A bridge too far
Celtic’s loss against Cluj was a severe blow to supporters who were keen for another crack at the Champions League. There was no doubting they were a competent side but Celtic, with vastly superior resources really should have defeated them. They were eminently beatable, of that there is no doubt but a variety of tactical and individual errors cost the side dearly. Of course a side with Celtic’s financial muscle should have been able to field a side with players suited to the positions they play and there are genuine questions about recruitment and team selection which need to be asked.
Celtic, in common with many big teams in smaller countries, find themselves in that frustrating situation where they are successful domestically but struggle to make an impact in Europe. The gulf is a hard one to bridge and the causes of it are many. Football is essentially about players and there is no doubting that Celtic’s recruitment in the past decade has been only partially successful. There have been some gems unearthed like Wanyama and Van Dijk but too often we have seen players such as Pukki, Amido Balde and Dirk Boerichter arrive with high hopes and fail to make any impression at all in Scottish football. It is hugely frustrating for the fans to see millions paid for players and then watch the club tumble out of Europe to teams with far less resources. Of course football is about the team and not the bank balance but there is no doubting that Celtic is underachieving in European football when it comes to tackling the qualifying rounds of the Champions League. Losing to teams like AEK Athens, Maribor and Cluj in recent years
Europe is a good yardstick to measure a side’s capabilities. Celtic’s last three Group stage appearances in the Champions League have yielded just 2 wins (Anderlecht & Ajax) with some absolute thumpings along the way. (Barcelona 6-1 & 7-0, PSG 5-0 & 7-1) We accept that football at the very highest level in Europe is a bridge too far for Celtic but just being among the elite of European football is enough to excite the fans and raise the profile of the club. The financial rewards are very important to a club like Celtic too operating as it does in a low income TV market. We should always aspire to getting there and then give our all to make an impression. That being said, fans aren’t stupid, they know when they watch teams like PSG pinging the ball about at Celtic Park that it is very difficult to compete with that but equally they know that we shouldn’t be losing 4 goals at home to teams like Cluj.
Supporter reaction to the club tumbling out of the Champions League was a mixture of frustration and anger. Some pointed at the board and its recruitment policy but in honesty millions of pounds have been spent on the team so it looks more like the identification and recruitment of suitable players is the problem. Celtic is a well-run club financially but the problem seems to be recruiting players who will translate that financial muscle into an improving team capable of reaching their potential in Europe. It isn’t helped by the bloated transfer market in England where over a billion pounds changed hands this summer.
The majority of Celtic supporters are rightly frustrated at the club’s underachievement and a series of recurring failures against sides they really should be beating suggest that it is more than an ‘off night’ which affects the side in Europe. Some suggest the lack of vigorous competition in Scottish football holds the team back as thrashing St Johnstone or Motherwell is hardly ideal preparation for playing in Europe. It is no coincidence that Scottish sides were at their peak in Europe when the domestic game was more competitive. We all know about Celtic’s glory years of the 1960s and 70s when they regularly performed well in Europe. Domestically they were pushed hard by a variety of sides in that era. This was a time when Dunfermline could knock Everton out of Europe and St Johnstone could master a very good Hamburg side. Of course Rangers, Hibs and Aberdeen could all give the hoops a real fight then and the competitive nature of the league drove standards up.
The undeniable improvement in Rangers under Steven Gerrard has not gone unnoticed and this should light a fire in the belly of Celtic players and officials. We are very close to breaking some long standing domestic records but if the team fails to perform then this once in a lifetime opportunity could be allowed to slip away. That would be unforgivable in the eyes of many supporters but as we have seen in Europe it is all about what you do on the pitch. Celtic supporters are a realistic bunch; they know that sometimes Europe is a bridge too far. A minority can’t accept this and demonstrate the kind of entitlement mentality we saw from fans of another club for years. There is no entitlement in football; you get what you fight for and earn and in my opinion you usually get what you deserve.
It is my hope that the increased competition Celtic face from Rangers and hopefully others will force the club to improve. There is no doubt that Celtic has superior players to any side in the league but good players can be bullied and harried out of their stride as we saw in our last two visits to Ibrox. A situation not helped by poor officiating but in truth the team got what they deserved there for being far too timid.
Celtic supporters have enjoyed a diet of unbroken success for eight years in Scotland. In football as in life nothing lasts forever; not success and not failure. The club is in a strong position to continue that success domestically but needs to be strong and sure in recruiting the right players and having the right management team to shape and motivate them into a winning side. One day the team will lose its domestic dominance but it should be because others have raised their standards enough to make it so not because Celtic has allowed theirs to drop.
The arguments and the angst among Celtic supporters at the moment are a sign that the supporters care deeply about their club. Football, like life, has its highs and its lows. Those supporters who have backed Celtic so well since the club’s birth are right to expect high standards and the club needs to steady the ship and give them a team to be proud of. We don’t expect to be in the later stages of the Champions League these days but we should expect to have a team capable of doing better against sides with a fraction of our resources.
This will be an interesting and pivotal season for those of us who follow the hoops. The club remains strong off the field but needs to translate this into a strong side on it. These early season disappointments may be painful but the business end of the season will hopefully see Celtic playing as we know they can and maintaining their place as Scotland’s premier club.