Celtic: Coasting & Colliding To Victory
I enjoyed watching AFC Wimbledon in 2003/04’s Combined Counties League; a team with larger support than clubs five steps higher in England’s ‘National Game’ consistently hammering sometimes literally “pub teams.” These four-or-more-goal processions were not everybody’s cup-of-tea. Wimbledon won games stylishly. But the lack of competitive edge disconcerted many fellow-neutrals. And when this scenario plays out in the top league in the land, it is more disconcerting still.
Celtic are cakewalking to this year’s Scottish Premiership title. And their home game against Hamilton Academicals on Tuesday seemed an ideal opportunity to discover how. It was… though not quite as expected. Boss Brendan Rodgers has always encouraged teams to play out from the back, with sofas in Swansea and Liverpool routinely cowered behind as defenders with the skill of the average…defender struggled with the concept. I don’t have BT Sport and loathe SKY’s execrable Scottish football coverage, so I have missed swathes of Celtic’s season but Rodgers’ Celtic appears to be doing likewise.
Celtic Park opponents have rarely braved a pressing game, allowing Celtic defenders, including Kolo Toure for pity’s sake, freedom to release their inner Alan Hansens. Thus emboldened, Rodgers treated Hamilton’s visit like a pre-season friendly, experimenting profusely with his formation. It failed spectacularly (often comically). But Celtic controlled all-bar-one late panicky moment. Under Rodgers’ predecessor, Ronny Deila, Celtic lacked dynamism. But they beat Hamilton 8-1 (EIGHT-BLOODY-ONE!!!) at Celtic Park in January. Celtic’s new dynamism, with (remarkably) largely the same players, suggested another goal-fest. Such expectations were tempered among those paying attention to Hamilton’s two defeats in eight away games this season.
They rose again with news that Rodgers had selected this and last season’s top-scorers, Moussa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths respectively. However, they were ultimately confused by the other selections, only three of whom were recognised defenders. Two early-season stars are lengthy injury absentees; turbo-charged teenage left-back Kieran Tierney and a Rodgers favourite from days of yore, Scott Sinclair. Griffiths could part-replicate Sinclair’s attacking threat. But on Tuesday, Rodgers dealt with Tierney’s absence by disregarding the notion of full-backs altogether.
The formation was 3-1-4-2-ish, although first-quarter possession was predominantly in the “8” section of Hamilton’s well-organised, hard-working, attacking-ambitionless 8-0-2 set-up. If Celtic were using wing-backs, they were misusing Calum McGregor’s intermittently-evident talents. And nobody told Patrick Roberts he WAS “wing-back,” even one in inverted commas. The outcome was a dysfunctional mess, with player-collisions on a par with a particularly hungover Sunday league match and the referee’s assistants seeing more of the ball than Hamilton’s strikers…or, occasionally, Celtic’s. But…it…DIDN’T…MATTER…ONE…JOT. For 80 minutes, Celtic were in complete control, however clueless it seemed to me, high behind the goal in the Lisbon Lions Stand.
Indeed, they played for 80 minutes like they’d bet on a one-nil win. And if they played for ten minutes like they’d bet on 1-1, that was probably only to enliven the crowd for the journey home. Erik Sviatchenko’s errant pass gave Hamilton’s Eamon Brophy a clear 45-yard run on goal but the enormity of the task and two rapidly covering defenders overwhelmed him and he shot tamely wide. “Job done, we move on,” said one Celtic fan. And he was representative of a crowd so entertained by the style of Celtic’s victories until Tuesday that they mostly forgave the preceding 90+ minutes of low-key mush. Mind you, most hadn’t spent a £125 premium bond win on a ten-hour return journey from London and overnight stay in Glasgow to see it…thank you, McClay’s Guest House…way better than the match.
The crowd was better than the match too, even if the official attendance of 55,076 suggested that upwards of 10,000 season-ticket holders were elsewhere. The “Green Brigade” in Celtic Park’s “safe-standing” corner, provided ninety minutes’ entertainment to distract from passes to ball boys via non-existent full-backs. The songbook mercifully lacked “IRA” ditties, although “Grace,” about an Easter Rising leader, is often so-labelled. Wrongly, in my view… though I accept not in everyone’s. Either way, Tuesday’s rendition was surprisingly affecting. The Brigade even dallied into interpretive dance, hopping up-and-down and side-to-side, each row moving in opposite directions, in far more effective formation than the on-field three-at-the-back. You really “had-to-be-there.” But if you were, it was hilarious.
The entire arena was involved in the off-field zenith, now a feature of all Celtic’s games. In honour of Celtic’s European Cup triumph, crowds hold high their lit mobile phones during the 67th minute and sing the refrain: “In 67, in the heat of Lisbon, the crowds came in their thousands, to see the Bhoys become champions” to the tune of emotive rebel song…er…Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache.” To some, the imaginatively-entitled “Sixty-seven song,” (believed to date back only to 2011) is a painful reminder of how “past” Celtic’s past glories are and how microscopic are the prospects of a repeat while European club football organises on national league lines. Again, though, it was a stirring sight and sound, uninterrupted by anything so grand as a Celtic attack.
Celtic, however, are sufficiently in control of their league destiny to take breathers during every 67th minute and not harm their prospects, even in games as scoreboard-tight as Tuesday’s. Rangers may be willed on by their support, new manager Ian Cathro may galvanise Hearts, Derek McInnes may rekindle Aberdeen’s recent seasons’ fires. But without a seismic shift in Celtic’s form and fortune, those three teams are destined for a “best-of-the-rest” battle.
This is currently inevitable. The gap between English and Scottish top-flight broadcasting deals is more cavernous than that between the quality of the teams. So gate money remains significant. And with Celtic Park almost thrice the size of Scotland’s next-biggest ground, bar the financially malfunctional new Rangers’ Ibrox, this advantage will remain in-built. Wimbledon were as dominant in the Combined Counties League and reached the Football League in nine years. Celtic have a record of nine titles-in-a-row to surpass. And semi-farces such as Tuesday’s reinforce the belief, sung in stoppage-time, in “here we go, ten-in-a-row.” Disconcerting for those searching for competitive edges. But I’ll enjoy watching.
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