how good you felt after Tannadice in May 2008? Well that will be nothing compared to what a turnaround now would feel like.

It’s said a lot as Celtic fans, but I don’t remember the three words having more meaning than they do right now.  It’s a sentiment the Celtic fans had written in giant banners on Tuesday night.

Keep the faith.

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