The disappointment (and anger) of exiting Europe to lowly Utrecht before suffering a dreadful reverse in the first Old Firm derby of the season both seem a long way off now. There is much work ahead, and it would be naive to think further setbacks do not lie in wait as we attempt to plot a course back toward European respectability, but this is certainly a classic ‘tic side in the making, led by a man who has at the very least already shown encouraging previous when it comes to the art of gleaning opportunity from crisis.
Although football is a lot more complex than the following logic tends to suggest, nevertheless it’s worth reminding ourselves that we comfortably saw off a hun side who competed manfully with Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon in midweek, being denied a victory and clean sheet by only a late, late equaliser (shame). Earlier in the campaign their goalless draw at Old Trafford drew grudging admiration from some and underlined concerns that reports of their demise were, not for the first time, greatly exaggerated.
Clearly we have come on in leaps and bounds since those early days when even protecting a two goal lead versus mid-table Dutch opponents proved a step too far for a team of established underachievers and relative strangers. The transformation has been spectacular. Building some more on the comparison with Martin O’Neill’s first season, there is surely now genuine optimism that a team who exited Europe early doors before taking advantage of the breathing room to explore their full potential on the domestic front, can – emboldened by experience and a growing sense of identity – once again attempt making serious European inroads in the seasons ahead.
As a consequence the huns look a thoroughly busted flush. Just as was the case for Advocaat’s side, back in the day. There was a great deal more money kicking around both clubs in 2000-01, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, for all the sob stories produced on spec by the laptop loyal these days regarding Rangers’, and by extension Brave Sir Walter’s predicament, yesterday’s hun side was assembled at a cost of roughly £8m more than our own, with Nikica Jelavic alone costing more than an astonishing nine of the Celtic starters, combined.
Saner huns know that they are now well and truly staring into the abyss, with an increasingly realistic chance that as few as a mere handful of senior, experienced performers will remain in place next season to supplement the inevitable posse of pluke-ridden teenagers being hastily promoted to the first team. No takeover in sight, and all whilst the manager-in-waiting – not some no-mark outsider but rather a record breaking figure steeped in the history of Dignity FC and synonymous with their most successful chapter of late – mulls over an alternative, infinitely more appetising offer of a return to TV punditry with Sky Sports. Aye Ready, indeed.
The contrast with ourselves could not be starker. Just a few weeks ago I mentioned that one of the most encouraging aspects of the run of form we are presently enjoying was that each game was a visible statement of intent from the players and management. Something more than a simple gulf in class played out on the pitch, but also a clear message – perhaps one borne of the manager’s own frustration at having watched from the sidelines as the last few seasons played out so miserably – that here is a team who finally, collectively, ‘get it’.
And not just what it means to play for Celtic, period, but men who at this juncture in time appreciate full well the need to effect some form of payback for the support, many of whom had reason to feel short-changed by their own club, as much as outside forces, in recent years. Supporters whose own pining for football played the mythical ‘Celtic Way’ was all too often the subject of caricature and condescencion, both from those in charge at CP, and the usual suspects elsewhere during that time.
In contrast with previous managerial regimes, the sense of empathy with, and moral responsibility toward the ordinary supporters, is strongly evidenced both in word and deed from Lennon and his team. From the manager’s public show of gratitude to the Green Brigade, to the glowing tribute to the club and fans expressed recently by a departing fringe player, Marc Crosas, to the football itself – it all speaks of a tremendous atmosphere within the camp. How far we have come since those sneering assertions from the manager and his favourites that they would be the judge of what made for good football, and not the paying support, thank you very much.
During a spell of fairly historic underachievement all manner of convoluted excuses have been produced as to why we couldn’t realistically expect to see a bankrupt hun outfit stomped into dust, but in a short space of time Lennon and his charges have put the lie to the lot of them. What’s more, the manager has dragged the club back from a precipice in the process, and effectively transmitted his own passion for the task – not to mention a very useful siege mentality – to a number of young players who weren’t even on site during recent travails.
For some it may seem premature to say as much, given that nothing has been decided on the domestic front this season, but looking ahead to next, Europe – however steep the challenge – is the carrot to dangle in front of one or two players who may have their heads turned in the summer. We won’t hold on to everyone, though that’s testament to how effectively we’re scouting again, and the kind of Catch 22 plenty of us are willing to tolerate. And just as O’Neill’s team, already burdened by a low co-efficient, had to go to Ajax and deliver a fair shock, even as champions entering the CL draw with a more favourable seeding than of late, it may well require one more watershed performance early next season before the real returns of the group stages and beyond can be properly contemplated.
Time will tell exactly how it all plays out, and which particular players will have the biggest decisions to make. Given the qualifying route and the lack of guarantees, it may take some selling for certain players, but nevertheless can be done. The most obvious candidates for interest from the heavyweights of the EPL, and potentially beyond, hardly need namechecking by me. Indeed if the statements accompanying our predictably disappointing interim figures are anything to go by, our CEO will happily do so himself anyhow, for the benefit of any prospective vultures who may not yet have been alerted to our new assortment of hidden gems.
Whilst understanding full well the situation we find ourselves in, that was a tad cynical for my liking. We have to strike a balance and ensure the team remains as settled as possible if this side, not to mention the brand of football they’re serving up, is to really be the platform for bigger things in the medium and long term, as opposed to a fleeting glimpse of what might have been. Continuity is key.
The force of personality that defined MON’s sides is back with a vengeance, and we’ve a fair proliferation of actual ball players all of a sudden. Poise, close control, vision and creativity are all back in vogue after years of stultifying fare, playing the averages, whilst being fobbed off with suggestions that it would take reserves of £15m and upward to even possibly hope to improve upon players many of whom could be considered utilitarian at best.
It’s an absolute joy and a privilege to watch the likes of Kayal, Izaguirre and Hooper move so effortlessly through the gears for us whilst ‘question mark’ performers of seasons past like Brown, Wilson and even Samaras (all of whom I’d written off at one point or other) respond brilliantly to their relative seniority in what is now a fresh, hungry, developmental squad. Newfound responsibility has been the making of certain players, and what praise they are due for that. Kris Commons may have a tendency to flit in and out of games, but his arrival of late has undoubtedly had a further energising effect on an already vibrant team. Fleet of foot and with the instinct to put it to expert use, in terms of goals he could hardly have hit the ground for us any more spectacularly.
Playing with something to spare or not, in those periods of the game where we were unmistakably bossing the hun, in particular once we hit full exhibition mode after the third, some of our football, as a unit, was fantastic. It built on the tactical triumphs of the young buck Lennon, up against the supposedly wily old fox sans the surname, and then some. We have some way to go yet to match the following names, but it seems fair to say that not since the days of MON, Larsson, Sutton, Thompson, Petrov et al have we carried such menace, and such a multi-dimensional threat.
Our movement and understanding at times is second to none, but it’s all underwritten by a visible confidence, and freedom of expression, that has too often been denied Celtic players these last few years and more. It seems every player is encouraged to take ownership of the game in their own way, and from midfield forward, to never be afraid to commit opponents. Our workrate off the ball is immense and the perpetual motion of many players makes the job of the man in possession so much easier in any event.
This all adds up to keeping opponents constantly on their toes, and as they inevitably tire on the receiving end of possession football, our fitness levels become more and more apparent. With any given two or three players on the same wavelength, we’ve shown an ability to carve teams open, quickly, seemingly effortlessly, yet with no little cunning. On the bench, we have genuine options, including for this most recent of big games a highly rated young international, Ki; this term’s top scorer, Stokes; and everybody’s favourite maverick talent, the wild card McCourt.
What’s most encouraging in terms of our future prospects is that many of the players both holding down and competing for places are a long way yet off being the finished article, and with arguably one more problem position, at centre back, still to be fully attended to. On that count however I’d like to add my own voice to the chorus of praise coming Charlie Mulgrew’s way this weather, not only has the big man stepped up in an injury crisis to make a foreign position his own, he’s shown a remarkable assuredness in the process.
Surprisingly quick feet and bags of composure, ‘Muldini’ is an example, though by no means an isolated one in this team, of how a culture of good football, played on the deck at pace, with defending from the front and plenty of midfield pressing, is proving a much more effective tool for enabling average performers to blossom than anyone may have dared imagine after years of suffering established CBs being shoehorned into central midfield and the like, in what at times seemed like a never-ending procession of dreadfully cynical affairs.
With the players and manager shedding inhibitions at an astonishing rate, our biggest enemy for the time being can only be ourselves. Next season will provide steeper challenges and, being realistic, no doubt a few bumps in the road, but there is no telling what wonders a succesful end to this one – potentially on three fronts – might work in terms of setting us up for the next stage. Keeping our eye on the ball for the remainder ought to ensure that much or something very close to it.
Lastly, as a new era potentially dawns it’s worth bearing in mind that barring any seismic occurences from on high we’ll continue to rely on the guidance of a board who have yet to fully prove their own fitness for purpose, at a time when their rookie manager is rescuing the club from a hole of their own making. The bigger picture being as it is I am very much ‘better the devil you know’ with regards to the elusive DD and the rest of our Glorious Overlords but all the same the architects of the disastrous Mowbray experiment remain in place, despite talking a very different game after little more than a year of Lennon’s against-the-odds dugout wizardry.
If they and we are to truly realise a model of sustainability for the first team, they will have to strike a very fine balance between continuity and renewal, something which, at least reviewing their track record of late, you’d be hard pressed to cite as a forte. In the eagerness to return profits on personnel – or to “develop Champions League players” to take the spin placed on policy by Peter Lawwell – it should be uppermost in thoughts of all our besuited ones that whatever slack can possibly be cut, and however, the manager has fully earned it. It’ll be over to them again soon enough.