Deila Must Be Given Time, But Radical Changes Are Required Elsewhere
Yesterday evening, Celtic Football Club were eliminated from the UEFA Champions League qualifying stages for the second time in three weeks. As N.K. Maribor captain Marcos Tavares saw his second half effort find the back of Craig Gordon’s net, the communal feelings of hope and optimism which had filled Celtic Park as the teams emerged from the tunnel an hour and half earlier were replaced with a tangible air of disappointment and anger. As I shall discuss at a later point in this article, these emotions were entirely justified, but it was not solely the scoreline or the performance which hurt the tens of thousands of fans alongside me, but the feeling that, as a collective, we had not only seen this happen before, but we had long since grasped the fact that the potential was there for it to happen again.
Generally speaking, the Celtic support are an optimistic bunch, especially on European nights. On so many occasions in the past, we have punched above our weight and beaten far superior rivals, with Celtic Park so often being the venue, but last night was different. The manner of this mood change was indicative of the fact that something is very wrong at Scotland’s biggest Football Club. Fundamentally, last night’s defeat was due to a combination of factors which perhaps differ in terms of their respective severity, but were contributory nonetheless. Anyway, let us begin with the football itself before peeling back the layers elsewhere.
Thus far, Celtic have played nine competitive matches under Ronny Deila, winning four, drawing one and losing four (considering the Legia match at Murrayfield as a defeat). During this time, we have scored sixteen goals, conceding ten. Of the ten which have been scored by our opponents, only two have come during domestic ties, whilst the other eight have been scored on the European stage, by the Polish and Slovenian Champions respectively. In four matches against the aforementioned continental opposition, Celtic have only managed two goals in reply, both of which came away from home thanks to an exciting youngster who, talented though he undoubtedly is, one would not have expected to carry his teammates at such an early stage in his career.
After all, Callum McGregor only made his Celtic debut in the first leg against K.R. Reykjavik this season. With four goals already to his name, our top goalscorer at this stage of the 2014-15 season is a twenty-one year old attacking midfielder who was learning his trade on loan to League One Notts County last season, not one of the strikers at the Club, but I digress.
Returning to last night, I cannot help but question Ronny Deila’s team selection, and I doubt I am alone in this regard. Never have I seen a Celtic midfield sit so deep in a European match at home against a side who were not someone you could consider to be a top drawer team. With the greatest respect to N.K. Maribor, who thoroughly deserved their victory, they are not a Barcelona or a Real Madrid. Why then did the Hoops set up and play for large parts as if they were aiming for a goalless draw from the outset? Are our attacking options really so lacklustre at present that Deila felt this was our best chance of progression?
Well, when you consider the fact that Celtic are only scoring one goal on average for every ten attempts so far this season, it becomes clear that our offensive line is toothless, with the continual reliance on Callum McGregor again emphasising that point. However, this does not excuse the manner in which we played. Yesterday, we had the same number of attempts on target which we had in Warsaw – two – whilst allowing N.K. Maribor to become the first side to have more possession than us at home in a Champions League qualifier since Dinamo Moscow did so in 2009 (ironically, they also beat us 0-1).
Decisions such as resting almost the entire team at the weekend, starting Efe Ambrose ahead of Jason Denayer and playing Anthony Stokes as a lone striker must be weighing heavily on the manager’s mind today. When basic tactical issues – such as the inability of our wingers to deal with the pace of the opposition fullbacks or the bizarre reappearance of long high balls being directed towards a solitary forward who is less than six feet tall – are not being addressed in critical matches, one cannot help but be concerned. However, the manager cannot be blamed when only a minority of the side he fields – Craig Gordon, Mikael Lustig, Virgil van Dijk and Callum McGregor no less – play to a standard befitting of the jersey they are wearing. The fault there is that of the individual players who did not perform. Likewise, the loss of key figures such as Scott Brown and James Forrest to injury cannot be blamed on the manager.
I do believe that Ronny Deila must be given at least a season, if not more, in which to prove to us whether he is indeed the right man for the job. Quite simply, the majority of the criticism for both the Legia Warsaw and Maribor debacles cannot be laid at the Norwegian’s feet. He has inherited a squad from his predecessor, many of whom he clearly does not rate particularly highly for whatever reasons, be they related to a lack of ability, tactical nous or the correct attitude on and off the field of play. Fundamentally, the manager has to be given the financial backing and the time to stamp his own vision on the football on show.
With that in mind, we come to what I now believe to be the crux of the issue, the hierarchy at Celtic Park.
For two seasons now, the Celtic board have played chicken with their European opposition en route to the Champions League group stages, and finally they have been caught out. Some of you may recall that as the Club celebrated it’s 125th birthday in November 2012, we beat Barcelona – Lionel Messi and all (it’s not like it isn’t mentioned enough already) – making our way to the last sixteen before falling to Serie A Champions, Juventus. Although that victory may now be a source of some slightly twisted humour, it most certainly represented how far Celtic had come under the stewardship of Neil Lennon, from losing to Ross County at Hampden to bettering the best side on Earth at home a fortnight after pushing them close away. And yet, less than two years on from that historic night, our team are a shadow of their former selves.
With the lucrative departures of Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson netting the Club approximately £20 million from transfers – not to mention the intake of the same figure again (if not slightly more) from a run to the last sixteen of the Champions League – this was the time for Celtic to invest sensibly in the playing squad in order to slowly but surely continue to strengthen it in the medium to long term.
This did not happen.
Last year, we scraped into Europe’s premier club competition by the skin of our teeth, securing the vital financial benefits which accompany it, labouring past Elfsborg and Shakhter Karagandy by a single goal on each occasion. Critically, had it not been for some fortunate deflections or the woodwork, one of these sides would have knocked us out. With the benefit of hindsight, it is sometimes easy to forget how nerve-racking these fixtures were, with stagnant, lethargic performances eventually being heroically salvaged. We were then comprehensively beaten by each of our group stage foes, save for a solitary home win against Ajax of Amsterdam. Once again, having seen how close we came to elimination during the qualifiers, the summer of 2014 was an opportunity to provide the manager with money to invest sensibly in the playing squad.
This did not happen.
Subsequently, having dispatched a fairly poor K.R. Reykjavik side without much difficulty, we all watched Celtic slump to a truly horrendous 4-1 away defeat to Legia Warsaw. In 1937, Celtic lost 8-0 to Motherwell a week after famously winning the Scottish Cup Final before the largest crowd a European club match has ever (officially) seen. This remains the heaviest defeat in the Football Club’s history, but had it not been for two squandered penalties and a remarkable last ditch save from Fraser Forster in Poland, Legia would have come fairly close to breaking a record which has stood for almost eighty years, such was the poor level of the Celtic performance. Having then been dispatched once again by the Poles at Murrayfield, we were then given a remarkable reprieve by a UEFA due to Warsaw’s inability to adhere to the rules, and found ourselves with yet another opportunity to invest in the playing squad in order to increase our chances of making it to the “promised land” of the Champions League group stages. These results were not so much a wake up call as a blaring foghorn to a ship rapidly approaching the rocks.
However, once again, this did not happen.
As I write this, we are yet to spend a solitary penny in terms of transfer fees this summer, with only days to go until the end of the transfer window (although Scepovic appears a possible purchase). We have brought in one free agent (albeit potentially a very shrewd one should he stay fit) and four loan signings (one of whom is still on the injury list and another who only arrived today), whilst waving goodbye to the best goalkeeper we have seen in years and pocketing another £10 million in the process. In fact, in the last three seasons, we have taken in £43 million from transfers whilst spending only £15.5 million on players, more than a third of which subsequently went on bringing Efe Ambrose (often an enigmatic liability), Amido Baldé (whom we rarely see), Leigh Griffiths (someone plagued with attitude issues) and Derk Boerrigter (seemingly unable to shake his injury concerns) to the Football Club. Perhaps then our scouting network should come in for some criticism too, as even the likes of £2.4 million signing Teemu Pukki have yet to bear much fruit.
Now, allow me to state that I have no desire to see Celtic spending money they do not have. As we have seen across the city, reckless expenditure can lead to disaster and, eventually, death. However, there is a world of difference between sensible, sustainable levels of investment and driving head on into an abyss. Yes, Rangers Football Club ceased to exist, but their financial mismanagement cannot be used as an excuse for us to hoard money which we appear to have no intention of spending. Equally, the aforementioned end of our rivals of old, amusing though it certainly was, does not and should not make our results of late acceptable.
The repeated failure of those in control of Celtic to back not only Ronny Deila but Neil Lennon before him with an appropriate level of funding is bewildering. In the past, I and many others have said “Celtic Football Club is a business”, but the opposite is also true and critically so, “The business is a Football Club”, and its success is inextricably linked to success on the field of play.
Granted, it is not easy to attract players to Scotland when truly exorbitant wages are often available elsewhere. The lure of potential Champions League football is often one of the few trump cards we possess when it comes to garnering an individual’s interest in signing for the Club, but without it this task becomes all the more difficult indeed.
It may sound somewhat clichéd, but Celtic is not and has never been an “ordinary” Football Club. As an entity, it means so much to so many people, whether they live within sight of the stadium or on the opposite side of the globe. Thousands upon thousands spend large amounts of their hard earned cash each year through their love of the Club; following the team across Scotland and Europe; buying tickets; purchasing shirts; running supporters’ clubs (some of whom travel large distances); filling their tanks with petrol and their stomachs with overpriced rubbish; but a love of Celtic is not only a financial investment for supporters, it is an emotional one.
Without the fans, Celtic Football Club would be nothing more than a corporate shell. The supporters are and forever will be the soul of the Club. We all have an emotional attachment to the Club which we cannot simply turn off or ignore, and in recent seasons it could be said the hierarchy have taken advantage of this fact, allowing the standard of football on offer to fall notably whilst continuing to ask the support to shell out the likes of £70 so their children can have a kick-about on a pitch which was subsequently ripped up and is currently being sold in cubes, a couple of inches across, for £49 each.
The lack of public relations which the fan base can relate to is staggering, with the likes of John Paul Taylor and Tony Hamilton being very welcome and notable exceptions.
The Celtic support are never happier than when their emotional and financial investments are rewarded by footballing success, and conversely when they are not, they have every right to complain about it. Nobody expects Celtic to win every match they play. After all, the entire basis of the sport is that any team can, on their day, beat any other team – that is why it is loved the world over – but when advertising emails drop into your inbox in the hours following a painful defeat, or attempts are made to justify various pricing schemes by using a Twitter hashtag such as “#Because”, I for one cannot blame those members of the Celtic support who have become disillusioned in recent years.
For the sake of clarity, I do not wish to portray every aspect of Celtic Football Club as a negative, this article is simply a reaction to recent events. Like many others, I am frustrated, disappointed and angry.
The Club’s charity foundation is magnificent – as are many of the individuals who work in various roles at Parkhead – and “The Celtic Way” would be the envy of many, but this only matters for so much, the success or failure of the football itself will always be the driving force which affects supporters’ mood above all else.
I do not think I am one to jump to conclusions (perhaps some of you may disagree with me there), but I can no longer ignore the feeling that change is now required at Celtic Park. All of the views expressed above reflect that feeling, but they are of no more importance or significance than those of any other Celtic supporter. Running a small website does not give me any more of a say than anybody else, but it does give me a platform to praise Celtic when I consider them to be praiseworthy and vice versa when I feel criticism is required. For these reasons, I would be interested to hear what you all think of the current situation at the Club.
In closing, I would like to reiterate my belief that although last night was indeed a comedy of errors, with the manager and the players having to shoulder some of the blame, it was the result of poor decisions stretching back over a significant period of time which really came back to haunt us. A result like this has been coming, we have danced with the devil and lost, and now poor attendances, early Thursday and Sunday kick-offs, and an increasingly disgruntled feeling within the support will likely follow in the months to come.
Radical changes are required at Celtic Park, both in terms of personnel and mentality. There is nothing to be gained from replacing one individual with a clone, and thus what I have discussed is much easier said than done. For example, I don’t think it would be too much to ask for Celtic’s majority shareholder, Dermot Desmond, to actually attend the Club’s Annual General Meeting this year.
In a decade which should have heralded in a great period of dominance for Celtic, as we pushed forward and left the rest of Scottish Football light years behind us, we have instead chosen to sit still, seemingly content with relative mediocrity. Caution has replaced ambition and drive. The continual desire to improve which should permeate every aspect of the Football Club is now sadly lacking in some quarters, and until it returns, our progression will be hindered. It’s time for a rethink.