With the arrival from Borussia Dortmund of perennial water-carrier Lambert, Celtic went on to dominate Scottish football for the next decade. Returning to his native land from Germany partially explains just how magnificent at this role he was. He spent one full season on the continent during which he became a European champion (defeating both Zidane and Deschamps in the Champions League final against Juventus). By the time it came for him to pull on the green and white Hoops, he was a master of his art. Over the next four years he sat in front of Celtic’s infamous defence protecting them. He looked for the ball constantly, he showed unparalleled composure in possession, passed sensibly and even chipped in with the odd wondergoal. Yes, his time at Celtic Park coincided with other fine players; Henrik Larsson, Lubomir Moravick, Johan Mjallby – but few would contest Lambert’s importance to several title-winning sides.
During the second half of Lambert’s Celtic career he was slightly liberated from his more defensive jobs by manager Martin O’Neill’s recruitment of Irishman Neil Lennon. Lennon’s style made Lambert look positively cavalier. But again Celtic had found a gem – a leader willing to do all the dirty work whilst others claimed the glory. When it came time for Lambert to hang up his boots, Lennon played on, and the Bhoys continued to dominate. But when Lennon’s legs finally gave way, there was no one around to carry this unique and important baton.
Since summer 2007 Celtic haven’t had a good water-carrier. Paul Hartley, Scott Brown, Massimo Donati, Evander Sno, Barry Robson were all tried in the position with varying degrees of failure. With the exception of Brown all were too slow on the ground to excel in the role, and Brown failed because he has the IQ of a Big Brother contestant. Gordon Stachan picked Gary Galdwell to do the job, but to acknowledge this is an insult to every midfielder who’s played for the club over the last 122 years. For a year on-loan Cameroonian Landry Nguemo made a good go of it. He was tenacious, he never hid and was naturally athletic – but he had two nightmares live on TV for which some fans never forgave him. More often than not he was Celtic’s best player but after what was collectively a dire campaign he was allowed to leave the club. Such a disastrous season left Celtic inevitably under new management. None other than our previous midfield master Neil Lennon. Surely he’d know how to fill the Neil Lennon shaped hole in the middle of our team?
For a few hundred minutes at the start of this season it looked like he had. New signing Israeli Beram Kayal looked the part. He appeared quicker the Lambert and harder than Lennon. He has the boundless energy a 22 year-old footballer should have. And like the man who defined the term “water-carrier” Deschamps, he’s short and has an enormous skull like a bobble head toy. Against Utrecht and St.Mirren at Celtic Park he was quite simply brilliant. Then after a poor display away in Holland, where the entire side were dreadful, Kayal was inexplicably dropped. He floated in and out of the side then picked up an injury. He’s been out ever since.
As I write Celtic have just stumbled through to the semi-finals of the League Cup with a laboured 3-2 win against St.Johnstone. But Celtic couldn’t look less like a team. There’s a couple of individuals playing their respective roles competently. But the lack of a leader is there for all to see. This is becoming a real concern, even before Kayal’s injury Lennon was already putting his faith in the proven unreliability of Scott Brown. How week-after-week can Lennon fail to see his side needs a player in his own image? A player with some, even just a little, tactical acumen.
From the available players it may not be their preferred role, but some one is going to have to step up to the plate and demand the ball. To be fair Korean Ki Sung-Yueng looks eager to do just this, but for whatever reason, perhaps his lack of stature within the club or a collective unintelligence throughout the rest of the team, he is being ignored. Spaniard Marc Crosas tragically isn’t getting a sniff of a run in the first team to build up his confidence. There’s no doubt Celtic’s defence and wide players are trying hard, but they need to realise the importance of keeping possession. If defenders are just going to punt long balls, and wingers are just going bomb forward without thinking, Celtic will become very easy to stop. Right now we need a midfielder to show the rest of the team how football should be played. He doesn’t need an arm band, he just needs to lead the way.
Paul McStay was a great player, but Paul Lambert made Celtic great. Right now there’s no one in the Celtic side there to sacrifice themselves for others. We need a water-carrier. Lennon must see this, or very soon we’re all going to die of thirst.