The last key in the bunch
There is an old adage which suggests that the higher we set our expectations the greater the disappointment when they are not met. Anyone following Celtic’s European efforts this last couple of seasons will no doubt attest to that. Celtic poor efforts in this season’s Champions League Qualifiers and Europa League may well have caused much soul searching among the support and even caused some to question the manager’s competence in the European arena. Deila is in the team building business and would no doubt argue that progress is being made as his younger players gain more experience of the fine margins between success and failure at that level. The Ajax game this week was another reminder of how cruel the European game can be. Celtic had more shots on target than Ajax and still managed to lose the game. It isn’t that teams are outplaying Celtic in the Europa League, it is that fatal combination of failing to take the chances which come along and conceding goals which are at times appallingly defended.
What makes this European failure harder to bear is the recurring thought that Celtic’s once proud European record is being slowly eroded. Teams no longer fear coming to Celtic Park and every Celtic side playing in Europe will inevitably be compared to the great sides of the past. It may surprise some of our younger supporters to know that much better Celtic sides than our current crop have also struggled in Europe. The club’s record in European competition since their first game against Valencia in 1962 up until their 3-2 aggregate defeat by Real Madrid in 1980 was commendable. In those 18 years Celtic reached the Quarter finals on 10 occasions, the semi-finals on 6 occasions and the Final of the European Cup twice.
However the 20 seasons between 1980-81 and 2000-01 saw Celtic out of Europe before Christmas every season. Fine sides with players such as McStay, Burns and Provan couldn’t crack Europe and despite some stirring individual victories never advanced far. Fans were generally more ambiguous about European failure then as the much more competitive domestic competitions ensured we were happy just to win the title in any given season. Celtic battled it out with Aberdeen, Dundee United, Hearts and Rangers for the trophies then and there is undoubtedly a tendency to take domestic success as a given in the last few years. This is partly down to the decline in standing of the Scottish League as it slipped from 10th rated in Europe to 25th today. Indeed Scotland’s coefficient has the country just above Azerbaijan in the UEFA rankings. This is largely down to Celtic being left to carry the can alone as our other Scottish clubs are often out of Europe before the summer is over.
Martin O’Neil’s arrival in 2000 saw major investment in seasoned players such as Sutton, Valgaeren, Lennon and Hartson. When this experience was added to existing talents such as Larsson and Lambert, the combination made for a powerful side. We then enjoyed some great European adventures in the Champions League and of course that memorable run to Seville in 2003. O’Neil’s spending was due in no short part to investment from the club’s largest shareholder, Dermot Desmond and there is no doubt it payed off on the park. Whether he would put his hand in his pocket today is an entirely different question.
The last few years has seen a sea change in Celtic’s policy with regards to team building and that has undoubtedly had its effect on the team in Europe. The club has stated that buying relatively inexpensive young players and developing them into better players is now the preferred option. The days of £6m players like Lennon or Sutton coming to Celtic are over for the time being. The choice of Ronny Deila as Manager was no doubt partly influenced by his track record of building decent sides on a tight budget. Deila is a coach who requires time to implement his plans and at a club like Celtic some of the supporters are impatient and hungry for more of those big European nights at Celtic Park. Deila is hampered by the club’s habit of selling better players to the cash rich English Premiership although in truth many of those players probably only came to Scotland on the understanding that they be allowed to go south after a couple of seasons with the Hoops. Whether you consider this ‘selling club’ mentality to be sensible stewardship of the club’s finances or detrimental to the team developing, it is a harsh reality for Celtic supporters. We are a big club trapped in a low income, small league and unless that changes, we have to adopt sensible financial policies. We saw what recklessness brings in the shape of the staggering events at Ibrox over the past few years.
That is not to say that there isn’t a middle path and that’s the one Celtic should take. The signing of players such as Balde, Pukki, Bangura, Scepovic and Boerichter cost Celtic in the region of £10m and it’s fair to say their contribution has been poor. Such a sum could have been better targeted on a couple of proven, experienced players who would slot straight into the side and raise the quality of the team. This would not only help Ronny Deila develop his young squad as they’d learn from experienced players, it would also hopefully help end our current dismal European form. Celtic does have a good crop of young players at the moment but in Key areas a solid, experienced ‘old head’ would help. This is particularly true in defence although the creative midfield area and striking departments could do with help too.
For supporters there is a need to be patient with Deila’s team building which at times seems to be one step forward, two steps back, particularly in Europe. The Manager is heading into the most telling part of his Celtic career as he faces a push for a domestic treble which would surely assuage even his harshest critics among the support? Next summer’s assault on Europe will be the defining moment for him. It is absolutely vital that the signing targets identified are of high enough quality to slot straight into the team. We have enough ‘potential’ at the club what we need are ready made leaders to help develop it and drive it on. We have wasted enough money on players who were seemingly unable to adapt to our much maligned Scottish game so let’s get some quality in. In the short term it might cost but in the longer term it might deliver and stop this vicious cycle of selling our best players because we failed to reach the Champions League. That policy is diluting the quality of the squad each season and making qualification more difficult. We need to try something different for next season and halt our decline as a European force.
Sometimes it’s the last key in the bunch which opens the door.