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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