The Killing Fields

JS90873954So yesterday the registration deadline for the third round of Champions League qualifiers came and went without our club bothering to make a signing. Just how big a problem is that?

Well, in the first leg of the last round we played Efe Ambrose at central defence, with the predictable results. Such was the magnitude of that disaster – our worst result in our history – that we dropped him entirely from the second leg and played three at the back with our young full-back Keiran Tierney deputising for the night as a centre back instead.

Brendan Rodgers knows we have problems in that area. He has asked the board repeatedly, publicly and privately, for the signings he needs. One of the names he and his assistant have trailed over the weeks has been Shane Duffy. Today we discovered that the club is yet to make a formal bid for the Blackburn Rovers defender.

It makes you wonder how hard people are trying.

This is a perilous place for our club to be. Brendan Rodgers is the huge managerial appointment the Celtic supporters wanted. His is the name we craved. But we didn’t get this guy off the slag-heap. He wasn’t waiting around for our call, and willing to go anywhere. The chances are very good that if this guy hadn’t been appointed at Celtic Park that he would have been unveiled as the England boss this very week. Forget Allardyce and others; England’s FA would have passed over these second raters for Brendan in an instant. That’s how good a boss we’re talking about.

There’s a caricature of Brendan in some parts of the English media, that he’s vain and ego-driven. They point to frivolous stuff like his having his teeth done and hair fixed and the diets he went on. They point to his good looking young fiancé, who he proposed to just after formalising his divorce from his ex. In short, they think he’s a bit of a Jack the Lad.

As far as Celtic fans are concerned, all of it is nonsense because it has nothing to do with his ability as a boss.

Yet there’s undoubtedly truth to a lot of it anyway, and that does give us some insight which might be important.

Brendan has a very healthy self-regard.

He likes the limelight and he likes to be seen to be doing well.

This is not a negative. This is a guy who won’t settle for second place, or for failure. That’s why we appointed him.

It’s also why we will struggle to hang onto him if the board of directors continues to fail him when it matters.

There’s a moment at the start of the fantastic 1997 movie Twin Town where two corrupt cops are having a discussion about a piece of corporate art, etched into the stonework outside Swansea Train Station.

It reads “Ambition Is Critical.”

As they discuss the meaning, the older of the two men claims that it’s a response to an alleged Dylan Thomas quote, that Swansea is “the graveyard of ambition.”

A local poet wrote the three word answer to that. He worked for the council.

They adopted it as the town’s moto.

I always laugh at that scene, especially Dougray Scott and his assertion that it’s a dreadful slogan. His own three word take on Swansea a “Pretty Shitty City” at least rhymes.

He is scornful of the notion that anything, far less ambition, can thrive in such a place.

Ambition is critical though, and if someone had inscribed those words on the stairs at Celtic Park I think most of us would get the point at once. What I’m not sure of is that everyone who stepped over them on the way into work in the morning would.

Ironically enough, Brendan made his name in Swansea and it wasn’t the graveyard of his ambitions at all.

It was the proving ground for them. It was his performance there that took him to Anfield, and made him a contender. It was the place where he showed the world what he could do, where he’d have first come to the attention of Celtic.

He arrives at our club via a sojourn at Liverpool, where things went spectacularly right and then horribly wrong.

Is he here to rebuild his reputation?

No, I wouldn’t go that far. He says Celtic is a natural fit for him, and I agree. We are still a massive club, with huge pull for the right man, someone who “gets it”, someone who understands.

I was furious last week when, in the aftermath of the Red Imps result, Brendan Rodgers offered his glib, unconcerned response to the club’s stunning defeat. The result was easily the worst over 90 minutes in our history; some have argued that, but none has been able to find another occasion where we lost a competitive game to such a side.

There are simply no comparisons that come even close.

In my heart of hearts I know Brendan was angered by that result, and that his comments in public hid a deep frustration in private. He knows how that result makes our club, and him, look in the eyes of the world.

He’s not the kind of man to take that lightly.

He’ll know something else; he’ll know that good managers have come to Scotland before and died on their arses.

Some say Scottish football is the graveyard of ambition; it’s not.

These are the killing fields.

It’s not widely talked about, but Scottish football hasn’t just stalled careers. It has wrecked them. For such a small place, such a little corner of the footballing universe, this place has a helluva reputation for ruining folk, and Glasgow in particular.

Look back over the recent history of football in this city.

There are a parade of names who have come here, and then gone bust.

At Celtic, John Barnes career was obliterated before it had properly begun. He didn’t manage at another club for nine years, when he went to Tranmere, who sacked him after just eleven games.

Kenny Dalglish, who was a hero in English football, especially at Liverpool and Blackburn, wilted under the pressure of trying to steer the team after Barnes was fired. He won a League Cup but it was nowhere near enough. The Celtic board’s decision not to give him a permanent crack at the job was vindicated when they appointed Martin O’Neill instead.

It would be almost a decade before Dalglish returned to management, for a brief spell as caretaker boss at Anfield.

On its own, success in Scotland doesn’t guarantee the kind of advancement one might expect either, but failure here, even perceived failure, can undo good work that might otherwise count in your favour.

Martin O’Neill had a right to think he would have been a contender at any top club in England when he got Celtic to the UEFA Cup Final in Seville, but when he left the club the league title resided at Ibrox and that must have been a bad sign for some down south.

He ended up at Villa, then at Sunderland, instead of one of the clubs he craved.

The same could be said of Gordon Strachan and Neil Lennon, good men both, one of whom got us out of two Champions League groups in a row and the other who masterminded a win against Barcelona. Gordon left Celtic having lost a league title. Neil left after a Champions League group stage car-crash, but one no-one could blame him for. Nevertheless, only Bolton offered him a job.

At Ibrox, the same pattern emerges.

Alex McLeish became Scotland manager after leaving there but his managerial career petered out with moves to Birmingham, Villa, Forest and finally a move abroad, where he took over at Genk. He was in Egypt managing a club at the turn of this year, but they sacked him after just a few months in the job.

Even the big names to take over there encountered disaster.

Dick Advocaat left Ibrox to take on the Dutch national team, and ended up at Zenit St Petersburg with all their money, yet it could be argued that his career ran onto the rocks in this city when Rangers dispensed with his services after Martin O’Neill proved he had the mastery as Celtic stormed to two titles on the bounce.

Advocaat arrived at Ibrox with a huge reputation. He could have ended up anywhere, at a top European club, but this country exposed his limitations with a brutality that must have taken him by surprise.

The same thing happened to Paul LeGuen and in even less time; his was a glittering CV which less than a year here absolutely shredded. He was never to recover the ground he lost in that 12 months. He went to Paris St Germain from Ibrox, before money transformed that club completely. They were 17th on the day he was appointed; no other club in France would touch him.

What I’m trying to say here is that no-one should be under the misconception that Scottish football is some kind of soft option or doss. None of the guys named above left on a high, save maybe for Lenny. Even Gordon and Martin left after surrendering league titles.

Ronny Deila is an exceptional case because he actually lost his job despite winning the title.

But none of these guys was head-hunted by a bigger team.

None went on to “better things”.

Failure here is like a near-death experience and these are the guys (Barnes excepted) who got out without being absolutely humiliated.

Tony Mowbray had his reputation as a title winning boss at West Brom to fall back on, but his time at Celtic Park had made him toxic to most clubs in England; ironically, he replaced Gordon Strachan at Middlesbrough shortly after Celtic let him go.

Which is to say nothing for Ally McCoist, whose failures at Sevco were about as colossal as one could ever hope to see.

I predicted in 2012 that he would never manage a top flight team again and I see nothing at all to suggest I was mistaken then or now. Indeed, he may never manage in football again; that wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Brendan Rodgers doesn’t see Celtic as a “stepping stone” but that doesn’t mean he’d be willing leave our club with his reputation in the toilet. The current squad isn’t good enough; he knows it and the more dreadful events of last season have left us in no doubt about it. If we needed further evidence of it we got it last week. This is a side that more and more resembles one needing radical surgery. Sticking plaster solutions just aren’t going to cut it and we’ve got big problems ahead unless we refresh it with some new blood.

If Brendan Rodgers thinks he needs certain players to take the Celtic team forward I know for sure that he will fight for them; he has to. Never before in our history has second place been worth less to us, never in our history has it been so absolutely unacceptable, and if that’s the case for the fans it’ll be even more so for a manager who does think a lot of himself and who might still fancy managing at the highest level if and when he leaves Celtic Park.

Hell will be paid for failure, and not just in the manager’s office, but it’s the manager who will pay the highest price and it’s to be wondered if his career would recover from it. His days of managing top clubs would certainly be at an end.

Brendan Rodgers won’t accept that.

He knows, furthermore, that only a quantifiable success in Europe will keep his career from ending as those others did.

That quest was dealt a shocking blow last week.

With Astana next up, there clear potential for something just as bad.

Brendan Rodgers will not accept that.

He won’t tolerate having his hands tied.

This guy has a deep affinity for Celtic, but I absolutely believe he would be willing to walk away and scorch the Earth behind him if he thought his own reputation was being damaged by working here with no backing. He won’t do it right away, of course, but he’ll already be angry and concerned and if, in Astana next week, Champions League horror follows on top of last week’s Champions League horror, when all the signs were there, when the need for at least one signing who could play in the team was acture, I think he’d have valid concerns and be harbouring serious doubts about the commitment of those above him to make good on their own “ambition.”

This is a man who will not quietly fall on the killing fields.

This site needs your support. If you are able to, and you want to help real Scottish football journalism, and not the sort you get in the tabloids, you can make a donation by clicking the link below.

[paypal-donation]

Apocalypse Soon

_76287225_ronny_deila3On Saturday I saw things in the Celtic team with the potential to haunt me from now until the Champions League qualifiers next season.

Callum McGregor in the holding midfield role. Nadir Ciftci finishing the match playing behind a grossly unfit Carlton Cole. Scott Allan brought on as a substitute and stuck out wide left.

Blame the players for the defeat if you must, but I’m moved to wonder if they can really be held accountable for such a shambolic and structurally incoherent set of choices.

There is a sterling moment in Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent movie Apocalypse Now where Cpt Willard has reached the jungle compound of the renegade colonel Walter Kurtz and he’s seen for himself why the orders from on high are to “terminate his command” with “extreme prejudice.”

Amidst piles of dead bodies, and heads mounted on sticks, in sight of a former photojournalist who’s time with the colonel has turned him into a babbling loon, Willard comes face to face with the man he’s travelled up a dirty river and through nine circles of Hell to find, a man he’s been sent to kill because his “methods have become unsound.”

“Well,” Kurtz asks him. “Have my methods become unsound?”

Willard’s eyes have the haunted look of someone who’s seen much more than he ever wanted or could have conceived in his darkest nightmare.

“I don’t see any method at all,” Willard says.

And that’s how I feel now, watching Ronny Deila’s Celtic.

If there was a plan, there’s no longer any trace of it. Hidden amidst the chaos, we thought there was some underlying order, some sign that this is all leading somewhere better than the destination we can most clearly see in our own minds.

There had to be, right?

Well, no.

I’ve stopped looking now, and a lot of folk have. It’s fruitless. We’re searching for Cibola, one of the mythical Seven Cities of Gold. If it exists we’ll be enriched beyond our wildest dreams, but in our hearts we know it’s a fool’s errand we’re on.

We’re chasing a phantom.

It’s time to come back to reality.

Today I feel a little bit like somebody who’s bought an expensive ornament and turned it over to find a sticker on the bottom saying “Trotters Independent Traders”. We got a bum deal here. It wasn’t a con exactly … but it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.

Where is the attacking football? Where is the high pressing game? Where is the flowing passing and movement off the ball? All these things were promised, and I don’t feel let down as much as I feel betrayed. I’ve broken up with girlfriends for less. I’ve nursed a grievance against Peter Lawwell for years over a single misleading statement, and yes, it was a big one … but still.

I don’t believe any longer in what Ronny and those who’d defend him are selling.

I don’t believe there will be jam tomorrow or any other day.

All that’s in our future with this guy at the helm is a diet of gruel.

Some stale bread and water if we’re very lucky indeed.

This is an unfolding tragedy, and somebody at our club needs to show the requisite leadership before it turns into a disaster.

There are those amongst our support who still cling to hope of a treble, but in 18 league games we’ve already failed to win five this season and we’ve been utterly humiliated in European football.

It will take one bad day – and even when we’ve won this season we’ve often not looked terribly convincing – and that’ll be the end of that particular ambition.

Besides, the truth – and it’s one some in our support find increasingly hard to face – is that being only marginally better than the teams we play here in Scotland week in week out is nothing to boast about. Our current malaise ought to be a source of shame, that and the news that we’ve recently dropped a mind-numbing 25 places in the European rankings, to sit at 75th.

It’s where we belong right now.

The unveiling of a statue to Billy McNeil ought to have made Saturday an occasion to savour, one that evoked memories of our heyday as the biggest club in Europe. Instead, we looked bereft and more like the team that played in the latter days of the old board.

We are staggeringly bad right now, and the supporters haven’t missed that fact.

Our recent record at Celtic Park, two wins in the last eight games, is deplorable and when we’ve not been playing football here in Scotland the gap between us and even second rate continental teams has looked vast.

I harbour no hope at all for next year’s Champions League qualifiers … if we manage to reach them that is.

Because this is getting worse, not better.

I spend a lot of time on this site writing about the shambles at Sevco, and when the full-time whistle went at Celtic Park on Saturday I briefly turned my attention to what was happening at Easter Road fully expecting Warburton’s team to have escaped a full-on calamity by the skin of their teeth.

Imagine my reaction as Hibs won the game late, to plunge the Ibrox operation into its own deepening morass.

And then something dawned on me.

The Sevco supporters would have taken no satisfaction from our own defeat.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

As sick as their fans must have been at the Edinburgh club’s late winner, it’s nothing compared to how scunnered they must feel every waking minute of every single day at the opportunity they’ve squandered.

If their club had been born anew, instead of clinging to a corpse, they could have been in front of us already.

Because we’re going backward and we are there for the taking right now, and they know it and they’re stuck in the mud at just the moment when they might have been there to punish us.

Last season’s calamitous failures over there are all the worse for them in light of where we presently find ourselves.

If they weren’t in such disarray they might very well fancy their chances of catching us before too long.

What their fans can see, clearly, is their historical opportunity being pissed away, because this can’t go on forever; Celtic can’t remain in such dysfunction in perpetuity.

But that knife cuts both ways.

At some point, you think, Sevco simply has to find stability and the right combination of elements that turns them into a functioning unit. Our own window to vanish over the horizon is closing rapidly, as league reconstruction becomes the cause célèbre amongst the mainstream hacks, with Matthew Lindsay in The Herald the latest to bang that drum with a piece today that’s about as unhinged as anything you’ll read this side of the asylum bars.

They increasingly look like a club that is going to depend on some official fix to get into the top flight, and that is embarrassing for everyone connected with the Ibrox side, but for the moment I am holding back on the gloating because we’re no great shakes at the present time either.

Instead of moving so far ahead of them that they can’t see us any longer we’re suddenly looking very vulnerable to any club that can put together a sustained run.

Simply put, this is becoming a race to see which of the Glasgow clubs gets its act together first, with Aberdeen already waiting in the wings and fully capable of their own smash and grab act.

For Deila to write them off so blithely at the weekend … shocking.

Our manager is developing a profoundly arrogant streak which I do not like and which I do not think is fitting of a man who’s embroiled in such uncertainty.

The amateur statisticians have had a field day in the last few weeks telling us that Ronny’s record stands up alongside that of anyone we’ve had in the manager’s office in recent years.

Fine, bravo, well done to the Norwegian boss, and well done to those who’re today lambasting many of our fans for saying the club has gone backwards.

You are watching a different team to me.

Because things are not good at Celtic Park right now, and you can see it in the team’s performances and in our ridiculous playing system.

Futhermore, things just don’t feel right at the moment, do they?

There’s a creeping sense that we’re watching something profoundly horrible beginning to unfold. It might not be Apocalypse Now, but every passing day increases the sense that it’s Apocalypse Soon.

Had Motherwell converted their chances at the weekend, Ronny would have packed up his pencils already. It’s inconcievable that he could have survived a hammering at home from such a poor team.

But it’s coming. It’s in the wind.

There’s no evidence that things are getting better; indeed, all there is suggests a football club going the other way. We’re regressing to the point where a lot of our fans are trying to rationalise the abject humiliation of finishing bottom of a Europa League group without a win.

Last season we reached the last 32 of that competition.

You see the direction of travel?

I’ll give you a clue; it ain’t forward.

For the record, if you’re asking me, that group table, on its own, ought to be the catalyst for a change of management at Celtic Park.

If we truly value what’s left of our dwindling European reputation then we’ll act in defence of that, because this guy can’t take us into another continental campaign. His failures – and those above him; they don’t get out of this without criticism, no way in Hell – have already cost us an estimated £30 million in lost revenue … and the damage financially is nothing compared to that done to our name.

How much worse do you want it to get, Celtic?

A loss of £45 million?

Dropping to 100th in the rankings?

Failing to make the groups of even the second tier European tournament?

People are saying “give Ronny the money in January to sign his players and then judge him on how well they do.”

Really? And should we not bother to judge his performance in that area thus far?

Because this will be his fourth transfer window as boss.

And what does the picture look like?

We’ve made baffling choices, like signing Cole when we play every week with a single striker, like signing Scott Allan when the central midfield area is already full and yet somehow leaves us so short we’re sticking a winger into a holding role … this is indefensible stuff.

Managers are sacked for choices like these.

Including 6 loanees, he’s brought 19 players to the club.

Of the 13 permanent signings how many have been huge successes?

How much flair and imagination was there?

He’s signed three of them from Dundee Utd, one from Hibs, one from Derry City, one from Inverness (albeit we’ve not seen him in the Hoops), two un-attached free transfers, one from Dinamo Zagreb, two Reserves of Manchester, a reserve goalkeeper and Stefan Scepovic.

Where’s he again?

This is what our much vaunted network of contacts in the game has produced for us in this guy’s time in charge.

Three transfer windows right out of a first time Football Manager player’s handbook.

The days of Sky Sports Scouting were bad enough; who knew we’d wind up doing the BT Sport Scotland equivalent of it?

Today there’s talk that we’re looking at a £2 million rated midfielder.

From Walsall.

Because that’s just what we need at the present time, right?

In spite of over a dozen signings thus far, gaping holes exist all over the squad, in particular a chronic lack of half decent wide players. It says a lot for how dysfunctional things are at the moment that Scott Allan was left on the bench to accommodate one of them playing in a holding midfield role and that when he was finally brought on he was played … out wide.

How do you even begin to defend that?

The whole case against Ronny Deila as Celtic boss was on the teamsheet at the weekend before the game even kicked off.

I’m not in favour of letting this guy sign one more footballer. Not with that record.

What’s next? Let him sign wingers and then play them as central defenders?

It’s over. I’ve had it.

I’m sick and tired looking for positives here, and I can’t take any comfort from a one point lead in the SPL with a game in hand or being in a League Cup semi-final anymore.

We are dreadful to watch and just falling over the finish line because we don’t have a sustained challenge just isn’t going to cut it.

I’m fed up looking for order amidst the chaos and whilst my fellow Celtic fans are welcome to continue looking for the method in the madness right now I don’t see any method at all … and Ronny Deila has to carry the can for that.

But not alone.

A serious challenger to our hegemony is going to emerge in Scotland, and probably not on the long timeline many appear to think.

We’re awful damned lucky one hasn’t done so before now.

(Writing these blogs is my full time job, and I couldn’t do it without the support of my readers. If you like what I do you can make a donation at the below link. Thanks to those who have.)

[paypal-donation]