Monday, 2 January 2017

The Virtuous Circle

The Virtuous Circle

Twelve months ago Celtic entered 2016 with a performance against Partick Thistle which was sadly typical of many that season. The Scotsman newspaper summed up a game won by a last minute Leigh Griffiths goal when it stated…

‘’Leigh Griffiths papered over the cracks of another substandard performance by Celtic as his 90th minute winner took Ronny Deila’s side three points clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership.’’

It had been a wretched performance from Celtic compounded by Nir Biton being sent off and only Griffiths’ winner turned jeers into cheers as the full time whistle sounded.  Fast-forward 12 months to Ibrox on Hogmanay and we see a Celtic transformed. Six of the team who played against Partick Thistle a year ago played at Ibrox but they look like new players. They are organised, passionate again and have a strong leader off the pitch who ensures they are improving and learning as players. Whatever your thoughts on Ronny Deila, there is no doubting that Celtic under Brendan Rodgers are a side going places. They play fast, attacking football in the Celtic tradition and there is an obvious rise in confidence and organisation on the field. The supporters have fed on this and are backing the team in numbers and vocally in a manner seldom seen in the Deila years.

Celtic’s domestic record this season reads Played 24 Won 23 Drew 1 Lost 0. This incredible consistency came during the first five months of a season which saw Celtic play 12 high pressure European ties and reach the Champions’ League Group Stages. The League Cup was also won without conceding a goal. This transformation has been brought about by the appointment of a Manager who understands not only Celtic’s history and traditions but also understands the Celtic support and what the team means to so many. Deila’s ideas of a fit mobile team playing a high paced pressing game were laudable but whether through cultural differences or player intransigence, his side seldom played the sort of football Celtic supporters crave. He may well have left wondering what he had to do to please some supporters. Hadn’t he won two successive titles and a league cup?  Fans in Scandinavia would have considered this great success but in Scotland the circumstances are very different. The truth was, despite the trophy wins, Celtic had stumbled through a lot of fixtures in an unconvincing manner and the fans were often distracted at games. There was a rigidity to the team’s approach which he seemed unable to change even when things were going wrong. Looking back his managerial style, his philosophy was similar to Mark Warburton’s who once said, ‘If plan A isn’t working we just do plan A better.’   The Scottish Cup Semi-Final penalty shoot-out loss to Rangers in March 2016 effectively sealed Deila’s fate. Dermot Desmond saw for himself that day that progress wasn’t being made and that coupled with the behaviour of some Rangers Directors made up his mind that change was required.

The arrival of Brendan Rodgers in the summer of 2016 changed the whole course of events at Celtic Park. Here was a manager with gravitas and the sort of presence which would have made the whole squad realise that what they offered under Deila wouldn’t be acceptable now. Standards would need to improve and everyone had to pull in the same direction. It was however, also a new start for the players and some who had flitted in and out of the first team were finally allowed to flourish in their best positions. The change in players such as Stuart Armstrong and James Forrest has been there for all to see. Getting the most out of the squad and augmenting it with players such as Dembele and Sinclair has led to Celtic becoming more like the sort of side the fans craved for. Rodgers purchase of Moussa Dembele for £500,000 may perhaps be one of the best pieces of business Celtic had done since they signed a sallow skinned Swede called Larsson from Feyenoord for £650,000 back in the 1990s.

Celtic now play a high tempo attacking game which is proving to be successful. They players understand their jobs and the boss has a knack of picking the right team and making the necessary changes when required. Rodgers prowls the technical area watching games unfold and is unafraid to alter things if the game isn’t going as he likes. His talk of helping players to ‘manage games’ and ‘problem solve’ on the pitch implies that he is also educating them off it in the nuances of the modern game. That is why watching Celtic lose the first goal at Ibrox didn’t cause the same anxiety it might have done in the past. Supporters knew that Rodgers’ team would eventually impose themselves on the game and that Rangers couldn’t sustain their early energetic approach for 90 minutes. Whatever the manager said at half-time had the desired effect on the players. Celtic ran Rangers ragged and created numerous chances in that second half. This was a side which had crammed 9 matches into 28 days and had played 13 more games than their opponents in the first half of the season yet they were full of running, invention and, most importantly, belief that would prevail.

These are good days to be a Celtic fan. The club is hurtling towards a sixth consecutive title and look to be a side on the rise. A year ago we were told that the ‘Rangers are coming’ and that Celtic’s days of dominance were numbered. This was fuelled by the euphoria some felt at the Ibrox club winning the lottery of a penalty shoot-out against Celtic. In the excitement of that win many failed to see that even playing so poorly Celtic had 33 attempts at goal to Rangers 9 that March day at Hampden. Fortune favoured Rangers that day but over the slog of a league campaign the best side usually rises to the top. Celtic currently sit 19 points clear of second placed Rangers with a game in hand having already beaten the Ibrox club three times and in three different stadiums this season. That combined with imperious form in Scotland demonstrates clearly that the Champions have no intention of relinquishing their grip on Scottish football.

Rodgers may be costing the club a reported £2.5m a year in wages but that has already been recouped in rising season ticket sales and of course the revenue from the Champions League which when ticket sales are taken into account will be worth over £30m to the club.  The virtuous circle the club is creating will mean increased revenue available to bolster the squad and this in turn will make success at home and in Europe more likely.  Rodgers demands high standards and the players are responding. Going to watch Celtic is once again an exciting prospect as the team is playing fast, attractive football. The fans are back on board and enjoying what they are seeing.

Someone once said that nothing lasts forever in sport; not success and not failure. These are good days for those of us who love the green. Cherish them and let’s see where they take us in the days ahead.

Happy New Year and Hail Hail!

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