Return of the Fenian Ninja
Celtic’s latest calamity in Europe was as disappointing as it was predictable. The past couple of seasons have seen Celtic ship an incredible 36 goals in 23 European games. Given that most of these goals have been lost against modest clubs in qualification rounds of the Champions League or the Europa League, it is a damning indictment of Celtic’s defensive frailties. Clubs who lose goals to this extent never prosper in Europe and that has been the case with Celtic. Perhaps Celtic’s return to the top of the SPFL this last week had made some supporters think the team was finally finding some form but Europe is the real yardstick of a team’s cohesion and ability and the bitter truth is that Celtic are nowhere near the level of the side which defeated Barcelona just 3 short years ago.
The defeat to a team currently sitting 7th in the Norwegian league came after an opening 10 minutes of decent football from Celtic in appalling conditions but once the sieve like defence gifted two soft goals to the Norwegians we knew it was going to be another of those frustrating nights in Europe. Celtic have finances and support far in excess of teams like Molde and our top players earn vast sums in comparison to theirs but still we fail to impress at even this modest level. Supporters are right to cast their eyes on the lower ranked clubs in the Champions League and ask why a club with Celtic’s resources can’t emulate them. Celtic is surely bigger and wealthier than clubs such as Malmo, FC Astrana, Dinamo Zagreb, Bate Borisov, Maccabi Tel Aviv and FC Gent who are currently enjoying life in the Champions League while we struggle in the wilderness of the Europa League.
We are where we are because we have allowed our squad to lose quality players year after year. Cashing in on top stars like Wanyama, Forster and Van Dijk may make financial sense but the club is caught in a vicious circle. We fail to make the Champions League and sell a star player to compensate for this. The following year with a poorer squad we fail again and another star is sold and so it goes on. All the while the fans are watching this downsizing and still showing up in good numbers but the patience of even Celtic’s excellent supporters has a limit.
Celtic’s transfer policy has had some spectacular successes but millions have been wasted on players who contributed virtually nothing to the club. Scepovic, Pukki, Balde, Boerichter and Bangura had a combined fee of almost £10m. All of them flopped and drifted off to pastures new with Celtic left hugely out of pocket. There is surely a time to be bold and sign established players who will go straight into the team and add real quality?
Manager Ronny Deila has also come under increased pressure from a Celtic support which has on the whole been supportive and patient, even in the face of the hostile press he has endured. We are 18 months into his tenure and in European terms the club has regressed. His Celtic side has won just 8 of 23 European ties with half of these wins being against Icelandic minnows Stjarnan and KR Rekyavik. Kris Commons reaction to being substituted last night was an indicator of the frustration he felt. Celtic were 3-1 down against a team playing with one player up front and the Manager took off arguably our most creative player whilst leaving a back four intact to mark one forward. Commons’ reaction was mirrored by Celtic fans at the game and those watching at home. It is surely not rocket science to put together a reasonably solid defensive unit given the resources Celtic have? I don’t believe for a moment that Molde have better players than Celtic but they were faster of thought, better organised and, worryingly, seemed more motivated. They also had a game plan which was simple and effective: Sit in, keep it tight and hit hard and fast on the break. Our lax defending did the rest.
For Ronny Deila the next six months are going to define in his Celtic career. The Europa League still holds possibilities with Molde and Ajax due in Glasgow in the next couple of months. Domestically, Celtic need to start playing with a degree of consistency and entertain an increasingly exasperated support. We need to be convinced that we are progressing and that Deila’s pattern of play and tactical know how will take us forward. Above all we need to find a settled defence which won’t let us down in the matches which matter. Those of us who old enough to recall other European lows such as the defeats against Neuchatel Xamax (1-5) and Artmedia Bratislava (0-5) know that European competitions can be a daunting and unforgiving place but it remains a fact that teams with a fraction of our resources are currently outperforming Celtic and that is unacceptable.
Celtic fans who have basked in almost total dominance in Scottish football since the collapse and death of Rangers in 2012, faced the jokes and jibes from those of a blue persuasion at their places of work and in pubs around the country. This was put humorously by one Celt (@DavieH1888) online who said…
‘Gonnae be like a big Fenian ninja trying to get past the hun hordes in work this morning.’
Make no mistake about it Celtic should be a country mile ahead of the Rangers IFC given what’s occurred in recent years. The new club will no doubt enter the top league soon enough and Celtic had best be ready for the challenges ahead. Perhaps, in some warped way, that very challenge might help focus the club and raise the standard of performance. The SPFL has been won at a canter this past few years without demanding Celtic reach the footballing heights. Nor has it demanded that the board stretch the finances in order to maintain domestic dominance. The gap in performance and intensity demanded when we leave our comfort zone in the SPFL and enter Europe is not being bridged.
Whatever the future holds though, we’d all be happier if Celtic found a pattern of play which makes us harder to defeat in Europe. We seem to lack the flexibility to change the play once we fall behind and we continue with the same predictable approach. It is said that one of the signs of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. That seems to be Celtic’s current approach to European games.
The predictable tsunami of opprobrium and anger among the support over the latest let down has its roots in the emotional investment we supporters put into the club. We care deeply about our club, sometimes too deeply and while that is no bad thing, it can lead to occasional anger when we see performances such as the one in Molde. We could and should be so much better than this and the current coaching staff and board should make it happen or step aside for others who can.
Meanwhile the ‘Fenian Ninjas’ slip into work when they should be marching proudly through the door.