Monday, July 25, 2005

Paradise Regained?

And so it begins.

For the football fan the close season is interminable; even in the modern era of Mickey Mouse FIFA competitions and late summer European qualifiers, those barren weeks are the supporter's equivalent of the forty days and forty nights: abstinence to purge the soul of too many Super Sundays and come and get me pleas, sure, but torture nonetheless.

He nods appreciatively as Tiger Woods chips to three feet, gasps admiringly as Roger Federer whips another winner, waxes lyrical about the grace and thrills of a Munster Hurling Final- all the while wishing there was as much as a measly Conference promotion six-pointer to really get his teeth into. When his team's pre-season friendlies arrive, they are consequentially greeted with a slightly inappropriate level of interest: "What team did he pick for the tour game against FC Kleinedorf- I have to know!!!"

For we Celtic supporters the natural anticipation of the season's opening (this week sees the second round Champions League qualifier against Artmedia Bratislava and the opening SPL fixture at the benighted Fir Park) is married to the trepidation of a brave new era.

Unlike almost all of Celtic's managers since Jock Stein, Gordon Strachan takes over not from a publicly flogged sackee, but rather from a manager whose beatified status saw him ascend with metaphorical accompaniment of Cherubim and Seraphim to well, Paradise.

Martin O'Neill's place in the Celtic pantheon is rightly guaranteed, and his dignified exit was fitting for a man who brought such honour to the club in his five years in charge. The angle on Strachan's accession would appear to be easily interpreted: hard act to follow Gordie.

However, even a cursory audit of the club O'Neill bequeathed the man swapping pundit's sofa for dugout casts a taint on the Irishman's legacy, and should in the mind of any reasonable Celtic supporter (believe me, they are far from all best described thus) afford the new man considerable leeway in his attempts to deliver the success to which we have become accustomed.

The number of close season departures of players who have been popularly categorised as "deadwood", and the fact that last season's collapse was precipitated by the over-reliance on an aging and slowing old guard demonstrates at the very least questionable housekeeping in the latter years of the O'Neill reign.

It is customary for the anti-board militants within the Celtic support to blame the club's post-Seville slowdown on the custodians' parsimoniousness rather than any negligence on the parts of the management team. A glance at the club's accounts shows, however, six seasons of consecutive loss making as a business, and no evidence of bags marked "Swag" being siphoned off to luxury golf resorts in the Bahamas rather than to fund big money transfer deals.

The playing roster illustrates the recurring policy of the O'Neill regime to re-sign old favourites on extended contracts despite those players evidently approaching their expiry date. Understandable of course, given the loyal service O'Neill's main lieutenants gave him, but the achingly pedestrian Celtic that followed Henrik Larsson's departure suggests regeneration should have accompanied rewards in the Parkhead squad-building policy.

A supplemental concern with regard to the end of the O'Neill era concerns the suggestions that Gordon Strachan has a initiated a gruelling training regime during this pre-season that is quite novel to those who served under the previous administration, and one which, it is whispered, has been not entirely greeted with open arms by the old guard.

Anyone who watched Celtic fold in the closing stages of so many matches last season can well believe that here was a squad for whom basic fitness and stamina evidently were not anywhere near adequate- a grossly unacceptable feature for a supposedly top-class football club.

But I come not to bury Caesar (not you Big Billy, its a classical reference) but to praise him.

What is missing around Parkhead is not simply a little intense man with glassess, but an aura. The phrase "Our Blessed Martin" was used by one Celtic fansite regularly, and while overly fawning, suggests an important element of what the man brought to the club.

There was an alchemy at play at Parkhead over the last five years, a magic spell which was at its most powerful on big European nights and Old Firm games; a mystic force that beamed from dug-out to stand to pitch and made the impossible happen. Who watched the 6-2 game and didn't feel the breath of the supernatural on their neck? Who followed the Seville campaign and did not feel elevated by the powerful forces that struck down the Beast, incapacitated Liverpool, formed a forcefield before the goalmouth in Vigo? It is what the reviled James Traynor of the Daily Record (though he could not possibly really understand) meant when he said there was "something special" about European nights at Parkhead.

The sorcerer is gone, his spellbook in shreds. Now we wait. For the white smoke of new signings, of course, for the signs of tactical progression, pleasing football, beautiful goals.

But mostly for the magic to come back.....

p.s. What's that new Polish striker's first name again.......?


Blogger Paul67 said...

Hi Tommy
I never thought that Strachan was the first manager since Stein left who was following a good reputation.

His lack of experience frightens me a bit. I also think that we underestimate McLeish too often. Thankfully he has to deal with Murray.

Strachan has a big learning curve ahead of him, we can but hope.

10:06 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

Hi Paul,
There's no doubt we're stepping into the dark in many ways with WGS, and there are lots of concerns, as you say his lack of experience of a club of Celtic's stature, the fact that he walked away from management previously, and the fact that he talked a good game on MOTD2 is neither here nor there.
But if his intention is to have a fit Celtic team playing good attacking football then good luck to him, and I won't crucify him if he fails.
I reckon Wim was the only other manager to leave with his reputation intact, but he wasn't around long enough to really make a lasting mark on the club a la O'Neill.

1:21 a.m.  
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