After the events of the last week, tomorrow night’s game against AIK takes on an added significance. Whilst nobody was hoping for Europa league football as little as one week ago, we now find ourselves in a situation whereby qualification to European football’s consolation prize has become the minimum requirement.
The defeat to CFR Cluj last Tuesday was shambolic, the performance that followed on Saturday against Dunfermline was as abject as I have ever seen at this stage of a season. It was brutal to watch and the atmosphere in the stadium felt on the edge of turning poisonous at any moment.
With the Green Brigade demonstrating a protest towards the board, the eerie silence permeating throughout the stadium was reflected by the performance of the players on the park. From the 1st to 120th minute the team looked void of ideas, identity and inspiration.
Whilst we all hope such a performance was caused by the clichéd European hangover, the feeling inside the ground was that the hierarchy had already lost the fans, and increasingly too the players.
Following last week’s defeat to CFR Cluj, Celtic needed an assured response in order to prevent the atmosphere from festering. To call Saturday’s display even a whimper would be highly complimentary when compared with the reality.
After a very positive first two results in the league and comfortable progression through the early rounds of Champions League qualification it is quite astonishing, yet telling, how quickly the mood around the entire club has turned.
Last Tuesday’s shambles was, as I discovered the following day thanks to the fantastic @Moravcik67_ on Twitter, only the third time in our history that we have conceded four goals at home in European football. The first, that infamous night in 1989 as Jacki Dziekanowski’s four goal haul failed to steer Celtic past FK Partizan. The second, the 5-0 thumping off Paris Saint-Germain in 2017. With CFR Cluj, for now, completing the list.
Whilst all of these results were, and will forever be remembered as, unacceptable, the opponents on the initial two occasions at least had significantly more European pedigree at the time than last week’s opposition.
Losing 4-3 at home to CFR Cluj in a game of such magnitude is simply unforgivable. If other supporters disagrees then that is entirely their own prerogative, everybody is entitled to their opinion, what I find intolerable though is the accusation of entitlement aimed upon those supporters who see last Tuesday’s defeat as a damning result of widespread negligence from the people running the club, particularly over the last year.
Losing at home to a side with a significantly lower UEFA coefficient ranking, with significantly lower financial resources, with significantly less European experience over recent seasons does not meet the minimum requirements for a club of Celtic’s size, stature and ambition (at least not that of the fans). Such a defeat indicates failure in the boardroom, failure from the management team, or failure from the men on the park. In our case you can point to all three. Think of it like a treble, only this time one we won’t be selling any merchandise of in the superstore.
Ironically it was the day of our most recent domestic whitewash that it became evident that the board at Celtic Park were once again failing to live up to the expectations of the Celtic fan base. Completing the treble treble on the anniversary of our most famous day should have been a moment of wild celebrations, and to a large extent it was. However, many, myself included, were left feeling deflated just a few moments after the final whistle with the announcement on the park that Neil Lennon had been offered the job as the next permanent Celtic manager amidst the cup final celebrations. It was as bizarre as it was disappointing.
That disappointment felt was not simply due to a belief that we could, and should, have been casting a wider net in our search to bring in the best possible manager. Mostly, it was because of the amateur way the appointment of the most important figure at the club was handled. With Lennon effectively appointed in the showers of Hampden Park, Peter Lawwell, by his own admission, acknowledged that he hadn’t considered any other candidates. That the many applications he’d received hadn’t even been looked at, simply filed away never to be seen again. That alone is gross negligence, and indicative of the way our club is being run.
At the time, I decided against writing about the treble treble success, not wanting an overwhelmingly celebratory piece on such a magnificent achievement to be tinged with negativity at the way Celtic were conducting their business.
The line that emanates from the boardroom at Celtic Park of having the desire to be “a Champions League club in everything we do” is laughable in a variety of ways, but professionalism and strategic planning must now surely sit atop the pile of most ridiculous claims.
The shock felt when our previous manager departed earlier this year risked destabilising our season, but fortunately we stuttered over the finish line in the league with a serious of turgid performances. The widespread belief was that this was down to Neil Lennon not wanting to implement too many new ideas onto the players at such a crucial stage of the season, whilst struggling to pick up the baton in regards to the way Rodgers had worked tactically.
The cry amongst many supporters was that to ensure future continuity could be developed Celtic required structural changes to implement certain foundations into the DNA of the club, and help minimise such chaos should future managers depart so abruptly.
The response from the Celtic board? To appoint Nicky Hammond, a former Director of Football/Technical Director at Reading and West Bromwich Albion, in an unnamed position on a summer trial period, and to do so one month after the appointment of our manager.
Whilst Hammond’s exact role at the club remains unknown, his key duty appears to be concerning recruitment, the area which the board have perhaps let the club and the supporters down the most in recent months, as ever.
This summer’s transfer activity has come as no surprise to any Celtic fan, we have seen the same pattern emerge and repeat itself over the years; bringing in one or two players early on in the transfer window, spending what for us is a fair sum of money giving many fans a false dawn, before then “failing to get deals over the line”, and going into the new season and our most important games (the Champions League qualifiers) with a squad still in need of serious investment.
The biggest transfer saga this year was, of course, the departure of Kieran Tierney. Whilst I think every supporter clung onto a shred of hope that Tierney would turn down the move to Arsenal, the reality was that it had been clear since the story began that Tierney would be away. His recent change of agents, his disappearance from social media and the public eye, and the fact that Arsenal continued coming back in with fresh bids whilst “remaining confident” they would conclude the deal all pointed to the sign that this move was one that Tierney wanted.
In terms of the move I can’t deny being disappointed in the player. I hope he goes on to be a further success, but for a young man giving off all the soundbites which Tierney has done over the past four years it leaves a slightly bitter taste that he felt such a strong need to move on at this early stage of his career, and at this stage of our own aspirations.
As well as losing a fantastic footballer it is the departure of another figurehead who understood the club that will be felt the most, someone that connected the supporters and the players and who we all hoped would help steady the ship and drive us forward during times of upheaval such as throughout the last six months. Tierney, however, took the decision that the offer to leave now was more appealing than the opportunity available at Celtic. He moved on, and so do we.
Regarding the sale itself I believe the club slightly undervalued Tierney when you consider the sums that players of a similar age and with less experience have moved for in the English Premier League, however I am pleased that once the board decided on their figure of £25m they refused to budge from it during negotiations.
Whilst Arsenal appeared willing to meet the asking price fairly early on in the window it was the financial structuring of the deal which caused it to drag on for so long. On one hand it can be argued that the board did the right thing by insisting the full £25m be paid upfront; on the other, considering our knowledge of the way Celtic operate, would it not have been more beneficial to have the rumoured initial £17-19m ready to spend in late July, allowing for further strengthening of the squad before the more challenging rounds of Champions League qualification (whilst simultaneously knowing that a further £6-8m would later arrive in instalments), than to wait until the 8th August to receive the full fee in one payment, but with no time to improve the squad before the qualifiers?
Of course in an ideal world, Celtic would have spent both significantly and early in the transfer window, and still have held out for the full £25m upfront, but we know that’s not how our board work. Only can money go out, once money has come in.
The club’s statement that followed Tierney’s departure, that “we did all we could to keep Kieran … [and that] the club did not need or wish to sell Kieran” does not reflect the reality of the way Celtic operate. If we did not need to sell Tierney for financial reasons then why is that money not being used, in full, to significantly strengthen the squad further?
Every year we find ourselves asking the same question: why do we not speculate to accumulate? Why do we not bring in the required quality to give us the best chance of qualifying for the Champions League and therefore landing the windfall that comes alongside it?
It is argued that you cannot simply spend to guarantee success, as has appeared evident so far by the early season performances of Boli Bolingoli and Christopher Jullien (though I am by no means writing either player off at such an early stage of their Celtic careers). However, if we are not only not spending sufficiently, but also not spending successfully, then it simply indicates further structural weaknesses within the club – If Stephen McGowan’s information is correct then Celtic Football Club currently employ one scout to review the whole of Europe – as opposed to a failed ideology across football; it cannot be denied that in a sport dictated by such capitalistic governance the team’s who spend the most tend to be the most successful.
The recent fallout, following the defeat to CFR Cluj, regarding the lack of signings and way the club is being run is by no means a sudden phenomenon, from the ecstatic moment of the double treble bus parade along The Celtic Way last May things seemed to begin to unravel behind the scenes, culminating in Rodgers departure. The circumstances of which directed all the anger that had been bubbling towards the board upon the man who scuttled out in the middle of the night, and rightly so. However, now is the time that those responsible for our downwards trajectory over the past twelve months were held accountable.
The management and players, though, cannot escape their share of the blame for our premature Champions League exit. Individual errors may have cost us on the night in terms of the goals we conceded, but the tactical preparation, or lack thereof, was disgraceful. The warning signs had come just a few days earlier at Fir Park where in the opening twenty minutes in particular Motherwell had completely outplayed Celtic. The Celtic players looked completely lost of ideas, particularly when pressed high up the pitch (where have we seen that before?). On that day our talented attacking players got us out of jail and led us to a comfortable victory, and for a moment against CFR Cluj it looked like they might repeat the feat. However, had they done so it would simply have masked the reality of the mess we find ourselves in at this moment in time.
Before the appointment of Neil Lennon as manager on a permanent basis I was critical of the idea. I didn’t believe Lennon to be the best candidate, and whilst I have frequently discussed my abhorrence towards his predecessor, I longed for a replacement who could build upon the foundations he had laid down. I felt that continuity and stability in our style and application would be fundamental to our progression. Instead we have ripped up the book and started again.
Neil Lennon’s desire to move the ball forward quickly is appealing, and when it works, for instance at home to lower table sides such as St. Johnstone, it is a pleasure to watch. But against more capable and streetwise opposition moving the ball as quickly as possible to your creative talent simply won’t suffice. There needs to be a more thorough gameplan to ensure an element of control of proceedings, of which Celtic never looked like having against CFR Cluj. During the first half last Tuesday Celtic were completely passive in their play. After the break Celtic burst into life in an end-to-end, frenetic half of football without a moment’s respite. Whilst the energy and application was there in an attacking sense there didn’t seem to be an ounce of game management, and therefore control, on display.
My biggest fear regarding the appointment of Neil Lennon as permanent manager was concerning the detail of the way he operates. His desire to introduce a more heavy metal approach as opposed to the astute possession based style evident throughout the previous three years is not necessarily something I condemn. But if you dismiss any importance towards control of the ball and neglect analytics of the opposition, the attention to detail of how and where they move the ball and close down space, and instead simply rely on talent to overcome your opponents then you don’t stand a chance of long term success in the modern game.
I may be doing a disservice to Neil Lennon’s capabilities, but Ryan Christie’s post-match comments that the manager didn’t change anything tactically at half time are as baffling as they are worrying. Starting our best and most composed midfielder at left back was bad enough, but to not have a calculated gameplan including tactical developments prepared for each possible in-game scenario is as negligent as the people upstairs.
There is still enough time in the transfer window for the season to be fixed before it flies completely off the rails, however judging from previous experiences I have no confidence whatsoever that the required additions to the playing squad will be made before the window closes, and with AIK, Hearts and Rangers to face in the coming weeks, this could be a particularly telling period for the future of our club.
The management team need to get these ones right or they are at risk of holding the record of having the shortest reign ever in the history of Celtic. If they were to be sacrificed the buck should not stop there, those in the boardroom who have neglected their duties and due diligence should be forced out the door.
Nobody may have wanted Europa League football just over a week ago, but if we fail to overcome AIK and fall to defeat at Ibrox at the beginning of next month things will turn even nastier even faster.
There are dark clouds circling over paradise at the moment, yet so far, no sign of thunder.