A house divided
Abraham Lincoln gave a speech on the eve of the American civil war which began with the prophetic words, ‘A house divided cannot stand.’ Honest Abe was of course referring to the great issue of his day which saw some States free from the curse of slavery and others committed to retaining it. Of course, events this week at Celtic Park could never be described as so portentous or as serious as the issues which led to the American civil war but there is no doubt that Celtic Football Club is in danger of becoming a house divided. At one point late in the second half of the Dundee game there was an audible chant of ‘Ronny, Ronny get to f*ck’ emanating from the Jock Stein stand which was greeted by jeers from other supporters and a few angry words. Many who jeered the chant weren’t necessarily backing the manger. Those around me were jeering at the thought of more negativity pouring onto the pitch at a point in the game when the team needed supporting.
That being said, the real disconnect at Celtic these days is not between rival factions in the support but between the bulk of the support and the men running club. Deila may well take most of the flak and as manager he does bear much responsibility for the inept performances we’ve seen all too often this season but from the Boardroom to the dressing room there are others at fault. The core issues remain the same; a reasonable team of just 4 or 5 seasons ago has been replaced by a bloated squad full of journeymen players of moderate talent. The selling of key players in recent years such as Wanyama, Ledley, Van Dijk and Hooper and their replacement with players of lesser ability and stature has led to Celtic regressing. Undeniable and hugely expensive errors of judgement have been made in the identification and purchasing of players such as Ciftci, Boerichter, Pukki, Balde and Bangura. Cole and Kazim Richards may not have played enough to make a fair judgement of them yet but early indications are not promising. But then you know all of this. The real issue is how we reverse this decline and of course who has the leadership skills to spark a renaissance? No one is fooled that Aberdeen don’t present a serious threat to Celtic’s title ambitions. A few more displays like Wednesday’s and Celtic could indeed blow it.
Support is also haemorrhaging away and those who do still show up at games are becoming increasingly frustrated with lacklustre displays, something has to give. With around 40,000 season tickets sold, Celtic reported the gate at the Dundee game as 41,451 but in truth the crowd was probably closer to 25,000. What then is keeping so many supporters away? In simple terms it is the lack of entertaining football and a seeming inability among the club leadership to communicate to the support how they intend to lead the side out of the malaise they are in. The disconnect between the club and many supporters seems wide and many are now voting with their feet. Some radical thinking is required if Celtic aren’t to squander the chance of a lifetime to build a team capable of dominating Scottish football for years to come. It isn’t too late but it is fast reaching a critical point where the club will have to make major decisions about who leads the team forward and what sort of backing they will receive.
Momentum and hunger are vital ingredients to successful sides. In the mid 1990’s the Celtic support backed the team to the hilt as they fought to halt the dreaded ‘Ten.’ We had a real sense of purpose then and a real bond between the team and the supporters. There was a feeling of rebirth as we watched the new stadium rise and a better quality of player arrive at Celtic Park. There were setbacks along the way but once that 1998 title was secured Celtic were seldom far from the honours and have in fact won 23 domestic honours since that 1997-98 season. That sense of purpose and unity we all felt in the late 1990s was carried forward into the new millennium but since the demise of Rangers there has been a settling on our laurels and a feeling that Celtic is drifting is inescapable. The club is able to be successful in Scotland with a squad diminishing in quality with each passing year. The real testing ground for any ambitious club is European football and it has been clearly demonstrated that Celtic are currently not ready to compete in that unforgiving arena.
Beating Barcelona in 2012 now seems like a distant memory and of the team who started the game on that incredible night in 2012 only Mulgrew, Ambrose, Lustig and Commons are still at Celtic Park. It would be fair to say none of them are currently performing particularly well. Team building takes patience and courage and the fans are justifiably cynical about the constant selling of the best players at the club. The financial realities are well known to us all but sometimes you need to speculate to accumulate. It is also fair to say that clubs with far less resources than Celtic seem able to put decent teams on the field and you have to ask why can’t we?
The supporters need hope, they need to see light at the end of the tunnel. Currently the club seems stuck in a vicious circle of declining standards and increasing disenchantment among the support. Those of you who read my ramblings will know that I’m an optimist when it comes to Celtic. I’m not one for panic or hysteria but there is a need for Mr Lawwell and his team to do some thinking and hard talking about what needs to be done at Celtic to improve the situation. The purchasing of decent, proven talent is far more likely to improve the side than any ‘project’ bought to rear and sell like a racehorse. Those players already in the team and underperforming need a strong man in the dugout to kick some butt and a few men of character on the field to organise and cajole them into performing better. We claim to have a big squad and yet each week see players in the team who are clearly out of form, confidence or both. Yes, the booing from the stands doesn’t help but the fans need a spark, they need to see the team is giving all they have.
It is easy to point out the flaws in a football side but far harder to remedy them. Celtic needs leadership in the boardroom, character in the dugout and 100% commitment on the pitch. I can accept being outplayed by Barcelona or AC Milan provided we give our all. What I can’t accept is being outfought by Dundee or Hamilton. The hunger and drive which characterises good teams seems lacking in some at the moment. Ronny Deila has a dozen or so games to organise and reinvigorate Celtic. Failure to do so will undoubtedly see his reign end. A telling comment was made to me by the chap who sits beside me in the North Stand this last week. He said, ‘If this was Tommy Burns team 4 points clear with ten games to go then this place would be full and we’d be roaring them on.’ His point being that Burns’ side played it the Celtic way and had a Manager and team with as much passion for the club as the supporters had is a valid one.
These are difficult times for the Celtic Board but their next moves need to be positive and communicated clearly to the supporters. The loss of the title this year would be hugely embarrassing and would undoubtedly see the discontent around the club grow into anger. Chris Sutton stated in an article today some hard truths which are hard to deny….
‘Celtic are a team which is regressing at an astonishing rate of knots. They have a Manager who looks to have totally lost his way and seems incapable of making decisive judgement and decisions. Players have either lost faith with the Manager or are simply nowhere near the standard required to play well week on week at Celtic.’
It gives me no pleasure to write these words but like many of you reading them I hold Celtic dear and want the club to progress and succeed. I want them to enthuse their fans with exciting play and give us the belief and hunger again. Celtic is important in the lives of so many people all over the world and the team could and should be doing much better than it is. I don’t have all the answers but then I don’t get paid a million pounds a year to call the shots, time to earn your corn Mr Lawwell.