Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Eyes To The Ground For Change



You barely had time to take a breath this year before the Celtic news cycle began again. They're at it already; training, improving, leaving, joining. Joe Ledley's drive into the top right hand corner past a hapless Hibs is already history, a stat, a record of achievement that says Celtic won the double in their anniversary year. The entire focus is now on a part-time team from North Belfast. Yet our gaze, as fans, of course goes beyond that tangible fixture towards another cosmic journey that will bring us to the edge of our dreams on a cold Autmun night, a place where 18 year olds from Coatbridge take on footballing gods and win... it's two nil, it's two nil, it's two nil!

You'd be forgiven for thinking that seems as far a journey as it has ever been. Many felt that the team stuttered last season in the progress Neil Lennon has made since becoming manager, despite exceeding expectations in Europe. Many feel that this Summer may be a transition from Lennon team number one to Lennon team number two. Some say our stars will leave and we'll be back to walking the precarious and at times unfulfilling line of securing talent for the future and providing the team with first team performers. But let's numb the pain of any bad news with good news first.

Celtic are thriving.

For the first time in years the club is in a position to make progressive monetary investments for the future. Already they've slashed season ticket prices, reintroduced family incentives, invested in partnerships that will bring digital connectivity to match days and stamped authority on their section of the transfer market. None of this is possible without the cosmic journey. New arrivals Virgil Van Dijk and Amido Balde fit the existing profile of new Celtic signings; physically imposing, young, hungry, rising footballers. If you drew up a list as the final whistle blew against Hibs in May of player types Celtic needed you'd surely put a strong, tall striker and an alternative natural centre back near the top.

Change will happen this Summer but it is not a negative and it is not because Celtic stuttered last year, it's because Neil Lennon brought players to the limits of their value. When that happens then it is time to see through 'the plan'. That plan is to realise a player's value in order to invest in the change that brings about the next cosmic journey. Some argue if it's worth the risk to sell a Victor Wanyama or a Gary Hooper for money when their performances may bring you to that glory (and in turn money) again in Europe. Frankly, yes it is. If you do not sell these players now then their contracts run out and you lose them for a fraction of their true value in the marketplace. There's always a chance the player signs another contract, and yes Neil Lennon has hinted that negotiations may re-open with Hooper, but you can't bank chances and chances do not allow you to plan for the future. Celtic must exert its influence in this aspect of a player's value.

However changing everything all at once from a position of strength would be foolish. Ideally the only first team players that will leave this Summer are Wanyama and Hooper, in part due to their contractual situation. This would leave us with a core of a team that can use their time and experience together as a machine to generate success for yet another year. If you add in the next generation replacements and the hallowed creative, central, attacking midfielder then a team is well on its way to taking on the elite of Europe and having its foot on the throat of Scottish football.

Early complacency in the transition is an issue. Embarrassments lie in every dark shadow of  the European qualifiers, waiting to creep up on an unsuspecting Celtic that has new horizons and a deep gaze towards the distance. Buying early was key and a lesson learned from campaigns now stretching back half a decade. While Celtic have been able to afford to be proactive this pre-season, you still get the feeling that qualification for the Champion's League group stages will again open new doors personnel wise that can excite the fans. Neil Lennon has ensured now that settling for less is not an option and there will be deep disappointment if we do not make it to the big dance.

Domestically Celtic must look for consistency. A team of course cannot win every game but it was frustrating to see some of the performances churned out mid-season last year. If not winning then a Celtic team must at least give heart and at times this lacking. Thankfully the quotes from the camp pre-season appear to chime with this thinking. There is always a chance another club can string together victories that puts unnecessary pressure on Celtic and we have to be in a position to counter the hysteria that would undoubtedly build if this was the case. Ideally the progression from a double is a treble. A treble is something that in my opinion you can never expect but I am as hopeful for it this year than I have been for a long time.

It's clear that in the sweet part of the city times are good on and off the field with or without change. Change should be welcomed, it should be seen as a new beginning. Some try to paint these changes as a drama or a negative that can destabilise the club. This has little chance of happening, we must evolve and shift as a football club to meet old challenges and face new challenges. It's all part of the cosmic journey.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Who Is Jock Stein?


Two weeks ago the station BBC Radio Five Live aired a two hour special on legendary Celtic and Scotland manager Jock Stein. This was in the build up to the Wales vs Scotland international a few days later. Jock of course famously lost his life during a World Cup Qualifier between Wales and Scotland in 1985. Aside from being an emotional listen on a basic human level the programme will probably be the most vital listen you, as a Celtic or indeed football fan, will come across this year.

It struck me listening to the accounts of football men like Alex Ferguson, Gordon Strachan and David Moyes that I never had to ask the question "Who is Jock Stein?". When you're growing up as a football fan you ask those around you questions which now seem ridiculous, questions like "What's the Scottish Cup?", "What's a corner?", "What would happen if every single player got injured?", "Why is Willie Falconer playing?"... or at least I did.

Stein died around nine months before I was even born but I always had a sense of who he was and who he was in the context of the club I was growing up obsessed with. It is a knowledge I've always taken for granted as if I couldn't find out any surprises about the man or his achievements. I didn't need to know because Jock Stein was Celtic and in a way Celtic was me. It is only when you delve past his connection with Celtic, delve past his achievements, delve past Lisbon and listen to the stories of those who knew him that you really get the measure of the man. Doing so reveals that Jock Stein was more incredible than you could ever have imagined.

The broadcast begins with a harrowing and emotional account from players, journalists and spectators who were there the night Jock died. For a time on the night the gathered throng who knew he had collapsed thought he might pull through and survive. In many ways this was because he was almost seen as indestructible, 'an absolute bear of a man'. It increasingly becomes apparent that Jock will not make it and in the words of legendary sports journalist Hugh McIlvanney, a friend of the man himself, "...the main effect of course was for many of us, especially those of us who had the privilege of knowing him pretty well, was a deep grief." Audibly upset and after a poignant pause, McIlvanney adds through a broken voice, "I just adored him."

Hearing this kind of audible emotion on a live radio programme would intrigue any listener, even if they had never heard of Stein. How did this man's legacy provoke this kind of reaction twenty-seven years later? McIlvanney goes on to regale us with anecdotes and a flavour of Stein's pre-football life. He believes that it was the great man's time in the mining pits of Scotland that not only forged his strength but also his compassion for other human beings. Specifically McIlvanney feels Stein had a great bond with the working man, even as his status within Scottish society grew. Perhaps it's this natural bond with your regular man that sparked the two-way relationship between Jock and the masses of adoring Celtic faithful.

But of course Jock was a football man and it's this compassion and strength that really runs through his career. Pat Nevin, who appears to have been the instigator of this programme, tells a story that when he won a Scottish Young Players' award in the late seventies part of the prize was having lunch with Jock Stein. Nevin, at the time one of those adoring Celtic faithful, had made up a list in his mind of all the questions he could ask his all-time hero. It just so turned out that he couldn't get a question in! Jock sat there for the whole lunch and bombarded the young player with question after question, trying to get into the core of who the boy was, how he lived his life, how he approached the game. It's said by many contributors to the programme that this sort of interaction defined Jock Stein as a manager.

It is another interaction with Nevin that shows another side of Stein the manager. In a Scotland U21s game Stein burst into the dressing room and tore strips off of Nevin, demolishing what Nevin had thought was a decent performance in the first half. Nevin went out and tried his hardest again, trying to prove Stein wrong. After the final whistle they were heading back on to the bus when Stein approached Nevin, ruffled his hair and said, "Great for the full ninety minutes wee man!". It's implied that Jock was testing the player's 'bottle' after such a ferocious dressing down at half time.

A genius of man management, the documentary also covers how influential Stein was in the birth of the modern game. He revolutionised training techniques, taking the standard of training pure fitness, having no ball practice and tossing it aside, letting the players get a ball in preparation of the game. He simplified football, sometimes communicating separate parts of a specific set piece to different players, with the end result not apparent to anyone until it was unleashed on the opposition. And of course conquering the stodgy defensive philosophy of Italian giants Inter Milan with a breathtaking, swashbuckling system of pure, beautiful, inventive football.

Sean Fallon is interviewed too. One of my most anticipated future published books is the biography of Sean Fallon in his own words. Fallon in many people's eyes was almost an unsung hero of Stein era. A vital man in Celtic's most successful period, he is our living link to the past, to many aspects of our past, to many distinct eras. Fallon was a man whose voice resonated most in the Celtic videos I would watch growing up. He has an authority in the way he talks but also a gentleness; a voice comforting and respectful in tone.

Now many reading this and those have listened to the FiveLive programme will know lots about Jock Stein but there's many, like me, who while having a knowledge of all his achievements, have simply taken his existence, his human qualities, for granted. It's only through the words of people who knew him that we come to feel his presence in the stories that are told. When it's said that rooms changed it atmosphere when Jock entered them, you can almost feel it yourself. When we're told of the inquisitions in dressing rooms, his encounters with striking miners, we are there too.

As a club, sometimes I feel we revel in our glorious past too often. Sometimes I feel this is even done to the manipulation of the support. However I understand the purpose. It's vital for us to maintain these links to our history. When this history comes alive on radio in such an entertaining way everyone should embrace it and share it and talk about it. Men like Jock Stein must be kept alive indefinitely in the hearts and minds of all us. If only so generations of Celtic fans that we produce, our sons and daughters, never have to ask the question "Who is Jock Stein?".

This is a direct link to the mp3 of the radio show: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/5live/5lspecials/5lspecials_20121009-2136b.mp3

You can also find it on this page: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/5lspecials/all

You can follow the biographer of Sean Fallon and get updates on the book on Twitter @SeanFallonCelt

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

NewRangers are now a sporting reality.



It's official. The Rangers Football Club plc will be liquidated and a new company, known right now as Sevco, will attempt to acquire its assets. With these assets Sevco (or any other consortium that may come in for a late bid for the assets) will apply to the Scottish Premier League and Scottish Football Association to allow the club known as Rangers Football Club to continue competing in the league they are currently in. The consequences of this 'NewRangers' have been speculated on for so long that it feels like it has already happened however it's only now that they can be fully explored. For clarity NewRangers have left behind at least £50m and potentially more than £100m in debt owed to creditors. This money was either a legal responsibility or was given to Rangers as credit in good faith. The creditors will vote to reject settlement of this debt in a pence in the pound agreement, unsatisfied with the best terms laid out by the company's administrators Duff and Phelps. For almost twenty years OldRangers as a corporate and sporting entity have behaved recklessly in a pursuit for footballing glory both domestically and on the continent. This recklessness has manifested itself in the amount of bank debt amassed, the non-payment of social taxes and the apparent careless abandon the club had for the rules of both the SPL and SFA. It's not an exaggeration to say that the behaviour of OldRangers is truly a scandal on many fronts. Despite everything else it will never be known how Scottish football may have looked today without the detrimental effect of a dominant giant warping reality for its own ends.

So what happens now to NewRangers and Scottish football? Well, not without warning, this story of slow financial car crash becomes relevant to the future of every football club, every football league and every football fan in Scotland.  It's perhaps important to look at this future in two ways; what is morally correct and what is the process in determining what actually happens?

Will NewRangers be allowed to play football in Scotland? A key hurdle to whether or not NewRangers can continue at all as a football club is the transfer of OldRangers' SFA membership. This is voted on by the main SFA board which currently consists of six members: Stewart Regan, Chief Executive; Campbell Ogilvie, President; Alan McCrae, First Vice-President; Rod Petrie, Second Vice-President; Tom Johnston, Junior FA & Barrie Jackson, an independent non-executive director. 

The main SFA board should have seven members but Ralph Topping, representing the SPL, recently stepped down. You would think the board would need have a full quota of seven before a vote of this importance is undertaken. Unless you sit on this board it's unlikely you have an idea of how the vote will go. The SFA are different from the SPL in that they are the governors of the game and not a league of self interest and must act as such. The SFA decision on a transfer will happen after an SPL vote as the SFA can only approve transfer of membership once NewRangers have a competition to play in, whether it's in the SPL or in SFL3. This could be seen as the rubber stamping of a decision already taken by the leagues under the jurisdiction of the SFA.

If the membership is transferred it allows NewRangers to compete in Scottish football as a member of the SFA. The player registrations will also be transferred allowing the players currently contracted with OldRangers to compete with NewRangers. However it seems under employment law that the players themselves have ultimate control on whether or not they want to continue with NewRangers. If not they become unemployed, allowing themselves to move to a new club this Summer without a transfer fee having to be paid.

If the SFA membership is transferred will NewRangers play in the SPL? If it was my choice, no. The sins of OldRangers are too great and vast across different spectrums, not least sporting ones. The failure to appease creditors with a Creditor Voluntary Agreement means that they are liquidated and the company that has operated football in the Scottish game for 140 years ceases to exist. Letting them back into compete with a fresh start financially, even with points deductions and league revenue reductions, is a massive smack in the face to every other football club in Scotland who work within their financial limits without achieving SPL status or winning trophies.

It's not my choice and the decision rests with the chairmen and decision makers of the SPL clubs. A meeting will be called and if the custodians of LimboRangers are allowed to vote then seven 'Yes' votes out of twelve will be required for the transfer of SPL share from OldRangers to NewRangers to happen. 

There is no best guess as to how this vote will pan out at the meeting. It's possible even now that positions aren't fully formed on a decision within these clubs and a number of factors have to be considered. For me, as a fan who pays money into football, the only factor is the sporting integrity of the league i.e. how can this entity be allowed in above others such as Dunfermline (who were relegated) or Dundee (who finished 2nd in SFL1)? For the chairmen it's natural that the financial impact will come into consideration. It would be shortsighted to only take into account the financial impact of a lack of Rangers in the league such as reduced TV income and the lack of travelling Rangers fans. Fan feeling is strong enough that the financial impact of a NewRangers needs to be taken into account too. Many fans, myself included, would vote with their feet and their wallets. Importantly fans of most clubs have made this very clear with sustained pressure. The precedent for a NewClub to be allowed back into the league they play in without some agreement with creditors is virtually non-existent despite the misleading words of SPL chief Neil Doncaster. It would be embarrassing and tragic to be trend setters.

If the SPL share transfer is rejected where will Rangers play? There is no automatic solution to this. It's not as simple to say Rangers will be relegated because they can't be. This is because the SPL and SFL are different organisations. The only reason promotion and relegation happens on merit between the two is because of written agreements. NewRangers would be in limbo. A space would open up in SFL3 as a team from SFL1 would likely take OldRangers' place in the SPL. In theory Rangers would then have to apply to compete there along with non-league sides such as Spartans. It seems likely that this application would be granted considering the real benefits the SFL would receive financially. Is there again a sporting integrity argument at this level? Why should a NewRangers take the place of a well run non-league side who could add something to the SFL structure long term in a way the likes of Ross County have done.

What happens to their history and trophies and are they liable for the sins of OldRangers? History itself is undoubtedly subjective. If you wish to believe this is a completely NewRangers and they start from zero trophies and zero wins then it's your choice, likewise if you believe this to simply be a continuation of the OldRangers. In the eyes of the SPL and SFA if NewRangers continue it's simply as a transfer of membership (or share in the case of the SPL) and not a new membership (or share). It's likely they will keep their historical trophy count with the football authorities. It has been reported by organisations such as STV that this has been the impression given by both the SPL and SFA to them directly.

Another result of this 'transfer' is that NewRangers would be liable for the sporting misdeeds of OldRangers. This would include the current SPL investigation into contract registration and the SFA punishment for bringing the game into disrepute in 2011. Heavy sporting sanctions can still be brought upon the club even if they are lucky enough to survive at the highest level. Financially and in the eye of the law they are not liable for any pending action against OldRangers such as the so called 'Big Tax Case', a stark reminder that what is morally correct is not always legally so. The fact that they may shed this financial and legal burden but retain the right to claim trophies gained is proof that the scandals of this saga did not end with OldRangers.

What does it mean for Celtic? Well there is no 'Old Firm' anymore. Any suggestion of this is now sliced through the gut with a different reality. Celtic now stand alone in Scottish football. The bloc of clubs with similar ambitions to each other can now step away from the Glasgow shadow they feel has stood over them for too long. Celtic are still a giant and still hold power in terms of sheer revenue and fan power. With this comes responsibility and while always looking for our own interests we have to make sure that Scottish football can grow with innovative and progressive ideas. This is the only way it can be if we are to exist here. Instead of working with Rangers to introduce measures such as two to ten voting we have to work with clubs from all over the country to improve as a club and as a league. Scottish football has been divided for too long and no-one is innocent in the matter. On the pitch, nothing changes. Regardless of where Rangers play next season we will always work to our own internal goals: winning the league and using it as a platform for decent progression in Europe. 

Scottish football stands on a cliff, the cliff Rangers just jumped off of. It can choose to follow Rangers and catapult itself off or group together and ensure it steps away. Collectively voting to reject Rangers from the SPL does a job Rangers should be doing for themselves. In freefall they cannot see that the only way to salvage some sort of integrity out of this and move forward with a fresh start is to not apply to join the SPL at all and take their chances at the bottom of the SFL. This cleansing process is the only way Scottish football fans will accept Rangers in the short and long term future. If forced upon them and cried about there's no telling how long it will take to be forgotten. It's my opinion that they are lucky to have the option to cleanse themselves at all after the creditors, the people owed money by OldRangers, will deny them this opportunity on a corporate level.

We are at the climax of a saga which has had a grip on Scottish football for as long as I can remember. Whether in the background unknown fourteen years or in the headlines today it has had a lock on the neck of the game. To ensure that it can breathe again decisive action needs to be taken by the people with the power to do so. We all need a fresh start from the misdeeds of OldRangers, including NewRangers and its fans. With the growth again of fan voices from all clubs they should be wary. The true watchmen of football in Scotland don't exist in the boardrooms and they don't exist in the newsrooms.  No amount of patronising from league chief executives can change that it's collectively known by fans of Aberdeen to Celtic to Dundee United to Kilmarnock when the wrong choices are being made for the game itself. It is a game after all and must remain so with approriate rules and approriate punishment. The alternative is a financial union of clubs pretending to compete with each other in front of heavily decreasing numbers of fans. Are NewRangers in the SPL worth that?

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Season Review 11/12: And No More Shall We Part



This article first appeared here as a part one of two and then in full on the excellent Celtic Underground website. It's edited and posted again here in full for completion's sake.

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The entire 2011/12 Celtic season can be distilled into one crystal clear moment that will live on in the memory of everyone who witnessed it. Charlie Mulgrew planted the ball in the corner of the North Stand and Jock Stein Stand and belted a swerving, dipping cross to the back post. Joe Ledley met it with barely a leap, height unnecessary but desire required, the ball spun off his forehead and stretched the back of Alan McGregor's net. Celtic had won the league in the hearts and minds of everyone present; Neil Lennon, Ally McCoist, us, them.

Such euphoric moments can only be enjoyed with a story behind them. 124 years of traditional history and rivalry wasn't enough for this one. It was born from a five month rocky road of disappointment and frustration which almost fractured a long-established relationship between Neil Lennon and his adoring faithful, the Celtic fans. When the net bulged and the crowd roared on that cold December night everyone knew this union wouldn't be stretched as far again.

The road was smooth at first. The season started in what seemed like the middle of a pre-season. A relaxing corporate friendly tournament jaunt to Dublin was preceded by an opening day win at Easter Road.

An omen of darker days ahead arrived when Emilio Izaguirre broke his ankle at Pittodrie the next week but a victory was attained. We even thumped Dundee United 5-1 in our first home game.

Then Celtic cast their eyes to Europe. A Swiss team by the name of Sion, unknown to most of us, awaited. It was a disaster, a catastrophe, it was Utrecht and Braga all over again but worse! Yet we won 6-0 over two legs. "How could it be?" the history books will ponder. It's a quiz question waiting to be answered by some 2025 smug know it all. Fortunately Daniel Majstorovic's first minute red card away to the Swiss will not count and neither will the humiliating 3-1 defeat that followed. They fielded ringers, nobodies, illegals, Rangers players circa 2002. It sparked a long, tedious series of top brass lunches at UEFA who decreed after lots and lots of red wine and linguine that Sion should be cast asunder into the abyss of no European football sending us into the Europa League group stages by default.

We were lucky but it did a lot of damage, fan morale bottomed out, not least because St. Johnstone beat us in between the legs and a couple of weeks later Rangers cuffed us 4-2 at Ibrox. Heavens above where would we go now? At the time it seemed like Lennon was on the verge of doing a Mowbray and we needed guidance. Then Hearts beat us too and we were 9 points down in mid-October. A trip to Rugby park awaited us...

It punished us. It was half-time, we were three nil down to Kilmarnock and I was sitting, bottle of beer in hand, on Twitter like a true rogue. Fuming, upset, aghast... a thesaurus of woe in a 21st Century medium. Lennon must go was the cry of most, I dare not dig out my tweets to see if I said the same. I was thinking it. We all were and he was too and one day we will know what he said at half-time. It took 27 minutes but Anthony Stokes scored first and then again and suddenly we were on the cusp of something brilliant. Charles Mulgrew arrived next sending the stand behind the goals into a jumping roar of delight. 3-3 with ten minutes left, could we win it? Well no, but it was enough. Rangers dropped points later and it was a glimmer of hope. Many people said it would turn our season around. It didn't to my mind but only because that does a disservice to the hard graft that followed.

Later that week I took part in my first ever European away trip, heading to Rennes with my father and brother. We drew 1-1 and if not for the Smiling Assassin himself, Cha, it could've been a first away win for years.

The Europa League was a pressure release valve for the stresses Celtic's SPL campaign. We performed in every match and competed strongly against a very tough group in Udinese, Atletico Madrid and Rennes themselves. Indeed when we dropped more points to Hibernian at home on October 29th it was the next game at home to Rennes, which we won 3-1, that picked us up.

Sadly we went out of the competition before Christmas but gaining six points felt like a success, especially after the rank disappointment of the Sion debacle. The whole experience brought confidence to the squad and it allowed us to play future regulars, such as Victor Wanyama, in the first team regularly.

In between these performances we started winning consistently in the SPL. It wasn't easy, every game was a must win fixture due to the lather we had built ourselves up in over the points difference between us and Rangers. Every week seemed like progress though as we pushed aside in form teams like Motherwell and St.Mirren.

A pivotal moment in these early months was a certain Charlie Mulgrew goal against Aberdeen at Parkhead, it was 1-1, pouring with rain and nothing was working. In the 72nd minute a fifty pence header from Majstorovic fell into the path of Mulgrew who fired it into the roof of the net. He ran towards the fans and planted his knees, sliding across the slick surface. It was the first moment I believed.

The points gap was closing all the while and we were only four points behind when Hearts came calling on one of those dark 3pm kick-offs you get in Winter. Like the Aberdeen game we were locked in a draw heading into the closing stages of the match. Again in the 72nd salvation arrived, again it was a central defender on the day. Victor Wanyama staked his claim for goal of the season with fierce, incredibly accurate hit into the top right hand corner of the goal at the Jock Stein end.

The story of the day wouldn't end there as Hearts pushed to equalise. In the last moments of the game they were awarded a penalty and Celtic Park to a man was crestfallen. We deliberately delayed the kick looking for it to be placed on the spot correctly and Samaras in particular indulged in some gamesmanship before Eggert Jonsson stepped up. Heart fluttering, I watched from Section 440 as he hit it low to Forster's left. The Englishman stretched his frame across the goal and tipped it wide. Pandemonium. We held on and by Christmas Day we had closed the gap to two points.

It was through hard work we got there, those moments barely scratch the surface of game after game of consistency. It was a solid team unit that ticked along with the help of outstanding performers such as Charlie Mulgrew and James Forrest, who shone at times when we needed them most. Kneeslides in the rain and stretching penalty saves at our lowest moments.

It was this determination as much as the skill or ability of the players that brought us from nine points down to two and it was Neil Lennon's doing. His team embodied who he was as a man; passionate, strong, immovable. This rocky road from the brink of resignation and another failed Celtic project to within touching distance of salvation and resurrection was the making of where we stand today. Rangers arrived next, on the 28th December, the crisp festive night when Joe Ledley planted the header. The night we all knew that, as Celtic climbed above Rangers, the title was heading home to Paradise. And no more shall we part.

Of course in playing terms the season went on and the sham of Rangers being a competitive force continued well into January despite constant rumours they would have to sell their star striker Nikica Jelavic. The rumours were an on the field reminder that throughout the season there had been a backdrop of gossip and innuendo about the Govan team's imminent financial implosion. While attuned to this I have always been of the opinion never to write Rangers off, they are a stubborn bunch. It was with great delight then that Jelavic left in as cut price a deal as possible to serial penny pinchers Everton in the English Premier League. The bears weren't happy and in a game three days later less then 20,000 turned out to Ibrox to see them get put out of the Scottish Cup by the backhand of Dundee United. This was just the beginning.

Fourteen days later on Valentine's Day Rangers were handed a note from their biggest love, Her Majesty the Queen. It read: "Roses are red, your strips are blue, you're going into Admin, taxes are due". It burns being broke and it hurts to be heartbroken but always being both must be a drag. I toasted their new relationship that night after a frantic day of news ingestion with a whisky that is only opened on special occasions and deaths. It was the death of Rangers as we'd known them, as I had known them as a boy, winners, nine in a row achievers. All of it was their own fault as became apparent in the following months, even to this day new revelations come to light damning their twenty five year long dream of destroying Celtic.

All of this meant for Celtic that any pressure going into the latter part of the season would be put upon ourselves. It was time for the treble. A treble is a magnificent achievement in football, no matter what league you play in or who the opposition is. Celtic in their history have only won a treble (or more) three times; 66-67, 68-69 and 00-01. Despite this the hype went into overdrive. Lennon's team were showing a consitency that hadn't been seen since Martin O'Neill's achievers in the early noughties. The squad and the manager himself were trying to downplay this scenario perhaps reminded of how fragile things seemed in October.

The fans were having none of that though, opting for the "treble or bust!" Wild West style of thinking. The press too had decided that anything short of a treble for this Celtic team would be a failure. A cup was in immediate reach having already disposed of Falkirk in the League Cup Semi Final at the end of January. All that remained was Kilmarnock in a March final and a Rangers-less Scottish Cup to navigate through. It seemed easy and when things seem easy they rarely are, so it goes...

I must say first of all I hate Hampden. Hampden is a dream factory for fans of most other teams. For Celtic it is a place where on the greatest days minimum expectations are met and on the worst days we are being humiliated in front of the nation. As a Scottish football fan I can't begrudge teams in provincial towns winning trophies at our expense because frankly honours aren't competed for enough. As a Celtic fan I hate them for it. It enrages me in a way I can't quite pin down, in a way seperate from being horsed by Rangers or losing a league title.

It was with trepidation that I took my seat for the League Cup Final. The glory of a treble seemed so real and yet in my stomach there was a knot of... uh oh. The Killie fans were belting out the Killie Boys. When you're used to seeing them either 50-strong in a corner at Celtic Park or outnumbered at their own ground the buoyant, arrogant chanting in your face sticks a bit. The worst thing was we didn't play terribly, certainly not as bad as in the semi-final against Falkirk. Chances were numerous but we couldn't stick it away, even for a team with a supposed winning mentality a neutral venue can be a downfall. Then they scored.The tiny silent pause at Hampden between a goal going in and hearing the roar of opposition fans is possibly the worst feeling in football. Again they're the Killie boys, my heart is bursting out my chest, my hand is shaking and we go away despondent, cursing the lost chance of treble immortality. There's always a double.

The Scottish Cup is possibly my favourite tournament in all of sports. Certainly for me it's the most nostalgic. The first trophy I saw Celtic win was this one in the final against Airdrie. When I close my eyes I can still see Pierre as a rising giant and the angle of the ball going into the net. Hampden was a dream factory for me then. Our Cup campaign was going so well in conjunction with our form in the other two domestic competitions. It was three away wins to Peterhead, well reminded old foes Inverness Caledonian Thistle and finally Dundee United in the Quarter Finals. We were going to Hampden again and Hearts awaited.

Again it wasn't the worst display from a Celtic team I've seen. Frustrated, mostly dominating possession and having the majority of chances. Rudi Skacel fired high past Fraser Forster first. For the rest of the game we huffed and we puffed and in the last minute Gary Hooper blew the house down. The wolf in black had the last laugh though, giving a penalty moments later for an accidental Victor Wanyama handball. The only pig that day was Craig Beattie, a pink skinned foil to our double chance, blasting the ball past Forster and making a show of himself. You know the feeling, heart bursting out of the chest, the hand is shaking and you go away despondent.

Those dreams were over but Neil Lennon started the season aiming to deliver the SPL trophy. Even had Rangers been at the top of their form he'd have fulfilled that promise. From the 6th November to 3rd March we didn't drop a single point. We went to Ibrox on the 25th March with a chance of winning the league, the early date showing not only the fact Rangers were in administration but also how dominant our form had been for months and months. The machine faltered there but no-one was left in any doubt about who the best team in Scotland were when we went to Rugby Park to pay Kilmarnock a visit.

Our friend Charles Patrick Mulgrew wrote himself into Celtic history with a phenomenal display in front of three stands of Celtic supporters. Goal after goal rained in, after a disappointing March it was cathartic and special and wow, Charlie Mulgrew. It sealed the first league win in four years. We were finally doing it right again after years of false starts, false hopes and false promises. All that was left to do was tour the massive party until the day we picked up the trophy... and we did.

The last Glasgow derby, potentially ever, will be remembered as the day Celtic as a club, as a support revelled in the demise of a morally and financially bankrupt football club. The Green Brigade unveiled a banner before kick off which set the tone for a day. It read "Your Day Will Come" and portrayed the four horsemen of the apocalypse as Neil Lennon, Craig Whyte, Hector the Taxman and The Green Brigade. The visual impact of this display put the visting support firmly in their place as they withdrew into their shells despite proclaiming they are the people. They weren't even defiant until well into the second half, they said that day that they must hang. The psychological damage had already been done to them and to Ally McCoist's team.

We thumped them three nil at a canter. Sounding visibly upset in his radio interview after the game McCoist was asked whether he thought the support and the occasion had an adverse effect on his team, "without a doubt" was the reply. Job done, league won, Rangers humiliated. Long may it continue.

The triumph of the season wasn't winning the trophy but in the way we won it. Neil Lennon has knitted together a team of young, hungry football players who want to prove themselves and want to do it with Celtic. Flaws remain in the team but for the first time in a while we are in a strong enough position to try and achieve perfection relative to our goals of winning championships and competing in Europe.

The machine like winning mentality is now a fabric in the minds of the squad, an important step towards dominating your immediate rivals. A constructive Summer is required but the foundations have been laid for a period of Lennon inspired celebration and the rise of Celtic as a credible club on football's grandest stages. The SPL may look radically different next year and it may not. With or without Rangers, Celtic will always be looking to improve their status and achieve their ambitions writing new stories into the tapestry that Brother Walfrid started way back when.

I'll be there and so will you and that's all that matters. Here's to us.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Lennon 100 Not Out: Ride On



This article, written by me, was first published on the fantastic website CelticUnderground.net , it appears here for completion's sake.

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On Saturday Neil Lennon reached the milestone of managing Celtic for the one-hundredth time in all competitions. The manager was quick to dismiss any significance of this in his pre-match interview with Radio Scotland. He explained that as a player he had never kept track of the number of games he might have played for different clubs and that it is something you do at the end of your playing career to reflect. When Lennon reflects upon his first one hundred games as Celtic boss he will be digesting one of the most dramatic periods not only in his career but in the entire history of the 124 year old football he represents.

Battling to the finish in a nervy one-nil victory, in many ways yesterday's performance against Inverness Caledonian Thistle showcased all the attributes of Lennon's Celtic team as it stands today. It is a Celtic team that stands proudly as an embodiment of the traits that Neil Lennon is known for as a man and a professional; bags of passion, courage, determination and a desire to win at all costs. The jigsaw pieces are beginning to fall into place but how did we get here? We didn't ease down the road.

When I left Hampden after we were stung by Ross County I felt dejected and empty. It was the last chance to salvage some pride from a disastrous season and yet the cloud of the Mowbray 'reign' had lingered even after he had gone, did our problems lie deeper? Could a new manager, anyone, turn the club around? Retreating to the car we switched on the radio and listened as the vultures picked over the carcass. Neil Lennon gave his post-match interview, speaking passionately and eloquently. When asked if he envisaged a clear-out of personnel at the club he said, "I would imagine so. I would be recommending it to the board. This season has been nowhere near good enough. That's why Tony lost his job - the players we thought would be good enough ultimately were not. If I'm not here, I'm pretty certain that some of them won't be either." By the time Neil Lennon had finished his interview I wanted him to be our manager even more than before we were humiliated, he had pitched himself as a revolutionary. I of course had misgivings about his lack of experience but ultimately knew that if he was ever going to be a success he needed full backing from the support in a way we hadn't got behind a manager since Martin O'Neill.

Eventually appointed as manager on a full time basis, Lennon was true to his word. Summer 2010 was the busiest transfer window at the club since the concept was introduced. Twenty-four players on the club's books left between June and August in a mixture of contracts expiring, loan deals and full transfers. The departures, a number of whom first picks in previous seasons (chiefly Aiden McGeady, Marc-Antoine Fortuné, Stephen McManus & Artur Boruc), funded the arrival of eleven new players signed with the intention to wrestle back control of Scottish football from Rangers. Initially the policy seemed to be signing experienced professionals who had plied their trade at the top level in England. It wasn't paper tosh either, Lennon admitted recently when working as a pundit on Sky Sports that it was a policy he had pursued as he felt there was no winning mentality at Celtic at the time to push us on to a title bid. Ultimately Celtic were unsuccessful in attracting the likes of Jimmy Bullard, Sol Campbell and David James to the club. They slipped into the twilight of their careers without much fanfare, their form seemingly disappearing with them. What came in their place was young, hungry footballers looking to make a name for themselves in British football.

Initially life was sweet for Neil Lennon and this new look Celtic despite early exits from both European competitions. The team stormed their way to eight league victories in a row, extending the winning run from the last eight league games of the previous season to sixteen. Rangers came to town in October on a similar winning run and ran over us in the second half. Despite a scandalous refereeing decision which saw a penalty given to Rangers, Lennon conceded in a post-match interview that "our mentality to see the game out was poor from players that should know better". This wasn't the first refereeing scandal of the season and it wouldn't be the last as Celtic Football Club went to war with the SFA. This defeat kick started a period of the 2010-11 season in which the Celtic team were unsure of themselves. Bad results, mostly draws, in the drudgery of Autumn & Winter conditions saw us fall behind Rangers until the new year.

It's forgotten outwith the Celtic support that no-one felt the effects of Celtic's spat with the SFA more than Neil Lennon himself. After a defeat to Hearts at Tynecastle which saw more unarguable decisions go against Celtic, Lennon implied that the referee's integrity as an impartial referee might be in question. Exploiting the media furore, the referees voted to down tools and follow through with strike action to highlight their 'plight' as honourable men in black.  Despite referees receiving criticism from a number of managers and commentators throughout this whole period, Lennon was portrayed as an angry and unstable villain trying to bully the authorities into giving Celtic the upper hand as they fell behind in the title race. The truth of the matter was that Lennon said less about the situation than almost anyone else connected to Scottish football at the time. Helpfully though, footage and photos of Lennon letting his emotions get the better of him at Tynecastle were reproduced multiple times to remind everyone who's fault it was. The mainstream media ignited a fire that burned fierce within a section of society which hated Lennon for who he is, an Irishman with a Catholic background living and working in Scotland.

On the pitch Lennon stopped the wheels falling off the season early with the inspired selection of Georgios Samaras in a 2-0 victory at Ibrox. It sparked a Celtic revival and the good times largely returned. The team were playing some wonderful stuff and the arrival of a rampant Kris Commons revitalised the side and saw them regain the early season form so lauded within the support and beyond. There were three memorable performances against Rangers within a month. Along with Commons, some of those young and hungry players Lennon signed in the Summer were impressing, particularly Beram Kayal, Emilio Izaguirre and Gary Hooper. It seemed nothing could stop us. It was Rangers themselves who burst our bubble with a defiant victory against us at Hampden in the League Cup final. A reminder that when it comes to the blue team in Govan, you can never write them off. Lessons were not learned, mistakes were made and despite leading the title race for the majority of the remainder of the season we crumbled in Inverness. It allowed the advantage to return to Rangers. They had been keeping pace with us for months, to their credit they had been digging out result after result despite playing poorly. It seemed a formality that on the last day of the season they would conquer Scottish football again and so it was. However, no-one inside Celtic park seemed to care the day as we saw our dreams of Lennon holding aloft the SPL trophy vanish within ten minutes.

The fans had forged a bond with Neil Lennon over the previous ten or eleven years that ran deeper than winning trophies and being successful on the pitch. This was strengthened to an almost unprecedented level when our manager began putting his personal safety at risk just to coach and pick eleven players to play what is supposed to be a game. Parcel bombs, death threats, men attacking him on the pitch. Lennon and Ally McCoist, then assistant manager to Walter Smith, squared up to each other in an episode of handbags at the end of a Scottish Cup victory over Rangers in March. This again after the refereeing farce was an opportunity for the mainstream media to become repulsive and wallow in their self-indulgent moral superiority. Lennon was the villain again, an unchecked tabloid press able to whip up a frenzy where none really existed. The end products were disgusting actions designed to intimidate a variety of notable Celtic supporting individuals including Lennon. No-one would've blamed Lennon if he had walked away. He fought to the bitter end of the season and received a hair raising and slightly surreal semi-religious adoration within Celtic Park, an experience and atmosphere I have never felt before and one I am unlikely to ever feel again. Something inside so strong. He went on to lift a Scottish Cup a week later in front of a jubilant crowd at Hampden which saw good times ahead with a man they saw themselves in. We were all Neil Lennon.

And we still are. Where the team is now is a culmination of all these events. The mistakes in Inverness. The slips against Rangers. The determination of Lennon to stick by the club and the club likewise sticking by Lennon. The players running to defend the manager after he was attacked at Tynecastle. Celtic are in a position to deliver one of the sweetest title victories of all time. It is overdue. Despite what is going on behind the scenes in Govan this is about us and it always has been. At one point this season we were fifteen points behind, without last season this team and its manager would not have recovered. Rallying from three nil down at Rugby Park was defining of Neil Lennon's Celtic as it stands today. More so than the slump at Inverness and League Cup Final in 2011. This season has seen an incredible amount of matches won by us by only one goal. We are a machine designed to get ourselves ahead and stay there no matter what. On Saturday versus Inverness Joe Ledley and Scott Brown were living, breathing proof that Neil Lennon is stamped all over this team. They ran everything down and made sure the team continued its fine winning streak. Georgios Samaras continues to repay the faith Lennon showed in him. When he ran after the seemingly dead ball going out for a throw in he was doing it for Lennon and by proxy, for us. Gary Hooper seems to work harder every week. The club had done the correct thing in attracting young, untainted and talented to footballers to the club. The club has the right man to mould them into playing for the cause.

The relationship between the fans and Lennon was stretched to breaking point earlier in the season, but despite all the message board and online grumbling, the fans were phenomenal in that second half versus Kilmarnock. It's a marriage this thing between Lennon and us. Tumultuous at times but strong and enduring. Our fears, our insecurities of his team remain and they will not go away until he can deliver a title. Perhaps time is running out on that one, divorce would certainly be on the cards should it not come to pass soon. Before the huffing and puffing either way in May there is one thing I know for sure. One hundred games down the line it is a Celtic team that I've enjoyed following possibly more than any other. It gets my blood pumping and my passion rising to places it hasn't been before, even under O'Neill. This is because of one man and one man only. Ride on.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Another Monday of watching the watchmen.

The relationship between Celtic fans and the media is one of Scotland's well established football rivalries. We don't like them and for the most part it is our perception that they don't particularly like us. They need us of course and along with Rangers we are by far the most reported on side in Scotland, much to the ire of fans of the provincial teams. Media organisations, BBC aside, have no requirement to be impartial when reporting on the national game aside from what's written within their own personal journalistic moral code. I am not here to bleat about the imbalance of it all. The coverage of Scottish football is in fact very interesting to follow. As I am a fan of writing and reporting in general I would not like to tarnish everyone reporting within Scottish football with the same brush. It is because there are good journalists out there that I can see how abysmal the rest are even when there's no apparent agenda.

I know by now that any news relevant to my interests will no doubt be picked up on Twitter or the Celtic website. If I'm looking for opinion and discussion there's an ever growing number of interesting and well written Celtic blogs. This doesn't stop me from checking all the big newspapers' websites regularly to get the latest 'news'. I would say rather than be outraged by some of the content on offer that it should amuse you as it does me. It is in this spirit that we have a look at what is being served up by Scotland's 'finest' and peer at Scottish football through their eyes. After all if you don't embrace a differing viewpoint how do you know you're right? No doubt inconsistencies and bizarro reporting litters coverage of most teams but this blog will of course be looking at things strictly through green and white eyes (with natural deviations into reporting on the blue side of Glasgow). Hugh Keevins, if you're reading, this is just for me and my pals on the internet



 
To begin, it was interesting to note one person's particular viewpoint of James Forrest's breakthrough in the game at St.Mirren. The goal was lauded by most of the broadcast media over the weekend with most ex-professionals agreeing that the skill of striking a ball that is rolling on the turf across your body with any sort of effect requires good technique. The shot, from outside the the box, was arrowed through a number of bodies into the bottom right hand corner of the net giving St.Mirren keeper Craig Samson no chance at all. This didn't stop our friend Ewing Grahame of The Telegraph describing the goal in his match report as a "mis-hit shot". Well that's one way of looking at it Ewing. Perhaps next time the Telegraph would be better served sending Bobby Ewing to fill us in on what really happened. Was it all a dream?



Help ma boab! In The Sunday Post we found an intriguing take on Rangers' tax troubles and the sporting consequences of any extinction event taking place in the near future. The article, not online, explained that the SPL will look to precedent from around Europe in their efforts to deal with any club facing such issues as fairly as they can. SPL chief Neil Doncaster, keen to stress there was 'no panic' at SPL HQ, specifically referenced cases like Parma and Leeds as examples of football associations metering out punishment to financially bankrupt entities. The Sunday Post helpfully expanded on the quotes by explaining that "the italian case was remarkable in terms of the leniency shown by the authorities" and going on to list the comparisons between Parma's recent past and Rangers' possible future of liquidation and phoenix resurrection. Like their Wullie, definitely a case being made for 'oor Rangers, ahbody's Rangers'. Unfortunately for them the article was torn apart by the ever impressive Paul Brennan of Celtic Quick News who was keen to point out that there was definite continuation of football operations when Parma hit trouble in 2004. In fact with a further twist of the knife into The Sunday Post he informed us that when an "ex-Parma" was liquidated in 1968 they had to build from scratch and start in Serie D. That doesn't sound very remarkable in its leniency.


 
What's Jim Traynor eating? Sorry, my keyboard slipped... what's eating Jim Traynor? He's appearing very glum these days. When he's not found absent on Radio Scotland's Your Call he's on his knees begging for Scottish football to do the right thing and stand by his Scotland's beloved Rangers FC. In his pleading blog post Jim holds back the tears as he stands tall, puffs out his chest and finally declares what all of our pals on the internet have known for years... Rangers are rooked. Yes, there's no denying it now according to Jim who inists "calling in an administrator could be this club's best option". That's best option... not worst case doomsday scenario as has been the official line since we first got wind of Hector the Inspector. Traynor thinks the best thing for Scottish football is to let Rangers take some Calpol (10 points) and start again afresh after years of financial doping at the expense of every other club in Scotland. This, he says, would ensure his worst case scenario would not happen. Rangers need to be successful "not only for themselves but for the entire game". For Jim it's unthinkable that "Celtic would have a clear run to three or four titles and the door to Champions League football would remain shut and bolted against Rangers". Sounds exquisite to me Jim, Celtic do a right good meal in the lounges at Parkhead before European matches, so it sounds pretty good for you too.

While we're with The Daily Record I'd like to point out that when taking posts from the Follow Follow messageboard explaining that an incident was "the worst football violence they've ever seen" (presumably this bear didn't make to Barcelona or er, Manchester) to flesh out a story on Aberdeen 'casuals' attacking Rangers 'supporters', it's probably wise to the check the rest of the thread. You know, the thread where the majority of the posts are congratulating the notorious Rangers football hooligan organisation "ICF" for knocking the Aberdeen fans all over Govan. Kind of puts a different slant on your reported set of events. Mark Dingwall does have a lot of contacts in the media of course, who contacted who about this story?

Onwards and upwards. Always let yourself be heard over and above the din of the Scottish football media because it's likely you are a better servant to the game. Until next time...

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Returning from injury profile #2: Kelvin Wilson


The second of three potentially key players this season to return after a long absence is twenty-six year old Kelvin Wilson. 2011 has surely been one of the most frustrating years in the Englishman's playing career so far. In January he agreed terms with Celtic to sign for free in the Summer from Nottingham Forest but an effort from Celtic to land him earlier for a fee fell short of Forest's wants. The player ended up frozen out at the City Ground and after agreeing terms with Celtic never played another game for the Championship side. Despite not playing a competitive match for almost eight months by the time the season started he had managed to bring himself to the fitness level required to be a first choice centre back. Unfortunately only eight games into his Celtic stay Wilson suffered a tear of his achilles tendon in the League Cup fixture away to Ross County which has kept him out of the team for almost three months. With a possibility of featuring in Celtic's do or die clash away to Udinese tonight the big defender will be looking to make the position his own going into the new year. What have Celtic been missing?

Wilson had a fairly successful start to the season on the pitch. Of the eight matches which he started five of them resulted in clean sheets. Losses at Ibrox and Estadio Vicente Calderón were the only defeats and the other goal conceded was in the 5-1 mauling of Dundee United at Celtic Park. Sadly it's the derby at Ibrox which sticks in the mind of many when they think of the player. In a team of bad performances his was one of the worst even gifting a goalscoring oppurtunity to Steven Naismith which led to them opening the scoring. It's unfortunate that his injury occurred in the next game, the only reason this performance stays fresh in the mind is because Wilson has never had a chance to prove himself again in the wake of that agony while the rest of the team has.

It's fair to say the jury is out on Wilson as a Celtic player. The main reason being that it is unwise to judge a player's ability good or bad after only eight games. Therefore we have to look elsewhere for signs of his ability. At Forest the defender was well respected by the fans. A few individual errors aside Wilson impressed first at League One level and then in the Championship. In season 2007/08 he played a big role in setting an as yet unbeaten twenty-four clean sheet record in League One, playing forty-two league games. After Forest's promotion to the Championship he continued to impress although his best form didn't come until season 2009/10 when Forest reached third position and missed out on promotion to the Premier League in the playoffs. Retaining his place as a first choice defender for the third year in a row, Forest kept nineteen clean sheets while conceding only forty goals, the second best record in the league after Newcastle. He was noted at this level to have all the components the Celtic defence seem to lack currently... pace, composure and skill on the ball. It seems obvious why Celtic would seek the services of a defender who comes with this background, especially when no fee is involved. It's the form Wilson showed at Nottingham Forest that we're all hoping to see in the second half of the season.

When a player is out for a long time fan expectation rises by the day, especially when a team is struggling for form. Celtic have been fairly woeful at times defensively this season and so it's men on the sidelines, even out on loan, that we look to put all our hopes in. It's unlikely Wilson alone is an antidote to our defensive worries this season. However with Emilio Izaguirre close to full fitness and Mikael Lustig arriving on the right from Rosenborg he will likely be a key component of a strong defensive backline, on paper at least. It's important that Celtic have a much more settled back line after Christmas because consitency in defensive selection is directly linked consistent defensive performance, more than any other area of the ptich. Whether his partnership is with Daniel Majstorovic or Charlie Mulgrew is a decision for Neil Lennon but I think, of the three, the first pick will and should be Wilson every time when fit.

If his return is indeed away to Udinese then it would be harsh to judge his performance in the event of a defeat, barring heavy disaster. Of all our games this season, apart from the trip to Madrid, this is the hardest possible return he could have. Regardless of whether he starts tonight or not Wilson should have time to sow himself back into the starting eleven without performing miracles. However a very important game is on the horizon and there's little place for bedding in at this stage of the season. Wilson needs to cope with the expectation of performance and push himself further than his match fitness might allow in less pressurised circumstances. Celtic do not play in a league which has a reputation for quality football teams these days but it has always been a winning mentality that is the making of players in green and white, something that so far may have gone untested in his stints for clubs in the lower leagues of English football. His first key task will be to help the side keep a clean sheet on the 28th December against Rangers. Completing this task would certainly go a long way towards winning the hearts and minds of the fans going into 2012. A year which I hope is much more satisfying for Kelvin Wilson.