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.

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A Strategic Approach: Why Celtic Have To Get It Right This Year

maxresdefaultYesterday Celtic were drawn against the Icelandic champions FC Stjarnan, in the first of the three ties we will have to navigate if we want a place in the Group Stages of the Champions League.

Last season, with a new manager at the helm and a nice style of play to get used to, there was always the danger that things would not work out, that these were tests too great, that the wheels would come off the wagon.

What none of us could have expected was the pitiful way in which our board responded to the challenge, and in particular to the second opportunity which was presented to us when the Polish champions, Legia Warsaw, were correctly disqualified from the competition.

It was appalling, and no two ways about it.

In fact, if we’re being honest the last two Champions League qualification campaigns have been equally shocking.

Neil Lennon must have known the gig was up in his final season, when he saw the side weakened three times in a row before major games.

No manager would have stood for that for very long, and it was an insult to expect him to.

I knew he would leave when the board did that. When they made it clear that there would be no continuity, no attempt to build and develop a squad, no sign even that the money he raised from player sales would be reinvested in the team.

Ronny Deila arrived here seeing the Celtic job as a major step up in his career.

But this guy has grown in the job, and the better he does the more he will insist on doing things his way.

He, too, will see the writing on the wall before long, and if it continues to look like this, he too will walk.

Ronny Deila can be forgiven for what happened last season in Europe; not the defeats, but his failure to fight for the sort of players he knew were needed to take the team forward.

He has to show the strength this time, the self-regard to get what he wants and what the team needs, and the board has to learn – and they have to learn fast, because, it seems to me, that they haven’t learned so far -that in the absence of a domestic challenge (and we don’t look likely to get one of those for years) that the only thing that will make fans buy season tickets in large numbers are signs of life in Europe.

The deterioration in the attendances at Celtic Park has been blamed on a lot of things; the recession, the absence of competition, the club’s “political stance” and a general dissatisfaction with their perceived lack of real action on the Rangers-Sevco shenanigans amongst other things.

But at the root at much of it is something the fans believe in implicitly; a distinct lack of imagination and ambition at the club.

I hate writing these articles you know.

This message – that we don’t get everything right – is one few people on our side of the fence want to hear, but they are even more necessary than the Sevco pieces this site puts up, because it’s hypocritical to highlight the failings of that club without acknowledging our own.

It’s also dangerous, because like with politics when you make those at the top immune to criticism you foster arrogance, you let things stagnate and you make it impossible to fix (or even acknowledge) mistakes.

Remember, Sevco didn’t hit the rocks and shatter overnight; it drifted towards those rocks for years before it ran against them.

That is what happens when fans stop asking hard questions, when they cease to take an interest in the direction of their club and place unlimited faith in those running it.

At Celtic we’re better than that. Smarter than that.

Now, it has to be said before I go on that I am not knocking The Strategy; not all of it anyway.

But whereas some people may want to rewrite history on, for example, the Temu Pukki signing, there were those of us who, at the time, expressed serious disquiet about us going for a player without a proven goal scoring record when a proven goal scorer is what we were crying out for.

The same applied to Amido Balde, and these two have cost somewhere in the region of £3 million for no discernible return … which is the consequence of “experimental” signings or “projects” or whatever you want to call them.

Sometimes you just need to bite the bullet, and go for quality.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again; the modern transfer market is insane, and the cost of players is sky high. No-one expects us to compete in that market, but it says a lot that this club has spent £6 million or thereabouts on players three times; Sutton, Hartson and Lennon.

They all played in the same team and that team reached a UEFA Cup Final.

The last of them, John Hartson, was signed in 2001.

That’s fourteen years ago now and we have never come even remotely close to matching that signing in terms of cold hard cash since.

So even as costs have gone up in football, across the boards, including what fans have to pay for tickets, and whilst revenues have continued to increase from Champions League income and other areas, we’ve actually gone backwards and stopped even trying.

I am not advocating spending £10 million on a footballer. When Rangers spent that kind of money on Flo it was clearly sheer insanity.

But to haggle over a £4.5 million deal for Alfred Finnbogason was lunacy, and to have left a proven finisher like Aron Jóhannsson at AZ when £3 million would have sealed the deal is just a nonsense.

Those players would have excited the fans.

They would have got the blood pumping.

And in cash terms, for the fees, they would have cost only marginally more than the disastrous Balde and Pukki, who were stupid signings and proved it, when they couldn’t even manage to score goals in the SPL.

So no more experiments. No more “projects.”

Quality, proven goalscorers are what we need from now on.

And the need for it is as pressing as ever before.

The top drawer finisher we were looking for is still not in the Celtic squad. The board did a wonderful job in securing Guidetti on loan; the deal didn’t work out the way we wanted it, but it was the right move at the time.

His leaving his left a hole in the squad which someone needs to fill, and I’ll feel a hell of a lot better when we fill it.

Stefan Scepovic, by the way, does not represent a risk at all. He is a good player and will do a good job in the Celtic shirt and everyone knows how I feel about Leigh Griffiths; he will score goals in Scotland for fun.

It’s Europe I worry about.

Because neither player has thus far proved they are out of that top drawer, although I have a sneaking feeling that Griffiths could score anywhere.

Until he demonstrates that, he’s not the high calibre we are looking for and have been for quite some time now.

We also need at least one more central defender because if something should happen to Van Dijk (like getting sold) or Boyata then we’re desperately short in a crucial area of the team.

That might stand up reasonably well in Scotland, but in Europe we’ll be in big bother.

None of this is exactly new information.

We knew we’d be losing Denayer, so we brought in young Boyata.

But we also knew we’d be losing Guidetti and we all suspect that we stand to lose Big Virgil as well.

Nobody is suggesting that we spend crazy money on signings, but the fans need a reason to believe we’ll settle for more than just being in the Champions League draw this time around, and no-one ought to be fobbed off with John Kennedy rolling out pre-determined lines about Armstrong and Mackay Steven being “this season’s” signings who were brought in early.

That’s not going to cut it at all, I’m afraid.

In the final analysis, no-one is asking us to compete with Man City or Chelsea or sides from the big leagues.

Because it was a team from Poland who knocked us out at the second hurdle last year, and when we were allowed back in it was a team from Slovenia who finished the job.

The year before that, we got the fright of our lives against a team from Kazakhstan.

Let’s not kid ourselves that our failures have been simple matters of economics and our inability to compete with the top sides.

We didn’t compete with sides who we ought to have been miles in front of, and the reasons for that were obvious beforehand.

Let me repeat; Neil Lennon had to navigate three rounds of Champions League football in his final season with a weaker side in every round than he had the round before. That’s just scandalous.

Last season Ronny Deila had to attempt the same with a makeshift team bolstered by loanees.

That’s simply unacceptable. That’s failure at every level.

Last year there was an alibi, however weak, for what transpired.

This year … there will be no excuses.

The Strategy needs to deliver this time.

Lawwell and the rest have to prove that we’re about more than just money in the bank.

Robert Browning’s famous poem about ambition says that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?

Is the height of ours really only to hear the Champions League music?

We used to be so much more than that.

It’s time for us to be that again.

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