RONNY DEILA maintained Celtic’s record-equalling nine-in-a-row title achievement during his two-year reign at Parkhead.
The virtually unknown Norwegian replaced Neil Lennon in the summer of 2014 after the Hoops had lifted the championship in the previous three campaigns.
Deila kept the sequence going in his debut term and, the following year, all eyes were on him as the team prepared for a crunch crown confrontation against Derek McInnes’ stubborn Aberdeen side in May 2016.
Celtic book author Alex Gordon details another momentous episode in the club’s history in his latest tribute publication, ‘Celtic: 50 Flags Plus One’, in which he looks in detail at all fifty-one untainted championship successes.
In another CQN EXCLUSIVE, Alex provides an edited extract on another remarkable rollercoaster campaign in club folklore.
READ ALL ABOUT IT…Alex Gordon’s latest Celtic book, ’50 Flags Plus One’.
THERE was one last opportunity for the support to witness ‘The Ronny Roar’. On a clear, balmy afternoon at Parkhead on Sunday May 15 2016, Ronny Deila held aloft Celtic’s forty-seventh championship to rapturous applause from thousands of joyous supporters.
Motherwell had just been dazzled by their opponents and had capitulated in a 7-0 mauling in the final Premiership encounter of the Norwegian’s second – and final – campaign as manager of Scotland’s title kings.
Deila smiled and waved as he accepted the acclaim from thousands of beaming expressions amid a shimmering sea of green and white flags and scarves. A couple of hours later, he was being driven to Glasgow Airport by John Collins, who had been his assistant during his valiant, but ultimately vain attempt to make the transition from Stromsgodset to Celtic. It had proved to be a leap too far.
The affable exiting team boss thanked the former club midfielder, shook his hand and headed for the departure lounge and the next flight to Oslo. In hindsight, it was a dream that had been doomed from the start. Amid the silverware stutter, though, Deila had delivered two flags to take the sequence to five in a row and the support will be forever grateful for that contribution.
Going into season 2015/16, Celtic would be asked to get the Premiership ball rolling against Ross County on another radiant and tranquil afternoon in the east end of Glasgow. There had been some movement in the transfer market with Deila spending £1.5million to bring in a young Belgian central defender, Dedryck Boyata, from Manchester City. Jason Denayer, who had been outstanding throughout his loan season, headed in the opposite direction. John Guidetti did likewise which opened the way for a move for Nadir Ciftci who arrived in a £1.5million switch from Dundee United.
Alas, he was destined to become another much-vaunted striker who couldn’t handle it at Celtic and he joined the ranks of Stefan Scepovic, Teemu Pukki, Mo Bangura and Amido Balde as hitmen firing blanks in the hoops. A young left-back by the name of Kieran Tierney made his first start after a brief debut appearance against Dundee the previous season. He lasted an hour before being replaced by Saidy Janko, a Swiss Under-21 defender who had arrived from Manchester United for an undisclosed fee.
There had been noises surrounding Virgil van Dijk and his desire to try his luck in the English top flight. The Dutchman and Denayer had been rocks in the heart of the rearguard that had grudgingly conceded goals throughout the previous campaign. Within a month, Van Dijk would conclude a £12.5million move to Southampton who had previously removed Victor Wanyama and Fraser Forster from the Celtic playing ranks.
A crowd of 45,197 relaxed in the sunshine on the opening day and Lisbon Lion John Clark, the most under-rated of Celtic’s European Cup heroes, carried out the duties of unfurling the flag, the prize for last term’s efforts over the thirty-eight game campaign. Once the pre-match duties had been attended to, referee Willie Collum blew his whistle to begin proceedings.
In the fourth minute, there was another shrill from the wind instrument as the match official pointed to the penalty spot after Leigh Griffiths had been bowled over following a clumsy challenge from Andrew Davies. The striker got up, dusted himself down and fired the award under keeper Scott Fox. In the thirty-fifth minute, Kris Commons set up Stefan Johansen inside the box and the Norwegian walloped an unsaveable right-foot drive into the net. The second-half was memorable only for two top-class saves from Craig Gordon.
Ronny Deila wasn’t exactly overjoyed with the display and that was abundantly clear during his interview with the BBC afterwards. “The first-half was okay,” he declared tersely. “We scored two goals and had control of the game. Second-half was a poor performance. We were too open and lost the ball too often.”
It was obvious he realised hard work lay ahead. How much, though, he could never have anticipated.
The Premiership was of paramount importance while it would be most welcome if a Scottish Cup or a League Cup – ideally both – accompanied it in the trophy room at the end of season. Celtic lost their first league game at the seventh hurdle when they went down 2-1 to Aberdeen at Pittodrie on September 12.
Only three more losses were incurred, but there were also eight draws along the way. While Celtic shed points, so, too, did their nearest competitors from the north east. The champions clocked up eighty-six points, with the Dons fifteen points adrift.
HAIL, HAIL…Patrick Roberts takes the acclaim of the celebrating Celtic fans after one of his double against Aberdeen.
Celtic went five league games without defeat, winning four, before they met Aberdeen again in Glasgow on October 31 and on this occasion they reversed the result by winning 3-1. The Dons had faltered since the previous meeting and it was now Hearts who were the main threat to the champions. In the countdown to this confrontation, Deila had looked like a man under pressure and Leigh Griffiths had said in a media interview he would do everything within his power “to dig him out of a hole”.
The striker was as good as his word in this tussle with a two-goal salvo, one from the penalty spot, while James Forrest added the third. Adam Rooney’s goal in the last minute, apart from being yards offside, was a mere consolation. The win placed Celtic six points ahead of the Tynecastle side and seven in front of the Dons
Patrick Roberts, a tricky, entertaining winger, had arrived from Manchester City on an eighteen-month loan during the January transfer window and Colin Kazim-Richards, a striker from Feyenoord, had also joined. Deila brought him on as a second-half substitute against Aberdeen at Pittodrie and the Celtic supporters wondered what to expect from the much-travelled Englishman.
It was not a memorable first appearance, but, to be fair, the visitors were already two goals adrift at the time and the Dons were heading for their first home double against the Parkhead side for twenty-five years. It ended 2-1 with Leigh Griffiths scoring in added-on time. Celtic were now only three points ahead of Derek McInnes’ outfit.
The scrutiny on Deila’s position was intensifying with every unsatisfactory performance. The manager had now taken to adopting a more beleaguered demeanour as the pressure mounted and his team bumbled along, not convincing anyone with their displays At least, though, they kept grinding out points. They went nine league games unbeaten with the pick of the performances a 3-1 victory over Hearts at Parkhead on April 2.
The Edinburgh side hadn’t won in the east end of Glasgow in nine years, but they had the home side reeling when Jamie Walker opened the scoring in the fifth minute. That triggered a spirited response and Patrick Roberts went a long way to winning over the support with two goals after Gary Mackay-Steven had claimed the leveller.
SWEDE DREAMS…Mikael Lustig celebrates his goal with Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor.
Three days after the miserable and unacceptable Scottish Cup semi-final penalty-kick shoot-out exit to second-tier Rangers on April 17 2016, Ronny Deila announced he would be stepping down as manager of Celtic. “It’s vital the club comes first and instead of me being the focus, hopefully now the team and the club can be the focus as we enter this final important period of the season,” he said in a prepared statement. “It was an absolute privilege to be named manager of Celtic, such a wonderful football club, and I have enjoyed my time here immensely. There have been some great times and I am delighted that we have brought some trophies to the club.”
Contrast that with his words broadcast on February 4: “I will never quit, of course. This is a fantastic job and I see big opportunities here. The dream is to get into the Champions League. This is a Champions League club.” The Norwegian was correct in his assertion of Celtic’s status in world football, but, sadly, not while he occupied the manager’s office. The nanosecond Tom Rogic’s unfortunate spot-kick cleared the crossbar, the trapdoor buckled and gave way under Deila.
The club’s forty-seventh championship – and the fifth in succession – was duly delivered on May 8 with a 3-2 victory over Aberdeen at Parkhead. Somehow the performance summed up fairly neatly Deila’s two seasons in charge. There was style and substance for almost an hour with Celtic coasting three goals ahead, but then the players, with little guidance from the admiral of the fleet, somehow navigated themselves into choppy waters and just managed to dock before being holed below the waterline. A victory that should have been secured by a far greater margin had become needlessly complicated. Bobby Madden’s full-time whistle had been more than welcomed by the 47,877 crowd.
Patrick Roberts netted twice in the first twenty-one minutes on a day of celebration to ease the evident pressure. Mikael Lustig added a third four minutes after the turnaround and the Celtic Park choristers were in full voice. Without warning, the team lost its bearings and the visitors found themselves with the opportunity to take the game to the champions.
Celtic were not helped by the introduction of the erratic Efe Ambrose for the injured Charlie Mulgrew and uncertainty quickly spread across the back four. Niall McGinn pulled one back in the fifty-eighth minute and the home side’s advantage was cut to one when Andy Considine netted six minutes later. There were a few frantic scrambles in front of Craig Gordon before the conclusion and the celebrations.
Ronny Deila went through his party piece with three quick thrusts of his left fist accompanied with the yell of “Yes!”. Minutes after the final whistle, he said: “We have shown we are the best team in Scotland. It’s a very, very good achievement. We have lost important games, that makes the season a little more grey than white, but in the league we have been very, very consistent and we have not lost since we played up at Aberdeen in February.
“It’s been two long seasons – I’m not used to having so long seasons – it’s been tough, but it’s good when you cross the line.” He reflected: “It’s a special place to be here in Celtic, in paradise, so, of course, I am going to miss it.”
One week later, following a 2-1 reverse at St Johnstone, the final curtain dropped on the season with the 7-0 victory over Motherwell. The ups and downs of Ronny Deila’s two years sitting side-by-side.
In his two years, Celtic had a total winning gap of thirty-two points. In Neil Lennon’s final season, Celtic had won by twenty-nine points.
Alex Gordon, a former sports editor of a best-selling national newspaper, writes with insider’s knowledge in his fifteenth book on Celtic.
Lisbon Lion Bertie rates the tome as “a truly unique tribute to Celtic” while John ‘Yogi’ Hughes, the club’s seventh-highest goalscorer, calls it “an amazing journey of several lifetimes”.
* ‘CELTIC: 50 Flags Plus One’ celebrates the club’s remarkable fifty-one league championships in their glorious history. To order a copy – and get a FREE book, ‘Seville: The Celtic Movement’ – please click here.