The hardest part
Big Pat wasn’t having any of my excuses, ‘He’s out of his depth, he has to go!’ he said his face reddening. ‘That performance against Ross County was inexcusable.’ It’s fair to say Pat’s opinions of Celtic Manager Ronny Deila are shared by a fair percentage of fans, a minority of whom are happy to lay into the manager in the coarsest of language. Much as the style of play he is attempting to adopt at Celtic isn’t setting the heather on fire nor inspiring the fans, Deila is a convenient focus for the dissatisfaction felt by many Celtic supporters. That focus in my opinion should look at the wider picture of what is going on in Scottish and European football.
Celtic made the decision in 2005 to curb their debts which stood at around £30m at the time. Martin O’Neil who had taken the job in the summer of 2000 on the promise of some serious backing from Dermot Desmond had delivered the goods on the field. His big money signings such as Lennon, Hartson, Sutton and Valgaeren blended with existing talents such as Larsson and Moravcik to make a powerful side. However as Martin left, the club wisely saw the way the wind was blowing and put in place a wages structure and transfer policy which was in truth more sensible. In retrospect the calamity at Ibrox in 2012 occurred because they didn’t act with such prudence. Celtic in 2016 now pay less in overall wages than they did 15 years ago and in the harsh world of professional sport reductions in salary usually come with a reduction in the quality of the players you can attract.
Gordon Strachan performed minor miracles during his tenure and in four seasons delivered 3 titles, 2 league cups and a Scottish cup. He also got Celtic into the last 16 of the Champions League on two occasions at a time when the club was downsizing. Despite this he was on the receiving end of abuse from a minority of fans who disliked the style of play or who simply disliked Strachan. Some have short memories when they praise him for speaking positively about Celtic on English based football shows.
The financial crash in 2008 had an effect on Celtic and their support as it did on many other sectors of society. Celtic's average crowd in 2007-08 was around 57,000 by season 2009-10 it had fallen to around 45,000, a reduction of around 20%. This also entailed a reduction in revenue and undoubtedly hastened the club’s current policy of buying promising young players and developing them whilst simultaneously selling their best to the cash rich EPL. In the low finance environment of Scottish football this seems an inevitable consequence of being a big fish in a small pond. Someone worked out that it would take Celtic 35 years to earn the TV revenue a side relegated from the EPL would receive for one season! In trying to compete with the big boys of Europe, Celtic is seriously disadvantaged but having said that teams with less revenue than Celtic often make it to the Group Stages of the Champions League so we can improve in Europe.
Neil Lennon’s time in charge of Celtic saw the team generally dominate in Scotland with the odd flourish in Europe. His Champions League record was in truth fairly good and he guided Celtic through the Group Stages twice. Even he though was aware of the continuing downsizing going on at the club and of the team which defeated Barcelona so memorably in November 2012, Forster, Wilson, Wanyama, Ledley, Matthews and Watt were all sold. Building a team is clearly very difficult when key players are moved on each season. Compound this by signing inferior players and the squad quality decreases. It’s a vicious circle which has seem Celtic slip from a decent European side to the current, let’s be honest, mediocrity in European terms.
So into this situation walked the charming and promising young Norwegian manager Ronny Deila, a man who made his name developing young players and building teams on a small budget. Given Celtic’s situation he looked like the ideal candidate to try and build a side. His first season saw him win the title and league cup, normally more than enough to satisfy the Celtic support but poor displays in Europe had many questioning his ability. Deila is the modern head coach in the sense that his job is to work with the players and build up a pattern of play which wins games.
It does not appear that he has much say in the various players purchased and foisted on him by the club as it pursues its policy of signing cheap ‘potential’ stars and developing them. The scouting staff and deal makers, from John Park to Peter Lawwell, bear much responsibility for signing players who have in truth contributed very little to Celtic. Players such as Balde, Pukki, Boerichter and Ciftci cost the club a combined fee of millions and were no better than players already at the club. It has been argued by many that a couple of proven, experienced players who would improve the team would be more profitable than gambling on half a dozen projects.
This season Deila’s side has again come up seriously short in Europe and Virgil Van Dijk’s sale was the inevitable consequence of that. Harsh financial conditions suggest Celtic need an extended run in Europe, preferably in the cash rich Champions League or someone will need to be sold to balance the books. Domestically the Club is being seriously challenged by Aberdeen in the SPFL and lost the League Cup as Ross County knocked them out at the Semi Final stage. This enraged many supporters one of whom pointed out that Dingwall, Ross County’s home town, has a population of under 6000. Deila received more flak and few took into consideration failings elsewhere in the club. The under-performing players, who, with a couple of exceptions, showed a distinct lack of fight in the Ross County game, escaped the level of abuse the manager took as did the board who have, via their policies, overseen a serious erosion in the quality of the squad at Celtic Park.
Deila remains the focus for the discontented among the Celtic support many of whom want him to go. Ironically, few can suggest a manager of substance who might be willing to work under the restrictions Deila endures. The manager is not deaf to the criticism and said recently in a very honest interview…
‘You don’t want to wake up at times, You just lie there. Sometimes you don’t sleep either, just lie there thinking, but that’s why I am here - because I really care and want to turn things around. The hardest part in life is when you don’t know what the answer is. But when you know the way forward you can do that. For me, it takes 48 hours to get the disappointment and reflection out of the body. That’s how it has been in my football career. Many times I have sat after games and thought that I don’t want to do this anymore, because it is so painful to lose.’
It is painful for those of us who love Celtic to bear defeat too but there can be no doubt that Deila has to deal with a huge amount of pressure at the moment. A hostile media cut him no slack and encourage the more vociferous of his critics among the Celtic support just as they did with Fergus McCann in the 1990s. Make no mistake about it there are some in the media who love nothing more than sowing discontent at Celtic Park. Some of our supporters should bear this in mind when reading the opinions of those with no affection for Celtic.
High expectations of what the club should achieve in Europe also lead to a tsunami of criticism when it goes wrong. Older supporters recall fine Celtic sides with players such as Burns, McLeod and McStay failing to stay in Europe beyond Christmas for 20 years but they stuck with the manager as long as domestic success was forthcoming. The modern era may see Scottish football as less competitive than it was in the past and demand more of Celtic than the baubles on offer in Scotland but how realistic is this with the financial constraints the club works under? Supporters rightly point to teams such as Malmo playing in the Champions League while Celtic, a richer club, failed to make it. Whether it is fair or not, Europe is the rod being used to measure Deila’s tenure at Celtic. A more sobering thought is to look at the current team and ask how many would be chosen ahead of the 11 starters who beat Barcelona in 2012?
Ronny Deila is entering the defining period of his managerial reign at Celtic. To survive many would demand that he delivers another title and makes progress in next season’s European campaign. He arrived at Celtic Park with a reputation as a team builder and we must see his team knit together more competently in the months ahead. The demands and expectations at Celtic will always be high and rightly so but supporters should perhaps cut Deila some slack until we see how this season pans out. He has made mistakes but then so have many others at the club who don’t live with the scrutiny he does. This season is entering its crucial phase, let’s back the team to the hilt and we’ll see what the future holds for Ronny Deila in the summer.
When the Celtic support and team are fused as one, they take some stopping.