Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Strachan the Teacher of Celtic's History Boys

A club like Celtic, with its glorious history and voracious hunger for future success, always looks to omens from its past as harbingers of a return to its once-pre-eminent status. Last night's victory over Benfica will have rang several bells within those familar with the club's late '60s heyday. Billy McNeill and Eusebio looked on from the stands as Celtic recorded a win by the exact same margin as that achieved at the very ground in which the two clubs, and their aforementioned respective legends, last met, 37 years ago.

The scoreline and the opposition were not be the only reminders of the great days of the Jock Stein era. Just as the Lisbon Lions won admirers and a lasting place in football's pantheon through their thrilling, high-speed attacking play, so Gordon Strachan's Celtic team are demonstrating a fluid, passing style which, when unleashed in the atmospheric cauldron of Celtic Park, is just as effective as it is attractive.

Strachan, while undoubtedly now having won over the vast majority of the Celtic support, still does not have his name venerated in song to the degree that his predecessor, Martin O'Neill, did. True, O'Neill led Celtic out of a depressing wilderness and was the first manager to bring such primal European evenings as last night's back to the Parkhead faithful. And those who continue to reserve judgement on the current incumbent may point to the feat of reaching a European final as the trump card of the current Aston Villa manager.

But, while Strachan's team have merely put their best foot forward in this group so far, with much work remaining to be done, much about the way they go about their business suggests the potential to eclipse the success of the O'Neill era.

For one thing, and to return to the style in which Strachan wishes his team to play, the one-touch, flowing game favoured by the manager is, for even the most ill-informed Celtic historian, a fuller representation of the club's traditions than the more yeomanlike style favoured by O'Neill.

Celtic supporters generally excused O'Neill's teams their less pretty performances because of their effectiveness in winning matches. Similarly, generations of Celtic teams played attractive football with little success, so Strachan's team would not be excused for failure because of their aesthetic value.

But as well as wearing the velvet glove, Strachan is equally cognisant of the need for the iron fist. The indian summer of Neil Lennon's career and the bountiful repayment of the manager's faith in centre-half Stephen McManus speak of the stout spine of this team. McManus has been an astonishing success under Strachan, his reading of the game as well as his communicative and leadership qualities making him now the first name on the team-sheet, an inconceivable fact only a year or so ago.

That sort of personal improvement and high performance is found throughout the team. Shaun Maloney was famously almost loaned out to Aberdeen at the beginning of Strachan's tenure, such were the doubts over his ability to succeed. Now, as last night's perfectly weighted ball for Kenny Miller's second goal testifies, Maloney, Scotland's Player of the Year, is one of Celtic's prize assets.

The injured Aiden McGeady too, for all his natural talent, was often the subject of scepticism over his true effectiveness. This season especially, however, he has added a killer final ball and a energetic physical presence to his game to leave Strachan in the wonderful position of not having missed the erstwhile injured Maloney.

For many pessimists in the Celtic support, the signing on Bosman deals of Gary Caldwell and Kenny Miller and for £700,000 of Lee Naylor from Wolves represented a lack of ambition on the part of the club, considered as they were an SPL level plodder, a Rangers reject and a Championship nobody respectively.

The bare facts of the recent weeks alone refute such descriptions. Aside from scoring the winners in their country's Euro 2008 qualifier wins over Lithuania and France, the pair have been crucial presences in their club's good form and Miller is now accompanied by Messrs Drogba, Morientes, Raul and Van Nistelrooy at the top of the Champions League goalscoring charts. Naylor meanwhile has looked to all intents and purposes a top class full back, both through his defending and his attacking contributions, as evidenced by the clever cutback for Celtic's first goal last night. The fact that last night's success was achieved without the two men seen as the centrepieces of Celtic's summer transfer business, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Thomas Gravesen, only further underlines the wisdom of Strachan's faith in his less heralded recruits.

The exemplification of Strachan's wishes for Celtic's playing style has been evident in the attacking interplay of Shunsuke Nakamura, Maloney, McGeady, Miller and Zurawski with the support of the fullbacks as well as Lennon and co in midfield. However the manager's tactical savvy has also had a fine showing in Europe's premier competition. Aware of the potenial for Celtic to be caught on the break if overcommitted in attack under the impassioned encouragement of the home crowd, the victories over Copenhagen and Benfica have been achieved with generous helpings of patience.

Strachan remarked in his recent autobiography about how he noticed that previous Celtic teams, overstretched in attack, could be caught short at the back by two or three quick passes. For all Benfica's comfort in possession, Celtic's disciplined attacking and the speed at which their offensive players were able to cover ground when the ball was lost, meant that the visitors rarely caught the home side with the sort of hair-raising counter-attacks many pundits feared they may fall victim to. Indeed it was Celtic themselves who stung Benfica with a sweeping break for the second goal, boding well for the crucial away 'leg' of this double header with the Portuguese team.

Any sort of result in that fixture will probably guarantee Celtic's progression to the second round, but they should not panic in the event of a defeat. After all, that 3-0 victory 37 years ago was followed by a identical reverse scoreline in the away leg, Celtic progressing via the toss of a coin called by Billy McNeill. That season culminated in Celtic reaching their second European Cup final - were the same events to come to pass this season, its safe to assume that Strachan's name would be sung from the Parkhead stands for some time to come.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The current squad are a joy to watch playing football the Glasgow Celtic way.

Strachan dedication and vision are paying dividends and all fans should back him.

4:08 p.m.  

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