Celtic’s Troubled Treble

Celtic’s treble treble is a laudable achievement. But their third treble, completed last Saturday with a 2-1 win over Heart of Midlothian in the Scottish Cup final, is a sad indictment of Scottish club football. If Celtic could get so much so wrong in a season and still win everything, what history might they make if/when they get things right?

The Cup final was a microcosm of Celtic’s season. For long periods of the final and the season, Celtic were poor. At times at Hampden, they were rotten. At Kilmarnock, Rangers (twice) and Hibernian in the league they were rank-rotten, better able to control/pass wind than a football. And spirit, flashes of genius and opposition schoolboy-error got them over Saturday’s line and the league line.

The ’spirit’ most often manifested itself in “turning up for big games,” even when general displays, and away results, stank. Hence, during Celtic’s autumn slump, a more convincing 1-0 home win over Rangers than over Hamilton, a week earlier. The first visits to Hearts and Kilmarnock were not thought ‘big.’ Hence 1-0 and 2-1 Celtic defeats. Hearts and Killie were both league leaders when they first visited Celtic Park. Hence, 5-0 and 5-1 Celtic wins.

Celtic ‘turned up’ again on Boxing Day at Aberdeen. But they were horribly absent at Ibrox, three days later, which had some declaring Rangers “title favourites,” despite Celtic still topping the table, with a winnable game-in-hand and a series of winnable games after the winter break. They turned up again for these, stayed for a bit and when Rodgers left, the title was theirs to lose.

This inconsistency was a by-product of Celtic’s transparently terrible summer. Signing young French striker Odsonne Edouard for a club record £9m was clearly panic PR, feigning ambition, especially when young French striker Moussa Dembele left in the last hours of the transfer window for a club record £19.7m. A £10.2m profit…and a £19.2m profit on Dembele alone, which came at considerable cost.

Rumours of divisions within Celtic were rocket-fuelled by meek Champions League qualifier exit in August. “Having a World Cup semi-finalist in our team would certainly have helped,” Rodgers understated profusely after the fatal 2-1 second-leg loss to AEK Athens, in reference to absent Belgian international centre-back Dedryck Boyata.

Boyata had posted on Instagram that he wouldn’t travel to Athens as he was “not yet 100% operational” after a training ground ‘slip’ five days before the match. Rodgers disagreed and made a pointed pre-match reference to “players that want to be here.” The matter, he added, would be “dealt with internally.” But the bad smell remained, even after Boyata scored the only goal in the afore-mentioned Hamilton win, 12 days later. And Celtic were largely wretched for weeks.

Yet Scottish football’s chasing pack got no nearer Celtic over the season. For instance, so bad were Aberdeen at times against Celtic that you almost believed Rangers’ manager Steven Gerrard’s slur on their integrity: “Do they try harder against Rangers? That’s the way it looks.” Mind you, Gerrard added that Aberdeen “never laid a finger” on Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final, on which Ryan Christie may have a view…from his good eye, anyway.

And despite the usual reams of hippopotamus-shit from Scotland’s football media, Rangers finished only TWO points closer to Celtic than last year. Compared to his clown shoe predecessors, Gerrard is a proper manager. But not yet nearly as good as the hippo-shitters desperately suggested at every opportunity. Two ‘golden generation’ England midfielders became managers in 2018. Derby County’s Frank Lampard had the better season and currently looks the better prospect.

So, the biggest challenge to Celtic’s Scottish supremacy might be…well…Celtic. For instance, their huge, non-tax-cheating-based, financial advantage gave them a fair sporting advantage. This manifested itself in the only squad large enough to cope with last season’s constant and lengthy injury list. But that list, in turn, negated much of that sporting advantage.

Certain injuries indicated disciplinary under-performance elsewhere (as Christie knows). But the squad has played so much football in such long seasons, due to domestic cup success and Champions League qualifications beginning days before some school summer holidays, that ‘natural ‘wear-and-tear’ seems inevitable.

For instance, 21-year-old left-back Kieran Tierney has bombed up-and-down nearly 200 competitive touchlines since his Celtic first-team debut four years ago. And, since December, he has been a shadow of his ultra-vibrant former self. Celtic advisedly disregarded the ‘Celtic-daft’ youngster’s claims of match-fitness for the Cup final, prioritising getting him right for next season (though rumours are that his fitness concerns may have non-football origins in career-threatening muscle-wastage issues).

Such care should be club policy, especially for players such as 16-year-old Karamoko Dembele, who dazzled his way through Celtic’s underage and reserve ranks, often two years early, before his first-team debut in Celtic’s last league game (which made the official league-title tally Dembele 1 Gerrard 0, as Celtic twitter joyously noted. Daft that it’s true but f***ing funny nonetheless.)

And the frequent injuries, pulled hamstrings-akimbo at times,  should have garnered more attention. Not to excuse on-field under-performance but to highlight potential under-performance within the training/fitness and recruitment regimes (no more injury-prone Bundesliga centre-halves named Marvin, please). Whether there was such under-performance is hard to gauge from the outside. But a root-and-branch assessment should surely be a ‘day one’ task for any new management team.

This links to one of my problems with Neil Lennon’s managerial reappointment. History suggests ‘Lenny’ might not be the most effective fitness assessor. On becoming Celtic boss in 2014, Ronny Deila focused on the improvable fitness of the squad he’d inherited from Lennon. He made headline-grabbing changes to dietary regimes and suggested that if professional players were unprepared to be “24-hour athletes” they could “be amateurs again.”

Early displays under Deila had Celtic twitter pining for “Lennon’s fat amateurs.” But the desired domestic and European success will require a long season. The fitness ‘problems’ of last season and Lennon’s last reign need solving. And I DO have problems with Lennon’s reappointment. Or, I DID. Now he is manager, he has my full backing (for what microscopically little that’s worth). After all, I had problems with Lennon’s original appointment in 2010, when his inexperience was widespread and his temperament somewhat hotter than ‘managerial.’ He seemed a convenient available choice, not a first-choice. But he became a good appointment.

He’s not a BAD appointment now, although some Celtic fans would go that far. But he again seems a convenient available choice, not a first-choice. The Glasgow chatter was that the more unsavoury aspects of his personal life would count against him. And Celtic’s handling of the publicity over his permanent appointment reeked of unpreparedness.

BBC Scotland’s Tom English criticises Celtic at more than every opportunity. But his BBC Football website piece this week, part-headlined “Lennon job offer paints bizarre picture”  was spot-on. Lennon was formally offered the role during “a five-minute chat” in Celtic’s Hampden dressing-room “shower area,” minutes after his post-match press conference. Celtic CEO Peter Lawwell then told the media he was “delighted to announce” the offer, without specifying it, or waiting for Lennon’s response.

English called this “bizarre, reflective of a club that was not exactly meticulous in their decision-making.” And given that the offer came so soon after a dismal Hampden display, it was no shock to read that no-one else was interviewed. The bottom line is the bottom line for Lawwell. And Lennon WILL have come cheap(er than Rodgers), as his football employment prospects were no shade of rosy when he left Hibernian in January under more clouds than America’s mid-west in tornado season.

However, fans’ bottom line is the football. And, under Lennon, that was largely turgid. Celtic’s display at Ibrox should have taken him out of the managerial running. At Dundee, Celtic produced almost no incisive football until the 95th-minute. And at home to Killie, they benefited from one of the worst decisions of even this wretched refereeing season, when Scott Brown’s penalty-box push on Stephen O’Donnell went unpunished and Celtic’s inadequacies were submerged under the emotion of the day.

They weren’t ‘his’ playing resources, but Lennon mis-used them. Jeffrey Toijan, Oliver Burke and especially Timothy Weah are better than their form under Lennon suggests. And though there were huge mitigating factors to consider when judging Lennon’s March-to-May, they don’t excuse all his failings.

The key issue now is squad rebuilding. Rodgers improved Deila’s uninspiring athletes almost entirely through coaching quality, a tall order for all but the very best coaches. Lennon is an inspirational football character. And his punditry stints suggest a deeper thinker on the game than many people think. But he seems unlikely to be as impactful as Rodgers.

However, part of his charm for Celtic’s financially careful board may be his record at finding players for not much money who become worth much more money after a couple of seasons in the hoops, such as Victor Wanyama and Virgil Van Dijk. As Lawwell said last Saturday, Lennon has “a fantastic eye for a player.”

Lennon not seeing fantastic-eye-to-eye with Lawwell on the nature of new players could play a bigger role than other clubs in undermining Celtic, as it arguably did this year. Second-placed Rangers’ big-spending ambitions remain threatened by external (unreported, of course) financial pressures. And third-placed Kilmarnock have a Steve Clarke-sized hole to fill.

Lawwell has a “project”: signing youngsters with potential sell-on value. But Celtic’s squad needs improving now, especially defensively, and has needed improving ‘now’ since Van Dijk left in September 2015. Ukranian winger Maryan Shved looks exciting. But Rodgers’ puzzled indifference over his January signing was as revelatory of internal tensions as Boyata’s Athenian no-show.

It was possibly one of Rodgers’ ‘last straws,’ after two-and-a-half seasons without the ball-playing centre-backs so fundamental to the style of play he wanted to instil at Celtic, an omission far from entirely his fault. And player recruitment was likely one of Lennon’s final straws too, before leaving Celtic in 2014. Just now, though, “ten-in-a-row” is fans’ priority. Lawwell has successfully managed Celtic’s finances. But “ten-in-a-row is not a project,” as one Celtic Park banner read this year. Permanent preparedness for the future shouldn’t come at a cost to the present.

Part of Lennon’s charm for Celtic fans is that he is not David Moyes, who was too-heavily-linked (i.e. at all) with the post. The rest is his indisputable ‘Celtic-mindedness.’ Particularly appealing after Rodgers’ supposed Celtic-mindedness. Rodgers may share Lennon’s Northern Irish background. But he never wore tricolour collars. And, as Lawwell noted last week, Lennon is “a true Celtic man.” With proper financial backing, that could be a key to success. But ONLY with that backing.

Rangers right-back James Tavernier claimed recently that Rangers were “definitely there” in terms of a title challenge. But he won’t get SEVENTEEN chances from the penalty spot EVERY season (cough). And 1888 words on Celtic’s problems last season have merely scratched the surface. Yet Celtic still won the league by nine points…and had it all-but-won weeks ago. So much must go wrong AGAIN and go right elsewhere to stop Celtic making more history. Many Celtic fans believe Lennon’s appointment is the first mistake. Many others have faith in Lawwell’s ability to get so much wrong. But if Celtic learns from the mistakes made en-route to this season’s troubled treble, history is within their grasp.