Saturday, 11 July 2015

Eyes on the prize

Eyes on the prize

The new season is upon us and I detect a quiet optimism among the Celtic support. Ronny Deila is going about his business in that quiet, effective way we have come to expect over the past 12 months. I think the manager was genuinely surprised at the level of disappointment the support exhibited after last season’s failure to make the Champions’ League group stages. The level of performance against Legia Warsaw and to a lesser extent Maribor was a source of concern to many Celtic supporters and some said at the time that the job was ‘too big’ for Deila. Deila said at the time that Celtic were a ‘Europa League Team’ and hard as that was to accept at the time, it was true. Our media in their usual manner made things worse by cutting the new manager very little slack. Considering the fairly positive press they gave Ally McCoist who was losing games to minnows in the lower leagues with a squad which was the second most expensive in the land, their treatment of Delia was little short of mischief making. One newspaper stated in August 2014 after Maribor’s 1-0 victory at Celtic Park…

‘Some folk in life are lucky, no matter what they seem to put their hands too they always come out on top. They always get the girl, win the praise of their work mates and fortune seems to always favour them. Then there are life’s losers, they may strive to get the breaks but nothing ever works out for them no matter how hard they persevere. I’m beginning to think poor old Ronny Deila is falling into that second category. Ever since the day when he was appointed as new Celtic manager I have been waiting for him to prove me wrong. Sadly for the Hoops faithful the evidence is stacking up that  Deila is finding the responsibility of handling managing the Parkhead outfit far too hot to handle, frankly he really looks out of his depth.’

No one is suggesting Deila has worked miracles at Celtic or that his job is anywhere near completion. The team remains a work in progress but progress has been made as the Manager set about remoulding Celtic in the manner of a modern European team. Deila’s Celtic was to be fitter, faster and play an energetic pressing game. Of course it took time to get his philosophy across to the players and supporters but by the time of Celtic’s last gasp win at Pittodrie in November, when we saw the Ronny roar emerge, most of us realised that the manager knew what he was doing.

This season he wisely focused on getting new players in early and not dragging the team all over the world to play lucrative but essentially unhelpful friendlies in terms of the travelling involved. He played three games at St Mirren Park and has a match lined up in Spain between the two Qualification games with FC Stjarnan. It’s clear that the club are putting a real, planned effort into qualification for the Champions League this season and that, for all Celtic supporters is the glittering prize we all desire. When each new season comes around and we think about what we want to achieve and qualification for the Champions League is always high on the agenda. Those magical nights under the lights are the caviar amid the bread and butter of the domestic programme. We may have tempered our expectations of what we can realistically achieve at the highest levels of European football compared to the halcyon days of the 1960s and 70s. But even set against the backdrop of the huge financial disparity we face when jousting with the big boys in Europe, the club is still capable of stirring performances. Backed by that incredible support, teams of the quality of Barcelona, AC Milan, Juventus, Porto, Benfica and Manchester United have all fallen at Celtic Park.

The boss knows how much qualification for the Champions League means to the supporters. It also means much to the club financially as well as in terms of prestige and reputation. I chatted to a waiter on holiday in Tenerife this week who spotted my ‘Leoes de Lisboa’ T Shirt and as we talked about football, he was clear that the atmosphere at Celtic Park was the best he had seen albeit he watched the 2012 game on TV. As a Barcelona fan he smiled ruefully at me and said, ‘With Barca’s team and Celtic’s fans we would have the perfect combination.’  He was somewhat bemused that a club such as Celtic had to slug it out with the minnows in the qualification rounds but I explained that is down to Scotland’s poor coefficient which other SPFL teams have done little to boost in recent years.

There is always a degree of optimism when a new season begins and no one is more optimistic when it comes to Celtic than I am. There is, as always a tough road ahead with the usual triumphs and disappointments but I am starting to appreciate what Ronny Deila is seeking to build at Celtic Park. We have some exciting young players at the club and are evolving into a useful team. Our defence was sieve like in its generosity during our European games last season and that must be remedied if we are to have any chance of making real progress. Delia now has every Celtic team from the boys club to the development squad and first team playing the same formation and high tempo pressing game. His style and beliefs about how the game should be played now permeate the club. His ideas about fitness, diet and the fact that players should be committed professionals at all times have now got through to the squad and the dividends will accrue in the future.

We Celtic fans are realists these days. We play our football in a small country on the fringes of Europe and the financial restraints of being a big club in a low revenue league are well known. Other clubs in so called smaller nations can succeed in Europe if they develop a pattern of play and a style which suits them. We have seen clubs such as Porto and Ajax from more moderate sized European countries achieve much by developing youth and blending it with experience into a settled pattern of play. Of course Scotland is a much smaller country than Portugal (Population 10.5m) and Holland (Population 16.8m) and we temper our expectations about what is possible while Celtic play here but we all know that our club should be capable of developing a team to do reasonably well in Europe.

Celtic are setting out on a journey with Ronny Deila and by holding their nerve when things looked bleak last autumn the club may have been very wise. There is a long way to go and we know that Rome wasn’t built in a day but the foundations of Deila’s Empire are being laid as we speak. Who knows what the future holds. Eternal optimists like me will always start a new season thinking all things are possible and this year our eyes are on that most glittering of prizes for a club like Celtic and that is jousting with the giants again in the Champions League. So let’s give it our all, players and fans, and make that dream a reality.


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