Monday, May 23, 2005

Celtic Collapse All Too Predictable

My initial thoughts on Celtic's shocking capitulation in the dying minutes of yesterday's final SPL game against Motherwell at Fir Park were that the Hoops' sudden and spectacular demise brought readily to mind that of Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National. The logic for this comparison would tend to suggest an inexplicability, as if the fall had come without hint or warning.

Of course, in any football match a single goal lead is a flimsy guarantee, no matter how feeble and unthreatening the opposition. What gives lie to the suggestion that yesterday's events were shocking in some way is the fact that, in light of Celtic's season prior to that point, the events of the last five minutes were entirely predictable.

Essentially this season, Celtic have been playing seventy minute football. This phenomenon is a product of the age of Celtic's core players, Martin O'Neill's loyal footsoldiers: Neil Lennon, Chris Sutton, Alan Thompson, John Hartson- all over 30 years old, all in key positions, none possessing natural pace even in their prime. In their twilight years the deployment of all in the same team created the cumulative effect of making the team seem unwieldy, pedestrian, and most crucially this season, without the legs to play ninety minutes of competitive football.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider one of O'Neill's key management techniques. It has been noted repeatedly during his managerial career how he has produced extraordinary performance levels from seemingly ordinary players. He created an environment where his players were empowered, where the character of the dressing room was resolute and where the trust that existed between players and management was sacrosanct.

O'Neill imbued this sense of solidarity through unwavering faith in his players, or rather those that embodied the values he required. If a player's form was poor, O'Neill would not heed the press or supporters' calls for that player to be dropped, but would rather persist with that player in the belief that when the player came good, the bond of trust with his manager would be reinforced, and the squad's character further embellished. Examples of this are to found in particular with Thompson, Hartson and Rab Douglas.

Having created this principal of loyalty to his key players, O'Neill was subsequently strangled by it. He was unable to regenerate his squad in these key areas, either lacking the heart to do so, or genuinely finding that with the scant transfer funds available, any replacements would be inferior.

His core group then can only have grown complacent, guaranteed their first team places despite the obvious deterioration in their abilities, if even only in their stamina levels. Yet O'Neill could not, or would not, countenance change. Fresh legs were only for chasing games.

And so to Fir Park.

Anyone with even half an eye on Celtic's fortunes this season must have seen the blueprint for yesterday's denouement before.

To catalogue:
- late goals conceded against Barcelona, Milan and in Donetsk in the Champions League
- the League Cup extra-time defeat against Rangers
- even in heroic victory at Ibrox in April, the struggle of the final twenty minutes when a bereft Rangers team were allowed a sniff of a result
-the home defeats against Aberdeen and Hibernian, the inability to push on in the home loss against the latter being perhaps the closest preview to yesterday's debacle

These are only the tangible occasions when the lack of legs in the team cost results, even in victory there was scarely a performance all season where Celtic surged to the finish line.

If, as the current whispers would tend to suggest, this is Martin O'Neill's valedictory season as Celtic manager, then he will be correctly be readily beatified in the Celtic managerial pantheon to sit between Jock Stein and Willie Maley. His retrieval of the club from genuine laughing stock to its place back at somewhere approaching Europe's top table guarantees his legend. As hard as his loss would hit Celtic however, there is some evidence to suggest that, with the root and branch reform required in Celtic's first team, perhaps the natural shelf-life of O'Neill's team has culminated at the same time as that of its manager.

10 Comments:

Blogger ian rush's moustache said...

"from genuine laughing stock to its place back at somewhere approaching Europe's top table". True that O' Neill rescued Celtic following the disasterous reigns of Barnes, Daglish et al, but one uefa cup run does not a top European team make. Look at newcastle (or loathe as I am to suggest it, liverpool). Until the old firm duo pack up their bags and play in the southern leagues, they'll never have the money or the players to compete with anyone other than their second cousins in a neighbouring town.

2:57 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

While one UEFA Cup run will not be worrying Puskas and Beckenbauer in football Valhalla, in O'Neill's time Celtic have defeated Juventus, Valencia, Porto, Celta Vigo, Stuttgart, Porto, Barcelona, Lyon, Liverpool and drawn with Milan and Bayern Munich in European competition. Current seedings for next year's Champions League indicate that, if the qualifying rounds are negotiated Celtic will be seeded fourteenth, i.e. in "pot 2" of the Champions League, alongside the likes of Juventus, Chelsea, and Lyon.
Which when one considers that Celtic had been eliminated in European competition by the likes of FC Zurich and Croatia Zagreb in the seasons prior to O'Neill's arrival gives some indication of how far he took them, especially when one considers the limitations of their domestic circumstances

3:17 p.m.  
Blogger ian rush's moustache said...

those victories and draws you mention were sporadic moments over a number of seasons. Celtic's problem will always be consistancy. I don't doubt Celtic's ability to put in a great performance on the big night, but too often they have lost games to teams that they would have been fancied to beat. With the absence of larsson, they lack any kind of clinical edge that might separate them from the myriad of also rans.

3:40 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

The point I was trying to make was that, however you judge Celtic's European achievements in the O'Neill era, the degree of progress made in that time represents a quantum leap from what we were subjected to before. No-one involved in Celtic is unaware of the fact that the club is choked by its domestic circumstances from achieving REAL top level consistency.
That said there is nothing "sporadic" about reaching a European final, by definition reaching the final of any tournament requires consistency and finds out those incapable of anything more than the odd "great performance on the big night"

3:50 p.m.  
Blogger Tom the Tim said...

Another good article Tommy77. I think you sum up the feelings of most realistic Celtic fans, especially in the differential between Devon Loch and our predestined collapse so close to the finishing line.

3:55 p.m.  
Blogger ian rush's moustache said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:58 p.m.  
Blogger ian rush's moustache said...

My point is not whether Celtic has made huge progress under O' Neill. That is absolutely true. My contention is with Celtic being regarded anywhere near Europe's top table. If they played in the premiership they would be lucky to be in the top 10 at the end of the season.

3:59 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

My phrase was "somewhere approaching Europe's top table", as I said, if Celtic are in pot 2 for the Champions League draw next season, then that would be close enough to the "top table" for me, and closer than the club has been in 30 years. Depends how big the table is of course. Is it a cosy table for two by the window? Or a vast banqueting table, bedecked with goblets of meade and stuffed pigs?

4:06 p.m.  
Blogger ian rush's moustache said...

there's about eight to ten seats at the table in the vip section. Everyone else in downstairs sharing a trough of baked beans.

4:29 p.m.  
Anonymous vlad the inhaler said...

what wisdom did the deleted comment hold?

11:37 a.m.  

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