Thursday, November 10, 2005

Strachan's Celtic Take a Firm Hand

It was an evening of greater significance than a mere quarter final of Scotland's secondary cup competition. The headlines are bold:

Strachan's first 'big' win as Celtic manager

Strachan's redemption:the full circle from Bratislava

The death knell for Alex McLeish's Rangers career

From lumpen to effervescent- Celtic's journey in five months

The Old Firm fixture has little need of context, of course, and on Wednesday night Parkhead shook with the ferocity of any league title decider or cup final. It was always going to mean more than the modest spoil of a League Cup semi-final place. Celtic had powered to the top of the league since the spectacularly difficult beginning to Gordon Strachan's tenure as manager, but for all their progress required the seal which only an Old Firm victory would provide. Rangers domestic abjectness heretofore presented Alex McLeish with a last chance saloon scenario.

It now looks as if he has indeed quaffed his last...

At the outset of the season we discussed how Strachan's fitness training regime was key to his ambitions for his team. Wednesday's victory was hallmarked by a sharpness throughout the Celtic team which cast their opponents in the image of leaden footed toilers. Time and again hooped jerseys snapped up possession, and upon losing it, demonstrated palpable impatience in demanding it back.

Fitness aside, the joy which poured forth from the Celtic faithful was largely in response to football being played, as they would see it, in 'the Glasgow Celtic way'. The movement, pace and one-touch passing so evident on Wednesday was not solely the preserve of the ball players like Shaun Maloney, Shunsuke Nakamura, Stilian Petrov and Aiden McGeady, but permeated the whole team- from Artur Boruc in goal to Neil Lennon, through to the surprisingly delicate contributions of John Hartson. All a seismic shift from the stultification of the last days of Martin O'Neill's stewardship.

What we saw was the embodiment of a footballing philosophy.

However, Celtic's elation must have been tempered by the shock of the realisation of their traditional foes' desperate state. Never, even through the recent years when the green half of Glasgow has enjoyed most of the bragging rights, has a Rangers team been so bedraggled, and so incapable of offering anything but token resistance. It was indicative of their ineptitude that their two best openings in the second half came from mistakes by Boruc and McGeady respectively.

McLeish will, more than likely, pay for this decline with his job, but the mayday signals from Ibrox will surely not be allayed by a mere change of navigator. The club's profligate spending policy under chairman David Murray through their 1990s salad days bought them short term glory, but aside from contaminating Scottish football at large with the cancer of super-debt, has left the club facing an immediate future far from those days of unchallenged dominance. Any new manager would seem condemned to trawl through similar bargain bins to those in which McLeish has been forced to dwell.

While this Scottish season's peculiar narrative may indeed have some more unpredictable chapters ahead, it would seem to require some extremely fanciful plot twists to produce a happy ending for Rangers. For Celtic and Gordon Strachan, the fairytale could be just beginning.

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