As Good As It Gets

Malmo-FF-v-CelticFew things in football focus the mind like defeat.

Victory can eliminate all thought about the “bigger picture” and can cover a multitude of sins. Had Nir Biton’s perfectly legitimate goal been given last night, had we gone on to take something from the match, much of what I am about to write would have been ignored or scoffed at.

I still expect it to be in some quarters.

This article would have been the same regardless. Because I said in my last piece that win or lose this tie, it would not define the season.

It won’t. This season was defined before a ball was kicked in these matches.

It was defined by a strategy which has already failed on several levels and which our club is locked into like a death grip.

As you all know, I’m a movie fan and there’s a scene in one of my favourite films which speaks to me particularly loudly today.

In the movie Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, a best-selling author of women’s fiction, gushy, romantic, warm and open-hearted stuff which makes his readers swoon. But he’s an appalling character in person, a misanthrope, a guy who says what he thinks without filtering his words, self-centred, egotistic and absolutely without compunction.

He also has obsessive compulsive disorder, and in the scene in question he’s just barged into his psychiatrists office without an appointment, and been sent packing. Angrily, he steps out of the office into a waiting room full of people. He looks at them all, sitting there, each already several steps down their own personal path to being “whole” and he knows exactly what to say to shatter all their hard work in a single moment.

“What if this is as good as it gets?” he asks them.

You might as well walk into a bar of Hibs fans or Aberdeen fans or St Mirren fans or Motherwell fans after their side has been knocked out of the Scottish Cup of a season and ask them the same question.

This is what it feels like no longer to be shattered by defeat.

To have, on some level, been mentally prepared for it because you realise, deep down, that your side simply isn’t good enough to be anything more.

It’s the question I asked my mates in the pub last night as the reality of the result was sinking in. In European terms, the Europa League is, without a doubt, the level at which we presently belong.

They say that success has a thousand fathers but that failure is an orphan; that’s never more true than when Celtic are doing well. Certain people at our club can’t wait to have their faces front and centre and in the papers and on TV.

When things go wrong, they bunker.

In this case the line of those to blame for last night’s result stretches around the block and back. But foremost amongst them are the Usual Suspects, the people who cause me to exile myself from Parkhead; Bankier, Lawwell and Desmond.

Managers who fail get sacked. Players who don’t cut it get punted. Only directors and CEO’s at football clubs have the arrogance to hang on in there year after year, presiding over garbage like this. They, alone, of football’s leading figures never quite pay the bill for failure.

It is beyond question that the Celtic “strategy” is deeply flawed. It has cost us tens of millions of pounds in income, money that ain’t coming back. It has placed us in the perverse position whereby we are a football team which funds a business rather than the other way around. Our commercial department has failed to crack Asia and the United States, despite huge efforts.

People talk about us being “risk averse”, but I’ve long argued that it doesn’t get more risky than the way we do business at the moment, rolling the dice in this competition year in year out.

There are ways we could change all this, and move forward. But those ways are anathema to a board of directors and a CEO who, in their arrogance, won’t budge. It doesn’t matter how many of these reversals we suffer … they are locked in, and unwilling to change.

That strategy can be summarised best like this; buy them young, “develop them” and then move them on.

We don’t buy quality anymore.

We buy potential.

That this often explodes, like a hand grenade, in our faces shouldn’t be surprising.

I think the squad does have potential. I think if it was left to “develop” it would be promising.

But I know it won’t be.

Van Dijk has one foot out the door. Biton or Johansen will be next, and something tells me we might not need to wait too long before that happens. The signing of Scott Allan hints at plans for at least one midfield departure.

See last night’s performance would be more tolerable to me if I thought this was a squad at the bottom of a very steep learning curve, but one that would get a chance to grow and toughen up in the required areas.

What makes it worse is that transition is our permanent state of affairs, because the strategy has locked us into that. We’re never going to have a “settled team.” We’re always going to be walking the wire in this way.

There’s something about our strategy that only became apparent to me last night, and it should worry every fan.

It hit me when I looked at our back four.

Charlie Mulgrew, at 29, was the oldest of them. Van Dijk is 25. Boyata is 24 and Janko is only 19. That has to be one of the youngest, and least experienced, defensive lines in the Champions League. Mulgrew, who more often plays in a bizarre midfield hybrid role these days, was the “wise old head” in that back line last night and it showed.

That lack of experience, that lack of a cool head, someone who’s been there and seen it and done it and knows how to properly lead a defence and organise those around him, is precisely why they looked like rabbits caught in the headlights last night, why they were a shambles and conceded twice from set pieces, which over the tie is what’s put us out.

And this is deliberate.

It permeates the whole team, as does the paucity of ambition in our signing policies.

You want to know why we’re out of Europe’s biggest competition?

Think on it like this for a moment.

Our goalkeeper is a wonderful signing, but we were fortunate with that because he might still have been unfit. We took a risk, punting our first choice for millions and putting our faith in him, but that risk has paid off, by and large and we’re damned lucky it has.

Our right back was signed from Manchester United Reserves. Let’s get that straight from the off. He was not a first team player. He was a reserve. I think he’s a fantastic prospect … but it’s that word again, and all the connotations of it that continue to haunt us.

Our first choice central defender was signed from Holland, when he was just 21. He has a shot of going far in the game but he ain’t close to being the finished article and if we get the reputed £12 million for him we shouldn’t turn it down.

His defensive partner was signed from Manchester City Reserves. He is 24 and has made only 66 full time, professional, appearances since 2009. Ponder that for a moment. He too is potentially a very good player, but that we put our Champions League future on his shoulders last night, was lamentable and reeks of bad planning. The consequences of it are obvious when you watch his positioning for the goals last night and in the first leg.

Charlie Mulgrew was signed from Aberdeen five years ago. On a free transfer.

Our midfield is bossed by a player we signed from Hibs, albeit he is now our captain and a fine player, having matured into the role because he was given the time to. Few of his team-mates from last night will be at Celtic Park five years from now.

He was joined there by an often injured product of our youth academy, a player we signed from Norway, one we brought from an Israeli team for £700,000 and a guy who was at Dundee United last season. I think all four are excellent … prospects.

None but Brown is near 30.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the striker who was carrying our Champions League ambitions.

Like Scott Brown, his last club before Celtic was Hibs.

Here’s my favourite part; aside from Craig Gordon, not one of these guys was signed over 25.

Ponder that too for a moment.

Pop quiz time; who was the last outfield player we actually bought, for cash, who was over 25?

And who was the last one we bought for cash before him?

I’ll tell you this much; over the last five years we’ve brought in a few players over that age, but all were on short term deals or free transfers. None of them was at Parkhead longer than a year. They were stop gaps.

None was brought in to actually improve the team.

I’ll put you out of your misery; the last one we paid cash for was only 26.

He was Derk Boerrigter.

Before that, you’ve got to go back to 2011, and Kris Commons, who was 27.

Prior to that, we hadn’t signed an experienced footballer, who actually enhanced our squad, since Paul Hartley in 2007, who was 29 when he first pulled on a Celtic shirt and cost us £1.1 million, a transfer fee he repaid with virtually one moment, his memorable header against Spartak Moscow in the Champions League qualifiers.

Before that, such players were frequently added to our squad.

Were there some misfits?

Well, Thomas Gravesen was not a success but Jan Venegoor of Hesselink, who was 28 when he signed on the dotted line at Celtic Park, scored 34 goals in 78 appearances, including against Rangers, Barcelona and Manchester United.

You do get what you pay for.

That kind of quality justifies the outlay.

But those players are of no interest to Celtic.

Because experience and skill and maturity aren’t what we’re looking for in our signings.

All we’re looking for is “potential” and that’s not so much potential to grow as footballer players … it is only potential resale value that counts.

We no longer sign players who can lead the line, marshall a defence, rally a midfield, bringing to bear the lessons of years as professional sportsmen. Every player we go for is signed with a view to moving him on somewhere down the line. All are young. All are expected to grow under the weight of expectation that they can be be more than they are.

Those who do show something early – like Wanyama, like Van Dijk – are punted as soon as good money comes in.

As a consequence, we never move forward.

Last night is the all-too-predictable result of our flawed approach.

The strategy has failed to deliver on every level; we’re heading for five in a row right now and that will make a lot of people smile widely and happily … but the number is important and instructive and should serve as a reminder of just how little time has passed since the geniuses at our club were unable even to deliver our own domestic championship.

Indeed, we’ve only won six out of the last nine league titles, four of them without a major challenge.

If anyone thinks our procession towards ten will be unhindered and unimpeded, I would advise them to think again because that’s a long way from now and anything could happen in between times.

Perhaps that’s what it’s going to take to make this clear to even those who don’t want to see it.

Perhaps it really is going to take Derek McInness walking around Pittodrie with the SPL trophy, or something less dramatic but still calamitous, like the two domestic cups at Tynecastle.

Something that slaps people awake without the wheels falling all the way off.

There’s no prospect of any of this changing, which is why I said last night would not define our club or our season.

Those who “settle for” will “get behind the team” as we go into the second tier of European football, and they’ll “settle for” that and a domestic treble. Lose in the League Cup and they’ll “settle for” a double. Lose in the Scottish Cup and as long as we’re still heading for the next milestone in titles they’ll be perfectly content.

There is no appetite for pitchforks in the carpark and a demand that these policies are changed.

No revolution is just around the corner.

Instead, a lot of fans will simply not go to games.

There will be no banners in the stands, but there will be a godawful lot of empty seats.

Today the internet buzzes with threads about whether the manager should carry the can and whether certain players ought to be shown the door.

Those who would blame Ronny for last night’s debacle, those who say tactical inflexibility and poor coaching are responsible for it, and who point to how little we’ve moved forward in the last 12 months, may well have their point proved even more brutally than we just saw.

I’m not convinced by their reasoning, but I am not blind to some of the issues.

His one man up front approach is ridiculous without the players to make it work, so it’s not getting the results. That he persists with it anyway seems more about stupid pride than anything else and if he doesn’t realise that the team comes first that will cost him.

If the “Norwegian Experiment” ultimately proves a failure then his head will roll in due course.

But it will be a scandal if his is the only one because our problems start at the very top of the house and removing the man in the dugout won’t make them better because his replacement will be from the same mould and will have to labour under the same restrictions.

This is the way people at our club – and even sections of our support – want it though.

Risk averse. Bloodless. Settling for.

Last night was not only an echo of the past but a glimpse of what we can expect in the future.

As long as we’re run this way, this is as good as it gets.

(This article was amended. In the section covering the league titles it originally read that we’ve won 5 out of 9. It’s actually 6, so thanks for the guys who brought that to my attention.)

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Comments on As Good As It Gets

  • james mcgillin

    james i agree with everything you say, for to long now the men at the top are only interested in themselves not the guys who pay good money to turn up week after week to watch..

  • http://Windows7 Larsson7

    Cannot disagree with anything you say.will make a donation soon H H

  • tom campbell

    I agree with your assessment of Celtic\’s place in the overall football hierarchy … but history, recent in the case of Rangers and past in the case of Leeds United, teaches us that ambition is a dangerous emotion and very often fatal.
    We have to accept the facts that Scotland is a lower-tier country in which to operate, and that managing to get into the Champions\’ League group stage is a major accomplishment; in fact
    getting into the Europa Cup is praiseworthy (I note that Aberdeen and St Johnstone did not advance).
    We are too quick to criticise and to demand instant solutions to what is a permanent situation.
    Tell me the name of a better manager than RD, who is available, and who would want to come to Celtic and Scotland.
    Tell me the names of players (who apparently must be over an arbitrary age of 25) who would come to Celtic and Scotland, and who would improve our squad without costing much more than a fiscally prudent club can afford.
    Are you suggesting we replace the manager, some players, Peter Lawwell, and all the directors – and replace them with men of vision (and ambition)? And who are these suitable replacements?
    I think there is a real difference between \’settling\’ for what is reasonable and attainable and \’accepting\’ the reality of our situation.

  • jas

    A rather bleak Orwellian outlook, and to be fair I can’t disagree with any of it, except maybe chopping Deila as I happen to think he can leave us a legacy…….obviously if he’s allowed.

  • http://www.onfieldsofgreen.com James Forrest

    Tom:

    You’re frothing. Let’s take it from back to front.

    I was NOT suggesting any such thing, which should be apparent to anyone who READS THE ARTICLE and isn’t looking to find some secret subtext between the lines. I am very clear on what I think the problems are.

    Are you saying there is no player, over 25, anywhere in Europe, within a certain transfer bracket, who would sign for Celtic? And if not, why not? Wages? Perhaps our “wage structure”, which assures that the CEO – not the manager, not players but him – is the highest paid person at the club ought to be changed too?

    I never suggested the manager be sacked. I am QUITE CLEAR on my views on Ronny Deila. But your suggestion that no-one else would want the job, no-one of experience, of talent, is riseable.

    You are CLEARLY “settling for” with your assertion that we should somehow take inordinate pride in having done the bare minimum of qualifying for the Europa League groups. If that’s your idea of what Celtic should aspire to yours and mine are very different views of what our club is.

    As to the great Settling For fallback, that ambition is somehow dangerous … give me a break, okay? It’s nonsense, all this “we don’t want what happened to Rangers to happen to us” is a pitiful comeback and the Leeds comparison even more ridiculous.

    READ IT AGAIN … NO-ONE is suggesting we run up £50 million or more in debts to fund a crack at the Champions League. No-one.

    Where are your balls? Where are your guts? Is this REALLY acceptable to you?

    As to your general suggestion that I should name players and managers and provide the answers to these questions … I’ll say this;

    Pay me what Lawwell gets, even a fraction of it, for doing HIS JOB FOR HIM … and I’ll answer all those questions and more.

    He is GROSSLY overpaid for what little he brings to the party. It is a scandal that has gone on too long, and he and those above him are EXACTLY who I blame for last night’s debacle and much else besides. They are the ones who have decided to box us into this lower case ambition you find so comforting and desireable.

  • The Diplomat

    Nail on the head !

  • Derek

    Tom, I agree 100% with what you\’ve written here. I\’ve made many of the same arguments to my green goggled friends who are obviously happy to \’settle for\’. I\’ve been quite vocal that I\’m not a Ronny fan, unlike the fans who thinks alls great because he pumps his fist a few times. He was the cheap option, although I was less than impressed by the \’expensive\’ options. From what I see, Ronny would make a great coach, but not a top class manager. The players are fitter than I\’ve seen, but motivation and tactics seem to allude them at times. There is no plan B. There is no shut up shop and accept what we\’ve got (see Legia away). It\’s just gung go for 90 minutes. Then there\’s the board. I have no issue with signing players from Hibs as long as they are good enough, but it\’s the refusal to reinvest the money we\’ve received for the sales of Hooper, Wanyama & Forster. These guys haven\’t been replaced and the team is going backwards.
    People say sevco are years behind us, but as we\’ve seen many times, football can change over night. And seeing as our players will gladly be sold down south, and there won\’t, they can build a squad to challenge us, where as we\’re constantly having to rebuild. We need guys like Brown who want to stay at Celtic, in Scotland. Hearts are going to be a genuine threat this year, as will Aberdeen. You joke about mcinnes or Nielson parading the spl trophy but they way we are defending, and how poor we are in front of goal, then drop a few points after a Europa league game and we could be in real trouble.
    At best we will be pushed to the last couple of weeks, at worst were second….or third! Efe is hopeless, boyata isn\’t looking any better, mulgrew isn\’t what he was under Lennon, lustig can\’t stay fit, and Virgil is all but gone. We need an experienced centre half who can be relied upon.

  • Derek

    Personally I have no interest in the Europa league. Best if we go out in the group stage. Leagues more important.
    I think it would be best if we put the second string out in the Europa league and keep the first team fresh for the league. Mind you, on current form it’s hard to tell who is first and second string!
    For the first time since I’ve had my season ticket, I have no intention of buying match tickets. The board put the season ticket prices up expecting sevco to come up, they charge us prices like we’re a champions league team, but treat the team like Europa league qualification hopefuls. Time for season ticket prices to be reduced accordingly.

  • justshatered

    Interesting article James and in some aspects I agree with you.
    What manifested itself last night was similar to away ties I’ve witnessed for most of my Celtic supporting life. To watch Hartson and Sutton last night you would think that they were never part of a team that played ten men Anderlect for over 80 minutes and managed to lose against a defence marshalled by a 19 year old centre half! Vincent Kompany so 19 year olds can cut it……… some times.
    Celtic have played appallingly for years away from home in Europe with the exception of two years under Lennon and last year, mainly due to our goalie. For years we were generally two goals down in 15 minutes.
    We have squandered a mountain of money however in the forward line in particular; Murphy, Rasmussen, Pukki, Balde, Icelandic guy, Boeriggter, Scepovic to name but a few.
    Should we gather all of this money and ‘invest it’ in one expensive player?
    I would like to think that there has been extensive discussions regarding the scrutiny these players were put under before we signed them but the fact that these signings were spread over three or four years suggest not!

    First of all if we are going to play one up front then we need to buy a hold up or link man who is also a threat.

    If we are going to revert to play two up front then we will probably play better domestically but will we be able to adapt to playing one up front in Europe?
    I’ve watched it for years our inability to adapt to that simple change of tactic and that was with Hartson, Sutton, and Larsson and we are no longer working in that level of player acquisition!

    There is a level of ambition within all fans; at the start of each season the league is the priority because the opportunity to graduate to the Champions League only comes from winning that. So I would disagree with the ‘settling’ aspect.

    Our scatter gun approach to buying players must be more refined. Players need to be identified that will fit in to the way we are attempting to play.

    What concerned me more last night, and has done for years, is the ability of the opposition to ghost passed our players and move better without the ball. I could see this in the first leg and knew it would be a bigger issue last night in front of their own support.

    Last night I believe was a calamitous result for our club!
    If we had qualified we would have had the increased financial muscle to dominate the Scottish scene for years but the Europa League will allow us to merely to break even so Van Dyck will have to be sold and the money re-invested.
    Let us hope it is invested wisely!!

    I’m as disappointed as the next fan and I can assure you I will NEVER settle where Celtic is concerned however that does not blind me the financial reality that our club is now operating in. You have mentioned often the EPL and the shadow that it casts over our game. It is no longer the EPL however but the Championship and League one which have over taken us. And that is before we even get to the continent.

    I don’t know what the answer is but we need to do things smarter and better and what I mean by that is scout better, research better, identify and buy hungry players regardless of age but ultimately within budget.

  • http://videocelts dynafc67

    why dont we ever spend a decent sum of money to get into the champions league?? its always wait to see if we qualify before we spend our pittance….seriously pissed of with this great balance sheet attitude from our board…on the playing side, when was the last time johansen had a decent game.. commons is a far better player but cant get in for the big games because of ronnys love child….for the first time i have waited to see what we spend on players before i bought my season book…no need now to quote fergus, they wont get one thin dime off me this year…..seriously pissed off tim..

  • Aaup

    The club is on a road to nowhere. The board though in many ways caught between a rock and a hard place , have imo. all but given up on the notion of investing to try to secure CL football. We are trapped in a league that is becoming more and more irellevent in Euro terms and one that is now, again imo, inferior to Austrailia and the MLS. Can you imagine that being the case 30 years back? Even ten years back it may have sounded crazy, but Scottish football has declined whilst others leagues have improved. The reasons for that are irellevent or maybe beyond our control but the fact is we are in decline. It should be no surprise given the small nation in which we ply our trade and as this has been in the making for a number of years defeats to Polish and Swedish teams come as no shock to me now. I have long since adjusted my expectations for Celtic at Euro level.

  • Veritas

    James u r right CFC are not in top 150 in Europe in purchasing power ..so CL top 32.?…RD ain’t to blame .even with chronic tv revenue CFC have substantial revenue potential . Regular constant solid teams should be easy ..buying all kids to sell on is insanity they will never have any consistency
    The board strategy is totally flawed and covered over by occasional profitable sell LNS
    ..Remember famous arsenal defence .all over 30 .Martin oneill built from back ..valgaeren bobo mallby and Laurssen ..now there’s a defence ..if only they had had Craig Gordon behind them

  • Scottyk

    Celtic have spent the past 50 years being embarrassed in Europe, with the occasional good run. I think fans tend to remember their on version of history but I remember the dark days of being out of Europe before September, I believe our journey to the uefa cup final began by going out to basel! May I make a suggestion, please visit celtic programs online and take a look at our European record over the past 25 years and you will see it doesn\’t matter what players or manager we have or who even runs the club, we play in Scotland, a tiny football nation struggling to keep up with the times. Keep the faith, Hail Hail…

  • daniels

    I don’t think our strategy had anything to do with last nights result. I watched both games against Maribor last year and Malmo this year and no one is going to convince me that either of those teams were better than us. In fact I’ll go further and state I don’t believe a select from both of those sides would be better than us, yet they have knocked us out. Ronnie and JC are to blame we were tactically inept last year and tactically inept this year. The question is do we give them the chance to send us out to be tactically inept again next year. We will go on and have another good domestic season but I’m afraid that will only paper over the cracks and we will find ourselves in the exact same position next year. For me the strategy isn’t the issue the management team is.

  • Rowntree McCallum

    You forgot to mention the sevgers boggyman James.

    Whooooooaaa!

  • FrankiBhoy

    Interesting article as always.
    I certainly fall into the category of someone who has managed his expectations over recent years. I\’ve had my seat for over 15 years and I still enjoy going to the games and I\’m reasonably happy to take what we can get. The Lenny years were certainly some of the most enjoyable I\’ve ever experienced.
    However, I take many of your points on board and like most fans i would wish for a better strategy.
    The question which I always fail to answer however is what are our alternatives? How could we do it differently?

  • Aaup

    The question ‘how could we do it differently?’ is the most pertinent one in all this debate.

    Before trying to answer that, regarding ’50 years of embarrassment’ and Im not going to go over all that time, but suffice to say that now more than ever the money on offer in terms of the European Cup/ CL is of greater importance to us than ever due to the lack of income comparitive to other ‘big’ clubs in Europe , and yet our attempts to access it are questionable. We wont take sufficient risk to get at it. We are instead , as the main article suggests, simply in the business of signing potential , and that includes the manager, a nice guy who may well go on to be a huge name, but I bet many would struggle to remember the name of the club we got him from, in other words he was completely untried at anything neat the top level or at anything near a club like Celtic. That in itself is no guarantee of failure of course, but simply shows that even at managerial level we employ the same stratagy as at playing level.

    The seeds of where we are, or where we are going, were sown long ago in the boardroom.

    Now to get back to the original question of how we can do it differently?

    A change of policy at board level is the easy answer. But thats not going to happen unless there is a change of board…and neither is that going to happen.

    As I said in my earlier post we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Would DD appoint such a ‘rookie’ to run any of his other business concerns?
    Then again none of them operate in the ‘closed’ market that is football ie we are stuck in a tiny cash poor league.

    We have reached the tartan ceiling. I have accepted that and adjusted my expectations. It makes experiences such as Tuesdays almost , almost, painless.

    We speak of lack and inability, have done so for years. We have accepted a second rate existence as a club.

  • Apricale

    Years ago when I lived in Scotland and could afford to play golf, I would hit two drives out of 18 straight up the middle. The rest would end up in the rough, or trickling off the tee. And with the bad drives I would think \’what am I doing wrong?\’. Of course, that was the wrong question, I was doing no more wrong on the good drives than the bad drives; the bad drives were my real game, it\’s just that now and then I got a couple of lucky breaks. That\’s the way Celtic is (in pretty much the same ratio), but our expectations are still shaped by that late afternoon in Lisbon, two generations ago.

    I agree that we need people with experience. They don\’t need to be a Schweinsteiger, but a Paul Hartley, as you say, would be able to settle the team on the park. The issues of how we improve in our backwater league are bigger than can easily be dealt with in a single, good article.

  • Rowntree McCallum

    To be serious, imo, things have got worse since the selfdistruction of rfc(IL).
    Desmond and Co, are wearing the currants ghost like a cloak and waving their rotting severed head at descenters as a warning to take what you’re getting or the big bad sevger boggeyman will get you.

  • The Shugstar

    James,

    your article is absolutly spot on!

    The fault lies with the Board and their penny pinching! We have had to settle for a team of cheap signings and it is not going to get any better.
    No decent defenders, including VVD who has been exposed outside the SPL, a crop of average Midfielders, and no Strikers.
    If we take Bitton and Gordon out of this team they would struggle to win the SPL!!!!

    The club are in a downward spirral and have got steadily worse every single year since Seville.

    Our fans and club have been to busy laughing at Sevco and collectively taken our eye off the Ball!

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