Celtic’s Stockholm swagger clears the skies, but the storm may not be over

Last night’s fantastic result and performance ensured Celtic will play European football this season until at least Christmas.

As someone who is quick to condem when things go wrong, it is only right to now follow up last night’s result with praise for the players, Neil Lennon, and his management team for guiding us to such a resounding aggregate victory over the Swedish champions and into the Europa League group stages.

With what is still a makeshift defence (Ajer at right-back – then going off injured to be replaced by Ralston – with Bitton covering in the middle) there were a few shaky moments, particularly early on in the game, as has to be expected from an away Celtic performance in Europe, but once the second goal went in, immediately following AIK’s equaliser, the tie never looked in any doubt. After the break Celtic displayed the type of composure and exuded a level of authority and control over proceedings which I, alongside many others, have recently been crying out for.

Last night, Celtic looked like a team who, this time, knew their gameplan.

After the defeat to CFR Cluj and the turgid extra time victory over Dunfermline I wrote that the “management team need to get these ones right [the fixtures against AIK, Hearts and Rangers] or they are at risk of holding the record of having the shortest reign ever in the history of Celtic.” Since this time the response on the pitch has been terrific from both the management and the players. A comfortable home victory over AIK took the sting out of the developing negativity, with the defeat of Hearts that followed providing an opportunity for the rarely seen Bayo to shine as he deputised for the rested Edouard.

Concerning the last three games the only criticism I have regards the avoidable injuries picked up by both Kristoffer Ajer and Odsonne Edouard. Ajer has looked exhausted in the latter stages of each game recently yet remained on the park until the 87th minute against Hearts on Sunday, with Edouard needlessly featuring well beyond the hour mark last night. However, if, as was reported this morning, both will recover in time to play on Sunday these qualms will quickly be forgotten.

The emotional nature of football, particularly to the Celtic support, and the seismic significance of these early season fixtures both provoke and rationalise such erratically fluctuating opinions as have been witnessed over recent weeks. It seems that we are currently only ever one victory away from triumph, yet one defeat away from disaster. To me this comes down to two factors: the importance of the reward on the line, coinciding with an underlying doubt concerning all levels of management throughout the club.

I have previously discussed my reservations regarding Neil Lennon’s tactical capabilities and, particularly off the back of such a tremendous result, do not wish to do so further today.

For me, Sunday will provide the sternest test we have faced tactically so far this season. Whilst Rangers’ late victory over Legia Warsaw last night reminded me of their limited footballing ability, we know that come Sunday, backed by an almost entirely home support – and one no longer deprived of their “songbook” by the competition’s governing body – Rangers will come flying out the traps with a high-intensity press and look to force us into early mistakes. During the two Ibrox fixtures last season the occasion overwhelmed us; Sunday offers up a chance for Lennon to exhibit his tactical development and display his aptitude to outmanoeuvre Rangers’ gung-ho approach. On footballing ability alone we should not lose to the Ibrox side.

Despite expressing doubts about Neil Lennon I, invariably, hope to be proven wrong. Mistakes have been made that must be learned from, and whilst Ibrox presents one opportunity to convey that they have, the appearance of CFR Cluj in today’s Europa League group stage draw provides a chance at, in his own words, “retribution” for Lennon and his squad. Alongside CFR Cluj, Celtic will face Lazio and Stade Rennais in a challenging yet intriguing group.

Although I do not want to further discuss Neil Lennon’s tactical nous, one element of the club’s top level (mis)management that I believe must not be ignored remains the strategic “forward” planning inside the boardroom. Just as two shocking performances were not enough to bring down those that sit at the top table, the three good ones that followed should not cement their place back in the hearts of the Celtic fanbase.

It should not be forgotten why we, once again, find ourselves in a position where we are having to play key players out of position in our most important games. In this regard Lennon’s hands have been tied behind his back by the people above him.

Following last night’s qualification to the Europa League I have today read plenty of exuberant, sarcastic, and frankly staunch appraisals of the board at Celtic Park, declaring that the £12m spent so far, aided by the loan signings of Fraser Forster and Moritz Bauer, demonstrates the sterling work done this summer in strengthening the squad in our bid to qualify for European football, particularly when compared to the sums our domestic rivals have spent.

Two fundamental points are being missed in these appraisals:

Firstly, it is not the total figure that Celtic have spent which causes concern, but the number of first team players brought in (currently 5).
Since the end of last season Celtic have lost three right-backs (Lustig, Toljan, Gamboa) and signed two (El Hamed and Bauer), though one arrived after our exit from the Champions League qualifying rounds; we have lost two first team centre-halves (Boyata and Benkovic – sorry Marv) and signed one (Jullien); and, lost two left-backs (Tierney and Izaguirre) and signed one (Bolingoli).
As we entered our most important games of the season, we replaced seven (six if you discount Gamboa) defenders with three replacements. This was not an area of the squad where Celtic were overly bloated and needed to reduce numbers, besides Cristian Gamboa all of the players named above featured in a significant number of matches they were available for last season.
As well as this, all of the players listed were expected to leave the club this summer with Lustig, Gamboa, Boyata and Izaguirre coming to the end of their contracts, Toljan and Benkovic coming to the end of their loans, and Tierney heavily anticipated to join Arsenal.
In order to maintain the desired minimum of two players competing for each position, Celtic required no less than six defenders to be brought in during the transfer window.
Having known the aforementioned players would be departing for, at a minimum, the final six months of last season, why was there no forward planning to sufficiently replace them early in the window?
If the answer is that the desired targets were too expensive then that simply indicates further weaknesses in the scouting department during the recruitment process; if we are not identifying realistic and affordable targets then what is the purpose of our, albeit limited in size, scouting team.
If the answer is that there is not enough money available to fund all six signings, then questions must be asked why we spent over half our budget on one player when we knew the size of the rebuilding task ahead.
And finally, if the answer is that we simply did not implement a process of succession planning to prepare for such a mass exodus then it indicates gross negligence amongst the backroom structure at the club.

Secondly, qualification to the Europa League was not our target this summer, and whilst in reality the competition perhaps better reflects the quality of our squad at present, it only became our goal having failed for the second year in a row to defeat a lower-ranked side in the third round of the Champions League qualifiers. The reasons for which are, partly, outlined above.

I do not plan on repeating myself every week concerning the neglect that the board have placed upon our playing squad once again this summer, and ideally this piece would have waited until after our trip to Ibrox, however with just a few days remaining of the transfer window the required further strengthening must happen now; albeit too late for this year’s Champions League hopes.

The widespread anger demonstrated towards the board two weeks ago should not simply dissipate because of our qualification to Europe’s consolation prize.

Every Celtic fan wants to support our team and help drive them forward, but that doesn’t require us to rewrite the recent history of mismanagement behind the scenes.

I will support the management and the players and hope that Neil Lennon proves my previously aired doubts wrong, but negligence in the boardroom has cost us once more, and I don’t plan on waiting until this time next year to continue that conversation.

The skies may have cleared for the moment but that doesn’t mean that the storm has passed.

Dark clouds over paradise, yet no sign of thunder

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.

Removing the emotion and looking to the future

Yesterday was awful. A flat performance and an opportunity to open up a 10 point gap at the top of the league blown. Celtic were subdued creatively, and quite frankly never looked like getting the winner against Aberdeen.

After the shock upheaval in the dark of the night almost two weeks ago, it seemed like sheer desire and adrenaline drove us on through two incredibly tricky fixtures in Edinburgh, giving the entire club a much needed boost after what must have been a distressing 48 hours for the players and staff.

Following those victories over Hearts & Hibs there have been many calls, both within the media and amongst elements of the support, to give Neil Lennon the job beyond the summer. After all, actions speak louder than words and Lenny has shown time and again that he truly cares about the club in a way that only a genuine supporter understands. His passion for Celtic is unquestionable.

Yesterday’s match, however, has perhaps induced a sense of clarity upon some supporters concerning the club’s requirements for the future. And a backlash against Neil Lennon has followed.

The performance reflected the turgid displays often on show during Lennon’s final season in charge first time around, and whilst there have been no drastic changes to personnel and shape over the previous three games, a couple of the manager’s decisions yesterday were questionable; namely the introduction of the slight-of-frame Johnston at half time when it appeared the physicality and organisation of Aberdeen’s defence was proving our greatest hurdle. Hindsight, as always, is a wonderful thing though, and it was refreshing to see Lennon being proactive at the interval following such a pedestrian first forty-five.

The key decision over the direction of our club though must not be made off the back of any individual result, it must be an informed, thought-out, and thorough one. Cries for an immediate appointment to be made should be ignored. For the remainder of the 2018/19 campaign we have our man for the job. The board should be congratulated (there’s a first for everything on here) for acting so swiftly in this regard, ensuring some stability at a time of potential turmoil. However, the appointment of our next permanent manager must not be a reactionary decision. Just as Neil Lennon is no less suitable to becoming the next permanent Celtic manager today than he was yesterday morning, he did not become any more suitable following those two victories in the capital.

Whilst many consider these next few months as an audition for Lennon similarly to back in 2010, the powers that be must look beyond a potential treble treble as the determining factor over who gets the role.

To coin a phrase from the king of the hollow motto Celtic must ‘remove the emotion’ from their next selection process.

In 2010, Neil Lennon took over a club in crisis and, just as he promised, brought the thunder back to paradise. Today’s circumstances are in stark contrast. Although the abruptness of Rodgers et al.’s departures had the potential to derail our season, we have been a club progressing on an upward trajectory over the past two and a half years.

In spite of all his now-evident human flaws, predominately it transpiring that he is in actual fact a rat, Brendan Rodgers is a fantastic football coach and was an incredible manager for Celtic.

It was not just the clean sweep of domestic honours that deserved acclaim, but most significantly the transformation of the behind-the-scenes culture which allowed for such unprecedented success.

Last week Neil Lennon discussed the evolution he’s observed at Celtic since he left almost five years ago, in terms of the make-up of the club; the support staff, the technology available, the analysis conducted, and the overall organisation and professionalism deployed throughout the club.

Although our previous manager attempted to rip out this entire infrastructure and take every member of our backroom staff with him down to Leicester, as well as leaving our playing squad in a need of serious re-investment this summer, it is clear from Lennon’s comments that the culture instilled by Rodgers is still very much in place at Lennoxtown.

These are the foundations we must look to build upon if we have serious ambitions of improving not just domestically but also in European football.

Ten in a row may be the holy grail for every supporter but to truly develop as a club we cannot rip up the manual and start from scratch every time a manager follows their dream to the Midlands. Continuity and stability in our style and application are fundamental going forward.

Last week Ajax inspired every supporter of a big club outside the commercial leagues to dream big again in European football, with their victory over Real Madrid providing a rare reminder that money does not always guarantee success. But such victory does not happen by chance. Ajax have a clearly defined structure which allows for fluidity in their style of play regardless of any change at management level. This continuity does not necessarily translate to certain on-field triumph, with Ajax having failed to win the Eredivisie since 2014, however it has allowed the club to preserve their identity in a way not possible if each new manager attempts to implement their own ethos at a club.

Further examples can be seen throughout European football. The Red Bull Salzburg side who swarmed over and cut through Celtic at pace in Glasgow back in 2014 were no different to the side who did likewise a few months ago despite experiencing four managerial changes since, and having just two players remain from, their initial visit.

Even amongst the upper echelons of the money leagues the desire to instil a lasting working model can be recognised. Borussia Dortmund, for example, have maintained an enduring style of play and business plan throughout the last decade, attempting to replace both players & managers with likeminded successors. While Manchester City, with their (entirely legitimate – nothing to see here) bottomless pit of cash, appointed former Barcelona Directors Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain to their board in 2012 in an attempt to replicate the FCB blueprint, heavily investing in the City academy alongside the first team squad, and ultimately enticing Pep Guardiola to Manchester.

Having listened to the recent discussion on the 90 Minute Cynic regarding the future structure at Celtic, with Christian Wulff championing the implementation of a Director of Football/Technical Director to oversee all footballing matters, it must be noted that all of the aforementioned clubs, as is commonplace on the continent, work under this model. Ajax have had former heroes Edwin van der Sar, now CEO, and Marc Overmars (Technical Director) ensuring the Johan Cruyff mantra is adhered to since 2012; Manchester City have the previously discussed former Barcelona duo at the reins; Gerard Houllier has been the Head of Global Football for the Red Bull Group since 2012; and, Michael Zorc has held the position of Director of Football at Dortmund for an incredible twenty years following his retirement as a player in 1998.

This has allowed each of these clubs to develop their identity and maintain a stable ideology in spite of managerial changes and mass player sales. The difficulty for Celtic adopting this model is less to do with the culture of British football, as is often cited, but more the problematic task of discovering a suitable and capable candidate, particularly alongside our Chief Executive who frequently appears to believe he is befitting of the role.

Whether our next manager is given full-scale background control as Rodgers initially appeared to have, or we see the introduction of a Technical Director at boardroom level to oversee all footballing matters, the most decisive factor in our next appointment must be concerning continuity.

You need only look a few hundred miles south of Celtic Park for examples of clubs who have not considered long-term planning in their hunt for immediate success. At Manchester United, David Moyes was always going to face an impossible task in replacing Alex Ferguson, however his decision to dispose of Ferguson’s entire backroom staff upon his arrival meant the writing was on the wall for him before he had even stepped foot in the door. The appointments of Louis van Gaal and José Mourinho, and their contradictory styles of play, that followed, along with the continual influx of expensive players with no evident plan of how to use them, exhibited that there was no forward thinking concerning the future of Manchester United after Ferguson. Only now, having attempted to replicate their previous model with the return of Ferguson’s disciples Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Mike Phelan, do Manchester United seem to be moving forward following their demise over the past six years.

Head a little further south to the capital, and Chelsea represent a club whose short term desire for success has prevented them from maintaining an enduring position at the top of European football. For a club who have won every major honour available to them over the past decade, it is incomprehensible to see them so regularly follow up championship winning campaigns with a disastrous title defence the subsequent year. From Mourinho to Scolari, Ancelotti to Villas-Boas, and Conte to Sarri it is evident that there has been no blueprint to adhere to concerning the ideology of the club.

Whilst it may be hard to argue against Chelsea’s methodology considering their incredible success throughout the Abramovich reign, it is not a route I wish to see Celtic ever go down, nor is it one which could ever realistically be viable without the ludicrous sums on offer across the “big” leagues.

For clubs who cannot dominate the rich-list table off the pitch, developing a lasting infrastructure appears the only way to compete on it. We may have a considerable rebuilding job ahead of us this summer, but if Neil Lennon can guide us to our eighth title in a row we must finally learn from the lessons of the past and look to build from our position of strength.

From a romantic point of view I would love Neil Lennon to lead us forward, bookending a historic 10 in a row, however taking the emotion out of it I do not believe he is the best man for the job. This is not a criticism of Lennon’s capabilities, he has proven at both Celtic and Hibernian that he is a very good football manager; albeit a manager who deploys a contrasting approach to the one who preceded him. This was highlighted with Lennon’s admission that replacing Rodgers is also a learning curve for himself as he adjusts to the new expectations of the role, namely the increased number of meetings required throughout the club.

Perhaps, and in an ideal scenario, Neil Lennon will prove capable of adapting to fit this mould, however an ideology and style of management is not something which can easily be altered overnight and if Celtic have aspirations to transition as seamlessly as possible this summer then they must either look to bring in a manager who works in the same meticulous manner as the man who recently vacated, or be prepared to make significant structural changes to the framework of the club.

The foundations that Rodgers implemented at Celtic Park just about remain, if the board harbour ambitions to emulate the likes of Red Bull Salzburg and AFC Ajax in European football then the business model must go beyond simply signing young players to later sell on for a significant profit. They must look to build upon the past two and a half years and develop a lasting identity and culture ingrained into the fabrics of the club. Only in this way will we see longevity in our progress.

Now is not the time to tear up the manual, however, it is the time to earn your bonus Mr Lawwell.

Once the facade is dropped, true colours shine through

When managers arrive at Celtic Football Club they nigh-on always deliver the same clichéd sound bites to the press regarding the size of our “massive club”, our “magnificent history” in the game, and of course, our “incredible fans”, who are regarded as “the best” or “one of the best” sets of supporters in world football (depending on how well they stick to the script).

These are usually spouted during the incumbent manager’s opening press conference, and whilst they are widely acknowledged as simply a buzzword checklist, they are welcomed as an indicator that the incoming coach at least understands the minimum of who Celtic are as a club.

This is what has come to be expected of incoming Celtic managers. No less, but certainly no more.

Our recently departed manager arrived in the East End of Glasgow with a different agenda. Sailing in on an all-engulfing sense of euphoria (myself very much included), Rodgers set about ensuring everybody in Scotland was aware of just how much of a “Celtic man” he was as he stood before thousands realising his “lifelong dream” of managing the club.

Every opportunity he had over the following two & a half years, Rodgers spewed out the same gushing sentiments about how “honoured” he was to be in such position.

Many managers and players have come and gone, with varying levels of success, at Celtic Football Club. Rodgers’ domestic achievements are unprecedented. Yet he departs the recipient of unanimous animosity unlike any figure I can remember in recent history. Are we simply bitter that an undeniably great manager has left us for someone else?

Of course not. Had Rodgers seen out the season, delivering his third and Celtic’s eighth title in a row (not forgetting a potential treble treble), he would have left with everyone’s blessing and with a legacy only rivalled by a select few legends of the club.

The relationship between manager and boardroom had clearly, and very publicly, become strained since the hangovers of the double treble celebrations started to kick in last July, and had Rodgers waited and walked in the summer the current anger would have been overwhelming directed in just one place.

As it goes, the man with his own portrait hanging on the wall at home, has taken all the attention away from the powers that be and dropped the spotlight firmly upon himself. Precisely how he likes it.

Rodgers has abandoned Celtic Football Club: the staff; the supporters; and tellingly “his” players, at the most vital stage of the season. All to join a middle of the road club with nothing left to play for this campaign back down in the glitz and glamour of the English Premier League.

The speed at which the appointment was finalised, alongside the certainty of the bookmakers odds of who would take over following Puel’s departure, indicate these discussions had been ongoing for a period of time. That it was a matter of when Rodgers would replace Puel, and not if.

If yesterday evening’s reports are to be believed Leicester were even willing to wait until the summer to get their man, whereas Rodgers himself pushed for an immediate move, taking with him his coaching team as well as almost the entire backroom staff that has been built up over recent seasons at the club. John Kennedy, Stevie Woods and Tim Williamson refraining from jumping ship, against Rodgers’ wishes.

With a playing squad soon to be depleted by short term loanees returning to their parent clubs and out of contract players departing for pastures new. Rodgers has not only left Celtic in the lurch regarding our immediate future, but has also drained us of any continuity in terms of the behind-the-scenes structure which has contributed to our incredible recent success.

For a man who constantly speaks of “class” in his approach, and of always aiming to do “things the right way”, Rodgers leaves behind a legacy of destruction for the benefit of personal (financial) gain, with his achievements tarnished.

The faux-gratitude towards Celtic and his perpetual pretence of a love for the club simply doesn’t wash anymore.

Just like the perma-tan and the sparkling veneers, beneath the facade, the true colours masked by deceit, alas shine through.

The “lifelong fan” who had never stepped foot inside Celtic Park before being appointed as manager, should never be allowed back through the doors again.

Sumptuous Celtic put on a show

Last night’s performance was magnificent.

After a week of travel, a humbling defeat in Munich, and an intense encounter in the League Cup semi final, facing Aberdeen at Pittodrie could have been a daunting prospect.

The second best team in Scotland have been in terrific form this season, going to to toe with Celtic; before last night being separated only by goal difference.

On Saturday there were signs that some players needed a rest. Leigh Griffiths, Scott Sinclair & Paddy Roberts began to look particularly jaded.

Last night Brendan Rodgers, once again, got every call perfect, replacing the aforementioned attacking trio with James Forrest, Moussa Dembele & Tom Rogic, with McGregor moving slightly wider left than versus Hibs.

The movement, one touch passing, pressing, and most importantly confidence with which Celtic played was electric. Celtic had a swagger about them last night and from the opening stages the only question was how many would we win by?

If anyone with an interest in football doesn’t know who Kieran Tierney is by now they must be living under a rock. Whilst the team performance was fantastic; Tierney, Dembele & Rogic, in particular, were phenomenal. KT’s finish and inch perfect cross for Dembele’s first were exceptional. The young bhoy is living every supporters dream, and his celebration epitomises just what it means to him to pull on the Celtic jersey.

A special mention also to the much maligned Nir Bitton. Bitton strolled through the match, reading any rare Aberdeen foray forward and dictating possession from the back. I’m often very critical of Bitton and it was a joy to watch him produce such a calm and composed display last night.

61 domestic games unbeaten, top of the league, a League Cup final coming up, and currently sitting 3rd place in the Champions League behind 2 of football’s elite powerhouses.

This is how it feels to be Celtic, and just like Kieran Tierney, I’m loving every minute of it.

Dembele double sends Celtic into final but Achilles heel evident

This lunchtimes League Cup semi-final was certainly an entertaining game of football. 

The first half saw a dominant Celtic control the tempo of the match and establish a two-goal lead, without creating many clear openings, thanks to Mikael Lustig’s double.

After the break the baffling decision to award Hibs a second half penalty caused an end to end final half an hour of the game, with Moussa Dembele coming off the bench to secure the victory.

Leigh Griffiths has been in exceptional form for club & country, but having a fit & firing Dembele adds another dimension to our attack. Keeping both strikers happy will be a challenge for Brendan Rodgers, but a headache which he will relish in comparison to the dilemma of the Celtic defence.

We have three senior central defenders at the club: Dedryck Boyata, Jozo Simunovic, Erik Sviatchenko, over the past year Jozo & Dedryck have deservedly cemented themselves as the first choice pairing. Our trouble is that all three are injury prone, and as such, susceptible to missing key matches. In January I would expect at least one new centre half brought into the club, however more than just the personnel, we have one major weakness when it comes to our defensive unit.

Disregarding our tendency in recent games against Europe’s elite to be overawed and intimidated by our opponents, especially in the opening 20 minutes, our fatal flaw is our inability to defend through balls from an inside forward position, and to track the deep runner attacking the ball.

On Wednesday night it was Kimmich & Thiago Alcantara’s turn to split our defence.

Müller may have opened the scoring but the goal came down to our inability to read and react to one of these type of passes from Kimmich. 

Our defence lines up too square on the edge of the box, with Gordon hesitant inside his six yard box, making us redundant to the dinked through ball over the heads of our centre halves. The space Robert Lewandowski was awarded all night was shocking, particularly for the first goal as nobody tracked his run.

Over the years we have seen Lionel Messi carve teams open at will with such passes. Against the best sometimes there is nothing you can do, however, we are seeing this far too frequently in Celtic matches, today’s second goal for Hibs came from Whittaker’s slipped through ball & Shaw’s unmarked deep run.

I don’t know the answer to defending these occasions, if I did I’d be in a dugout right now rather than sitting behind a keyboard, whatever the solution, we must find a way to heal our Achilles before we can begin to resist Europe’s elite.

A Saturday lunchtime stroll in the park

Sometimes when you have three important games in a week it can be necessary not to over exert yourselves in the early fixtures.

If we have ambitions of retaining all our trophies won last year, and progressing in Europe beyond Christmas, today’s visit to Ibrox was the game to reserve some energy, being bookended by the two real big fixtures.

Celtic more than did the job on Wednesday night with a four goal thrashing of Dundee in the League Cup quarter final.

Wednesday’s upcoming game at Anderlecht is massive in our battle for third place in the Champions League. Anderlecht aren’t in a great place having just sacked their manager, and are missing some key players through injury, however this is the Champions League, and Anderlecht displayed a stronger challenge away to Bayern Munich than we did at home to PSG. This is the real big one.

Cliché as it may be, today was a very professional performance. Celtic were a little wasteful in the final third, and even had a 10 minute spell when we let rangers join in our game, but on the whole the dominance Brendan Rodgers and his side have at Ibrox was there for all to see.

It may feel slightly disappointing to see the majority of the home support remain in the ground beyond the 80 minute mark, but retaining fresh legs for Wednesday was key. Plus, I’m not sure Pedro would have survived another humiliating thumping. Positives all round.

What better way to start off the weekend than with a Saturday lunchtime stroll in the park.

The almost perfect summer

As the transfer window closed last night the only disappointment from the past few months could be the lack of a new centre-half.

Under Brendan Rodgers we’ve seen numerous players individual game’s improve significantly. One such player to vastly progress, especially since the turn of the year, is Dedryck Boyata. A centre half pairing of Boyata and Simunovic is certainly not something to be dismissed, but the trouble is that all three senior centre halves (the aforementioned alongside Erik Sviatchenko) are susceptible to injuries.

In Rivaldo Coetzee we appeared to have identified our new recruit at the back, however once an injury was discovered during his medical Celtic pulled the plug. Coetzee has since, perhaps surprisingly, transferred to another club, with Ajax Cape Town throwing in a little dig at Celtic regarding their withdrawal from the transfer. 

A medical is there to identify the health of a player in all aspects, as we know from history the requirements can vary from club to club and player to player, just ask John Hartson. 

In the case of Coetzee he may feel aggrieved at not successfully completing his move to Celtic, and consider himself fit enough to play, as his new club clearly does, however with a history of injuries to all our senior defenders, withdrawing from the deal was probably the correct decision once the pre-existing condition was identified.

In midfield we’ve added real quality and potential in Olivier Ntcham.

Johnny Hayes provides back-up on either wing in place of Gary Mackay-Steven. In GMS’ time at the club, and in Hayes’ early appearances, their biggest enemies appear to be themselves when it comes to pulling on the Celtic shirt. Once Hayes believes in himself on the park he will start to show the form and ability that we saw for years at Aberdeen. He knows that he’s likely to be used as a substitute for most of the season, but if he can find his feet at the club he will be able to offer something different to our other wingers, particularly with his direct running style and ability to deliver a cross. 

Another player unlikely to see much game time arrived in the form of Kundai Benyu, a talented youngster who may eventually have to go out on loan to gain first team experience. Rodgers, however, saw enough ability in Benyu throughout the summer to keep him at the club in the short term, and it will be interesting to witness his development over the coming months.

To everyone’s delight Paddy Roberts finally returned to Celtic this week. We all know what Paddy is capable of and his return to means that all first team players have been retained from last year’s invincible squad, with possible departee Stuart Armstrong extending his contract by a year.

Our last arrival came on deadline day; Odsonne Edouard signing on a season long loan from Champions League rivals PSG. Whilst a week ago I was entirely oblivious to the name Odsonne Edouard, this signing could turn out to be a fantastic piece of business. Celtic have already agreed on a record breaking transfer fee in order to make the signing permanent should Edouard impress. As has been widely reported, the young forward was a winner of the 2015 Euro youth championships with France, scoring a hattrick in the final against Germany on his way to being awarded the golden ball crowning him as the best player, as well as receiving the golden boot as the top goalscorer.

With three of France’s most promising youth internationals in our squad at the moment we have certainly acquired prodigious talent, talent that with the right attitude and management could end up going to the very top of the game, and in Brendan Rodgers they clearly see themselves under the right management to develop that potential.

With qualification to the Champions League secrured, all first team players retained, and new signings brought in to improve the squad and starting XI; this has been the almost perfect summer.

Paddy finally comes home to Celtic

If last year’s Scott Sinclair signing seemed like a transfer saga at the time, this summer’s pursuit of Patrick Roberts has felt like the season finale of a box set blockbuster; with Paradise the setting of this particular epic.

Paddy Roberts returning to Celtic is, of course, far, far more exciting than anything TV can offer. Though with the move expected imminently throughout the past month, today’s news is met with almost as much relief as it is delight.If the reports and rumours are to be believed, the delay in concluding the transfer was caused by a mixture of Manchester City preferring the player to remain in England, or to move to Spain or France; Celtic attempting to finalise a permanent deal; and, ultimately, the two clubs negotiating upon a loan fee and Celtic’s wage contribution.

In the end the dream permanent transfer wasn’t to be, but, regardless, the outcome that the fans; the player; the club; and most importantly, Keiran Tierney, have been anxiously anticipating all summer has at last been realised.

It’s been a long time coming, but it was definitely worth the wait.

Paddy has finally come home to Celtic.

Champions League returns to Paradise

So last night was, erm, entertaining…

At 5-0 up going into the second leg nobody considered Astana to have a chance of qualifying for the group stage of the Champions League; including the Astana players going by the opening period of the game.

Celtic looked comfortable in possession and created plenty of chances in the early stages, whilst Astana sat off and surrendered possession as soon as they won it back. It was in stark contrast to the first leg, where Astana pressured Celtic high up the pitch and made life very uncomfortable for the first half an hour at Paradise.

Yesterday a deflected strike put Astana 1-0 in front on the night, although at 5-1 down overall it couldn’t really be classified as a lifeline. Soon afterwards Scott Sinclair curled in a delightful equaliser to further confirm the tie. Or so we all thought.

The second half began and within 5 minutes we were in complete panic. Astana scored twice inside 2 minutes and the makeshift defence, as well as Scott Brown, who had dominated the first leg and the first half, looked utterly lost. 

With Astana still requiring 4 goals to qualify it was disappointing to see the team lose their composure as they did; although the pressure on the players in these games is something I can only dream of imagining.

By the 70th minute it was 4-1 on the night and this was no longer a laughing matter. The thought of horror headlines regarding our most embarrassing defeat ever, and Europe’s most famous comeback began to creep into the imagination.

Fortunately, we are a vastly improved side on previous years, unrecognisable in some respects. Whilst we did crumble under the pressure for a period in the second half, when it really mattered the players reassured themselves and pushed on to put the tie beyond any doubt once and for all.

In Olivier Ntcham we appear to have a truly gifted player. His quick footwork, spatial awareness, power, and ability to find a pass are being demonstrated more and more each game. Ntcham’s goal on the 80th minute calmed everyone down, and finally knocked the stuffing out of the Astana players.

Leigh Griffiths’ finish in the 90th minute made amends for his earlier miss seconds before Astana fired in their 4th and made the scoreline on the night more respectable, and perhaps a truer reflection on a night were Celtic dominated the match but were severely punished for a shocking 25 minute spell.

Ultimately we could have pulled it back to a draw, and a 4-goal aggregate victory is a tremendous outcome for a Champions League play-off tie. The only disappointments come in our unbeaten run in all competitions ending; and how the players lost their way early in the second half, at times it really did appear that we were hanging on.

But, under Brendan Rodgers this Celtic side has learned from their mistakes at a phenomenal rate. The unbeaten run may have ended, but these players are used to winning, and certainly won’t have welcomed the taste of defeat. The mentality that drove us on to an invincible treble remains, the squad will be further strengthened, and we will once again be enjoying Europe’s elite competition in Paradise.

The good times just keep on coming. This is how it feels to be in the Champions League…