That late winner by Matt O’Riley was the start of a great weekend for Celtic, as later, main challengers St Mirren could only manage a draw at Kilmarnock. The fact that this result is better than Celtic managed there in the League Cup is no comfort to the Paisley side’s title aspirations.
St Mirren are Celtic’s only real challengers this season, as the chasing pack slipped ever-further back. Saints are home to Newco next weekend, and if fortune goes our way, the visitors will get a new manager bounce, allowing Celtic to extend their lead at the top again. The top two meet at Celtic Park on 1 November in a game that will go a long way to deciding the title.
As alluded to above, yesterday the world’s most hilarious football club sacked manager Mick Beale after just 10 months in charge. The Beale episode is a morality tale worth exploring. A youth coach at Liverpool, Steve Gerrard took him to Ibrox in 2018. Gerrard, never considered an intellectual, won the league three years later, with Beale’s reputation in Glasgow soaring as a consequence – he was “the brains” behind the operation, apparently.
In 2021 the pair moved to Aston Villa, where they put the Midlands club through 11 months of poor results and were sacked. Beale spent 7 months out of work before being appointed manager at QPR. This is where it gets interesting.
QPR opened the season on fire, were top of the table, with Beale looking like a Premier League manager designate. The opportunity to manage in the topflight came sooner than expected, as struggling Wolves asked him to take over, but Beale rejected them. As the nights drew in, so did QPR’s season. They lost four games in five and Beale’s abilities were being laid bare.
At the same time, Giovanni van Bronckhorst was struggling at Ibrox. Just months after taking Newco to the Europa League Final, he had them in the Champions League group stage, but the demands of competing at that level exhausted his squad. They were losing heavily in Europe while slipping behind Celtic domestically.
With discontent at van Bronckhorst growing, Beale played his card, visiting Ibrox for a home game against Aberdeen. I listened to Radio Scotland that afternoon and his presence there took prominence. Newco fans wanted him, and his attendance was seen as a sign he was willing to come. van Bronckhorst was a dead man walking.
Fair play to Beale, with some sharp elbows, he got himself a multi-million-pound contract, money Newco can ill-afford but will still have to honour. He is the last type of person you would want associated with your club, but just about perfect for a rival.
Let’s talk strategy. Clubs have immediate demands: win the next game. and for some, win the league. Then they have long-term objectives: improve so we have a better chance of winning in future. Fans of all clubs overwhelmingly make immediate demands. Even when clubs know their short-term actions harm long-term objectives, fan demands can be so overwhelming they become irresistible.
That is horrible, destructive, but very common in football. Newco had an unbelievably good manager in van Bronckhorst. He took them to a Europa League Final, eliminated Ange Postecoglou’s Celtic on the way to winning the Scottish Cup, then took the club into the Champions League group stage for the first time.
Newco were not ready for it. How do you deal with losing 1-7 to Liverpool and still get your players full of confidence and pumped up for the weekend? These were questions they didn’t have answers for, because none of them had the necessary experience. Even clever Newco fans I know rationalised to themselves how van Bronckhorst’s football was bad, and change was necessary to prevent inevitable decline.
How ridiculous does that sound now? van Bronckhorst had earned the right to go through a bad patch and would have emerged a stronger manager with a better team. Instead, the Newco board succumbed to fan pressure – which remember, at all clubs is overwhelmingly focused on immediate satisfaction. Tempted by the fruit of another, they sacked the most successful manager they are every likely to have and appointed a great self-promoter.
I spoke to Peter Lawwell often during season 2020-21. It was clear from around October that Celtic were unlikely to win the league and that change was inevitable. Lawwell had to balance the immediate pressure of winning a very important league, with what was best for our future.
Everyone (including me) was telling the CEO the same thing: change had to happen and the sooner the better. Celtic took soundings. Without going into detail, midway through that season, no one worthy of the job would touch us with a barge pole. Neil Lennon had won five out of five domestic trophies and after his first elimination from a cup competition, a mob wanted him sacked. In those circumstances, only a loser wanting the pay cheque would come.
At the start of this season I gave Newco a 33% chance of winning the league. Celtic signed talented players in their early 20s, Newco signed players typically five years older, at their peak – and most of them physically taller and stronger. Again, they had a short-term strategy: win now and think nothing of the long-term.
It failed, but 33% still feels right for what we knew in the summer. Their alternative, to build a sustainable and successful team, would have had a lower chance of winning the title this season, but at least they would not have burned all that money on players who will do well to finish second.
Signings like Celtic’s, full of young talent that will improve, gives you a platform for the future and a chance of eventually competing at a higher level. Now, Newco are under Uefa supervision for overspending, making the strategy which won the league in 2021 no longer available. They are penniless and have a reputation for being forced to sack managers during their first rough patch.
They have yet to face the truth about where they are as a club. At board level, the backroom and technical staff, recruitment, sport science, commercials (oh the commercials!), football management and player squad, they are a million miles short of Celtic’s standard. We have departmental heads with more experience, business and football acumen than anyone at Ibrox, from the CEO down.
Every new season they will start with a puncher’s chance of winning the league. That is all they have: ‘Buy our tickets, we might get lucky!’ It will remain this way until some very ballsy CEO faces the immediate-gratification junkies and says “No!” I see no sign of this happening. Sisyphus FC are stuck in a fruitless struggle for another generation, at least!