Friday, October 21, 2005

Celtic - The Season So Far

It's been a long time since my last proper football post.

To catch up on everything that has happened since the end of last season, would take a book, not a solitary blog post. So, for now, I'll confine myself to a brief(ish) overview of events to date, with some of my thoughts and impressions.

I'll cover some of the specifics in later posts - if I ever get the time - and try to stay up to date in future.

To make sense of this story, it is necessary to start at the end. The end of last season that is.

The final day capitulation at Motherwell, was not only disastrous, but painfully predictable.

The Martin O'Neill era was drawing to a close, and the team was showing it's age. Against less talented - but younger and fitter - teams such as Hibs and Motherwell, Celtic were clearly vulnerable.

The after effects of that day lingered far beyond the hangover, and the Monday morning workplace jibes.

Not only was the league lost, but an additional Champions League qualifier, to be played in late July, had to be negotiated.

With the team in disarray, a new manager on his way, and limited resources to recruit new players, this did not bode well.

Even then I was fearful of missing out on Europe.

I was even more fearful, when I heard Gordon Strachan was being lined up as the new manager.

It was already clear the O'Neill regime had peaked, and a new broom was needed.

O'Neill had done a fantastic job in restoring pride and success to the team, but I was beginning to feel he had done a great company doctor job, turning around an ailing organisation, but didn't seem to have the imagination to evolve the team to the next level.

For once, the ideal replacement appeared to be at hand. Paul Le Guen, the ex-Lyon manager, had recently resigned.

Not only did he have experience of dominating domestic competition in his home league, he had good experience of the Champions League, including a visit to Celtic Park. His team played a skillful and pacy style of football.

No doubt his wages would be significant, but there would be none of the hassles associated with releasing O'Neill from Leicester, none of the bad feeling associated with Tommy Burns move from Kilmarnock. He was a free agent.

Instead, Celtic went for Gordon Strachan. To me, he seemed like the cheaper, though probably not cheap, option. A poor man's Martin O'Neill.

Once installed, I was pleasantly surprised that Strachan was given a fair amount of leeway to strengthen the team. He also set about cutting out a lot of the overpaid deadwood.

Of the players who left, the only major mistake, one which was to prove costly, was allowing Jackie McNamara to leave on a Bosman. McNamara was never the most spectacular player but he was solid and steady in defence, and a capable holding midfielder.

The area that concerned me, was lack of defensive signings. Particularly in light of the failings of the previous year.

At the time I commented to friends that the happiest players at the club were probably the youth team defenders.

Generally when a team is in trouble, the biggest priority is to make them hard to beat.

Wim Jansen and O'Neill both did it at Celtic, even Mourinho, with all the millions at his disposal, spent the first few months at Chelsea grinding out 1-0 wins. Strachan chose a different path at Celtic.

There's no space here to cover each signing in detail, and it's too early to pass judgement on some of them, but overall the signs are positive.

Artur Boruc is a commanding presence in goal, and the signings of Shunsuke Nakamura and Du Wei display an enterprising approach to football as well as commerce.

However, the Artmedia Bratislava disaster, and consequent failure to qualify for any European football this season, was the ultimate price of the loss at Motherwell and lack of defensive signings.

The rebuilt team had to face too big a game, too early. The loss of revenue will hurt the board most. The lack of great European nights sapped the spirits of every true fan.

Big domestic games at Celtic Park are a great event. Big European nights are almost spiritual occasions.

At that point, an entire season of turgid SPL football, devoid of the occasional visit from the stellar talents of Ronaldinho, Shevchenko, del Piero and co, beckoned.

In that respect, the challenge of Hearts this season has actually been a pleasant surprise. Rather than a grim struggle between Celtic and Rangers, there is actually an element of unpredictability in the league this season.

Indeed, it could be said that the Scottish league is actually more competitive than the English Premiership.

Another bright spot has been a marked improvement in the style of football played by Celtic. More focus on passing the ball on the ground, more reliance on skill and pace, and a willingness to give youth a chance. For which Gordon Strachan can take credit.

The future certainly appears brighter than in the dark days after Artmedia. There remains a long way to go; but after a dire start, Gordon Strachan has earned the right to be given some leeway over the rest of this season.

The team is in contention for the title, is playing better football, young Scottish players are being given the opportunity to flourish, and inventive signings have been made.

That said, with Rangers in disarray, and facing the burden of Europe; and Hearts a useful team, but a limited squad; only the league title, and subsequent qualification for next year's Champions League, will be sufficient to fully justify his appointment as manager.

1 comment:

Patt said...

Mon the Celts.