Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Pride- and Hope- Salvaged From The Wreck of Bratislava

So that's the end of that.

Gallant failure, the most frustrating kind, and on so many occasions as the evening progressed one's mind drifted back to those horrendous closing stages in Bratislava, and how the task could have been less daunting-but for all that, and for all the reality of a European exit in early August, Planet Celtic is a much more hospitable place this evening than it was six days ago.

In recent days the media have taken it upon themselves to put words into Celtic supporters mouths, specifically suggesting that Celtic fans wished Gordon Strachan sacked. As is almost always the case in situations like these, the truth is very different. Sure there was wailing and gnashing of teeth in Paradise, sure the new manager's tactics were questioned, but Celtic supporters are also under no illusions about where the club stands at the moment, and the size of the task Strachan was faced with.

The question was: had last Wednesday night irreparably damaged Strachan's credibilty, with his players and his board, and indeed the supporters, to the extent that he would be made a lame duck, such was the severity of the humbling?

The most important outcome from tonight's game, short of pulling off the miracle, was to draw a line under last Wednesday, to say: We're going in the right direction, it will take a while, but we can get there. To regain pride, of course, but also to display unity, to dispel the whispers that the succession had not been warmly accepted in the dressing room, and to provide the supporters with a satisfactory sense that this was a job of work that would be done.

Probably slightly crassly, I've taken to calling last Wednesday night Ground Zero. The unforgettable horror of it provided the smallest comfort that things could not get any worse, and the reality now is that everything must flow from here.

Celtic supporters had, over the past five years, become accustomed to European football as a inalienable right, something which can be put in context when one reviews the club's dismal European record immediately prior to 2001. It has also been forgotten that Martin O'Neill achieved little in Europe in his first season, exiting the UEFA Cup in October 2000 at the hands of Bordeaux.

The focus then, of course, was on regaining domestic supremacy, and this is the challenge that now faces Strachan's Celtic. It is not long since Celtic fans were contemplating the possibility of a generation of dominance over their city rivals, and the club must now recover the momentum which has stalled over the past twelve months. How far would a resounding win at Ibrox in three weeks time go to erasing the memory of Bratislava?

There is another droplet of positivity for Celtic supporters is in the already evident fact that Strachan's team will attempt to play a far more attractive style of football than his predecessor did. It was always a caveat for Celtic supporters during the O'Neill years: accept the poor football, as long as the results kept coming. As the traditional resounding thrashings of SPL fodder last season began to turn into alarming defeats and with the loss of the precious fortress value of Parkhead, the pact was broken and all bets were off. It was just about acceptable watching that, while the results were good, but when they began to turn.....

So the fact that, a traumatic first week aside, the supporters can see evidence of a return to football being played "the Glasgow Celtic way", can only help Strachan as he aims to steady a ship that seemed stricken only a few days ago.

The new manager will be pleased with the enthusiasm with which his team attacked the impossible task, with the maturity shown by Shaun Maloney and Craig Beattie, and most importantly, the sense that the senior players, thought to be recalcitrant O'Neill cronies, are now on-message with the new regime. With a stable looking goalkeeper in Artur Boruc, and Shunsuke Nakamura, Chris Sutton and Didier Agathe all possible first teamers missing from the home leg, the glass seems to have crept up to half-full again.

The stain of such a humbling exit from Europe, on the club's reputation as well as its balance sheet, will take a long time to redress, and it has wiped out a few of Strachan's lives. But a line has been drawn, by all concerned, and there is at least hope for a future positive enough to wipe out the memory of Bratislava.


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