Friday, 31 May 2019

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

It’s nothing new for football coverage in Scotland to accentuate the negatives for Celtic and the positives for Rangers*. If you’re old enough to remember the mid-1990’s you’ll be familiar with Celtic transfer negotiations breaking down because of, “Penny-pinching Fergus,” while David Murray, “refused to be held to ransom,” when clubs asked for more than he was willing to pay.

This season, it has reached ridiculous proportions, with Celtic winning not just the Treble, but a third successive Treble, yet the feel-good factor surrounds the club who finished nine points behind and were knocked out of both cup competitions before the finals, while Celtic are supposedly in the midst of a crisis.

We have not just sports hacks, but respected voices in Celtic cyber-space, casting doubt on the destination of next year’s title based on the events of this season when, lest we forget, Rangers* finished nine points behind Celtic and were knocked out of both cup competitions by Aberdeen. So, let’s take a hopefully dispassionate look at how this situation developed, starting with Celtic.

It was, by our own standards, not a vintage season and I wouldn’t deny that for a second. The football has been turgid for most of the past 10 months. It is just wrong to say that it began with Neil Lennon’s arrival in February. There were quite a few reasons why it was so poor and they all began, and came to a head, because of one man – Brendan Rodgers.

Last summer, Rodger destabilised the entire club by his open desire to take off for China. Everyone knew he wanted away because he tried to take Moussa Dembele with him and it’s hardly surprising we got off to a poor start to the season and failed to qualify for the Champions League with a manager who didn’t want to be there and a squad of players who knew it. In the circumstances, the board were right to refuse to throw more money at Rodgers, especially after they’d gone out on a limb to secure Odsonne Edouard before he threw his toys out of the pram.

Mr Wantaway was also responsible for the decision to refuse Dedryk Boyata the move he wanted. From everything we know about Celtic’s business model these past ten years, Boyata should have been sold. He was bought for a relative pittance and was now in the final year of his contract after having a good World Cup for Belgium. A big bid was on the table, the club could make a tidy profit from the fee and with all the stars aligned, by rights he should have been allowed to go with grateful thanks for his service and the transfer fee. The club though backed Rodgers, who didn’t want to sell and the player was understandably put out that a man who didn’t want to be there was stopping *him* from moving on. You can’t condone Boyata’s downing of tools before Athens, but it is at least understandable and Rodgers was at fault.

Then came the Dembele fiasco with Rodgers again trying to stop the move, when again, it was exactly Celtic’s business model to sell. The result of this was a very public falling out and Dembele being allowed to leave at the last minute with no chance of a replacement being signed before the close of the transfer window.

It was a very unhappy ship that embarked on season 2018/19 and it took some time for things to improve after a poor start. When the improvement did come, it was more by accident than design. A midfield injury crisis in the League Cup semi-final at Murrayfield against Hearts forced Rodgers to pair Callum McGregor and Ryan Christie in the deep-lying midfield roles and, hallelujah, it worked! The two were at the heart of a mini-renaissance for the next couple of months with a team suddenly firing on all cylinders and banging in the goals as they hit top spot at last. Then it all went wrong again with more injuries leading to the fiasco at Ibrox just before the new year.

Many people have held up defeat in a meaningless match at Ibrox as a reason why Neil Lennon should not have been made permanent manager, but December was worse. It was actually an important match, which allowed Rangers* to draw level on points with us (albeit having played a game more) at a vital moment in the season. It happened with Rodgers playing Callum McGregor, our best midfielder, at left back, and teenager Mikey Johnston on his own up front. That defeat, for me, was far more significant than losing a meaningless match at Ibrox after the championship was already secured.

In the January transfer window, the board were again, quite rightly, unwilling to spend big for a manager they knew would be gone by the end of the season, but good loan signings were made and the new year opened with Celtic again performing well as a gap was opened up over Rangers before Rodgers did a midnight flit to Leicester before our two biggest games of the season.

Here’s where Neil Lennon comes in, and think about the magnitude of his job from the outset. Rodgers hadn’t just gone himself, he’d taken almost the entire backroom staff with him, This was a club in disarray, players and fans alike shell-shocked by Rodgers’ departure, 24 hours ahead of a visit to Tynecastle where we’d lost two of our last three visits, and a few days ahead of a Scottish Cup match at Easter Road, where we had not won since Rodgers had been at the club. In normal circumstances they would have been daunting matches, yet Neil Lennon guided the team to two wins. It wasn’t pretty, Tynecastle was perilously close to the loss of two points against ten men, but we got there and that deserves to be recognised as an achievement regardless of the nature of the wins.

Things didn’t get better, and here’s where Neil Lennon might be open to some criticism. He maintained Rodgers’ playing system, reasoning if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. I’d say actually it was broken. It wasn’t working brilliantly when Rodgers was here, so I don’t see how it could improve with him gone. For me, Neil Lennon should have had the team playing his way, at least after the matches against Hearts and Hibs were done, but then again, I’m not a football manager so it’s not a massive criticism.

We then limped on to the end of the season, somehow, despite not playing well, keeping on winning the matches that mattered. There were a couple of very frustrating draws along the way, and the second Ibrox fiasco of the season, but by then it didn’t matter. Neil Lennon deserves immense credit for not only securing the title, which was the minimum expected, but winning the Scottish Cup, which was eminently losable. Anything can happen in a one-off match, there’s no room for error, and Neil Lennon got us there too.

I completely understand those who are unhappy with Neil Lennon’s appointment as permanent manager – I’m one of them. I think we should have gone for a European coach who could bring some much-needed new ideas to the club. Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho were always pipe-dreams, but there are thousands of coaches out there, and surely there is one who could have fit the bill for us. It’s disappointing that that doesn’t seem to have happened.

Anyway, Neil Lennon it is and that means we have no choice but to back him. I don’t share the view that he is a coaching dinosaur although there are on the face of it valid criticisms, mainly surrounding his attitude to player fitness, but it’s not a disastrous appointment by any means. Let’s remember he took Celtic to the last 16 of the Champions League, beating Barcelona along the way. His record in Europe is far better than Brendan Rodgers’.

Moving on to next season, we will have a manager who isn’t trying to work his ticket out of there, a more settled squad, fingers crossed not so many injuries, and then it’s down to the board to back the manager in the transfer market. Imagine we signed Virgil van Dijk, Victor Wanyama and Stuart Armstrong this summer. We’d be delighted. We also managed to buy them in the first place for a combined fee of about £5m, so we don’t need to be spending fortunes to rebuild.

I’m quite optimistic about next season. We won the Treble this season at our lowest ebb in many years. This was us at our worst. And we won the Treble. That alone gives me cause for optimism.

Turning to Rangers*, they are on the crest of a wave at the moment. They think Steven Gerrard has transformed their fortunes. They think Alfredo Morelos is a £20m striker. They think Ryan Jack is a footballer. They think they are serious title contenders next season. Let them think that!

At their absolute best in their entire seven year history, they finished nine points behind Celtic at their worst in that seven years. They might have beaten Celtic twice at Ibrox, but what happened to them the rest of the time? Two wins is a six point swing and they still finished nine points behind. Hearts can beat us on any given day. So can Hibernian. So can Kilmarnock. But no one is worried that any of them might overhaul us next season, because like Rangers*, they cannot sustain it over the course of the season. We need to stop thinking of Rangers* as the club that we faced for 125 years until 2012. They’re not and they never will be.

Rangers* have shown that on the day, with a fair wind at their backs and Celtic for whatever reason not at their best, they can beat us. But what they can’t do is sustain that for any length of time. They are in reality little better than they were under Caixinha and Murty. They just look better because Celtic’s standards dipped. They have a load of loan signings leaving this summer, they have a huge wage bill and are operating on fumes. They are as good as they are ever going to be.

Celtic on the other hand have been operating and playing well within themselves for about 18 months now and even with the much-maligned Neil Lennon in charge, they are still a considerable distance ahead of Rangers*. Time to stop panicking over The Rangers* coming, because they’ve been coming for years and they’re still no closer.  We need to ignore the media spin that has trophyless Rangers on a seven year high, and Treble Treble winning Celtic on a seven year low.

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