Sunday, April 22, 2007

Relief for Celts - But Challenges Ahead

More than once in the moments after Celtic sealed the SPL title yesterday, the television commentators mentioned the fact that Gordon Strachan had gone from being booed a week previously (for his decision to substitute Derek Riordan with Kenny Miller in the Scottish Cup semi-final victory over St.Johnstone) to enjoying the cheers due to a league-winning manager.

The peculiarity of Strachan's second season as Celtic manager is pretty well summed up by that little dose of schizophrenia. The majority of Celtic fans, in their rational moments, acknowledge that, in terms of tangible achievement, 2006-07 is one of the most significant in the club's history. Another league title, a possible Scottish Cup to follow and, for delicious sauce, a last 16 place in the Champions League.

However, much of the second half of the season has been dour viewing for Celtic fans, with the majority of the club's points being won through toil and determination rather than the flair with which the manager always hoped his teams to prevail. The stumbling form of recent weeks slowed the champions-elect's momentum to a snail's pace, such that supporters nervously eyed the dwindling fixtures list, lest the unthinkable happen.

A shame that; had Celtic's season been turned on it's head, and the club roared to the title after a poor start, rather than the other way round, then perhaps the 2006-07 championship would be remembered as fondly as the 1985-86 one, which Celtic won by goal difference in the final moments of the last day.

Still, yesterday's celebrations at Rugby Park were all the more vociferous, thanks to the immense release of tension that Shunsuke Nakamura's injury time free-kick provided. The dramatic nature of the Japanese magician's trademark winner certainly gave gusto to the party atmosphere, but the relief at not having to endure another interminable week, followed by yet another nervous ninety minutes at Parkhead on Sunday, was also undoubtedly audible.

The latter part of Celtic's 41st title-winning season was beginning to strongly resemble the dark Spring of 2005, when Martin O'Neill's team ran out of steam just short of the finish line. But while Strachan's predecessor's place in the supporters' hearts was already so copperfastened as to leave his legacy largely intact, many have withheld the same tolerance from the current incumbent.

Some have claimed to detect the foul whiff of sectarianism from the Celtic support for this fact, suggesting that had Strachan been of 'traditional' Celtic stock, any shortcomings would have been overlooked.

Certainly, it behoves Celtic not to dismiss this point out of hand; many were quick to accuse their cross-town rivals of similarly suspect motives in the undermining of their first ever Catholic manager, Paul Le Guen, during his brief reign as manager, and have also jeered at the seeming 'reformation' of 'traditional' (that word again) Rangers values under Walter Smith.

All the same, football club supporters, as entities, have a funny way of demonstrating a singular logical intelligence that transcends the boiling individual passions within. Celtic fans may duly applaud and enjoy another title, and will treasure the memories of the Champions League victories over Benfica and Manchester United, as well as the courageous tussles with Milan. They will also note with approval the financial housekeeping that has allowed such successes on what is a vastly reduced budget from the one O'Neill used.

At the same time, they are not blind to the utter paucity of serious rivals to Celtic's dominance over the last two seasons. Aside from Hearts' heady opening to the 2005-06 term, which was terminated by wounds self-inflicted, Strachan's side have had a relatively straightforward run of things. The fact that Rangers have fallen to perhaps the lowest ebb in their history in that time is too significant to ignore.

The fluent, passing football with which Strachan has pledged to have his team play has rarely been seen of late, and most departments of the team have malfunctioned. Rather than the minor tinkering which the manager might have hoped his team would have required going into his third year in the job, it seems that major surgery is required, certainly in central midfield and up front.

Already Strachan, chief executive Peter Lawell and the Celtic board will have begun planning for next season, and the summer transfer window that precedes it. They will carry a larger stack of chips to this particular poker table than they have been able to of late, thanks to the Champions League run and the prudence of recent years. They will need it, however, to compete with the cash-laden Premiership clubs, weighed down with more television money than ever.

They will also be aware of the renewed focus from within Ibrox, and will know that such a feeble domestic challenge is unlikely to materialise from there again. Then there is the knowledge that a Champions League qualifier must be negotiated in the late summer, that most perilous and nerve-wracking of entrance exams for Europe's Ivy League.

Here's hoping that Gordon Strachan enjoyed his supporters' cheers yesterday, and a well-earned celebration last night to boot - for the hard work will very soon start all over again.



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