On practically all measures the club has had a less successful 2013 than 2012 but I’m going to give you a positive State of the Club Report today. 2013 gave us one critical achievement, qualification for the group stage of the Champions League. Winning the league title is, of course, critical for most ambitious clubs, but at Celtic it has become a bit like putting your socks on; it’s something we do as a matter of course.
Overcoming Elfsborg and Shakhter Karagandy was a lot more difficult than it should have been. They are to us what we are to teams at the top of La Liga or Serie A, but our superior resources eventually held good. You get a sense from recent comments by Neil Lennon and Johan Mjallby that the realisation we need to shop at least one transfer window in advance of the period we need players to be effective has dawned.
Next season’s qualifiers will, in all probability, be more challenging, so the hard work necessary to ensure a high probability of a successful outcome should already be underway.
Performance at this season’s group stage was ultimately disappointing after a promising start. We held our own for 80 minutes away to Milan, looking as comfortably as we have been away to a top Spanish or Italian club in 30 years. Conceding two late goals felt harsh. Defeat at home to Barcelona was frustrating. The plan worked perfectly while the game was 11 v 11 and even when we were reduced to 10 men we still had a chance to take the lead, but Barca were hot favourites from the moment Scott Brown flicked out at Neymar. We missed Brown’s influence hugely over the next three CL games.
A tactically impeccable performance at home to Ajax but some points on the board but the three remaining games, away to Ajax and Barcelona, and home to Milan, were abject. It was like all our accumulated wisdom of how to compete in this tournament was lost. The Milan game at Celtic Park was particularly disappointing as it mirrored the manner and score of the defeat to Juventus earlier this year. No lessons were learned.
When Teemu Pukki cheerfully told us he would bring pace and strength to the Celtic attack, but not a bundle of goals, there was a ripple of concern across the support. In Europe, we can often only afford one striker, so he needs to be the type of will look away but have the ball bounce off his bum and into the net.
Recruiting a player who possesses this talent and can successfully deploy it on the Champions League, while he does his weekend business in the SPFL, has proven to be the key challenge for the football department. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly not impossible. We know the issue, we have time and money in the bank, so I don’t see why we can’t find a solution.
2013 was not a time of harmony for the Celtic support. Amid vandalism, flares and multiple Uefa fines Celtic banned fans and donated seats in section 111 to charity. We are 10 years after the Fifa and Uefa Fair Play awards. The road back to those times will not be easy but there is a road back.
In early 2012 I appeared on Radio Scotland, where James Traynor insisted that Celtic were doomed if the SPL clubs refused to allow Newco Rangers elevated access to top flight football. I told him the overwhelming consensus on Celtic Quick News was that we were prepared to pay the price to ensure new clubs start at the bottom of the league pyramid. If it meant more youth players, fewer fans, less effective European competition, so be it.
The predictions of doom were largely misplaced. Celtic have not only been able to reach the Champions League group stage, twice in succession. My money is on them qualifying again next year, while season ticket sales in excess of 40,000 is exceptionally robust in the circumstances.
It was almost exactly nine years ago that I suggested the start of the Martin O’Neill era would herald a Generation of Domination, as Sir David Murray’s financial recklessness would lead to Rangers collapse. Now the only questions is, how many generations are we talking about? None of what has happened since is a surprise. Our progress on the field will not be linear, it never was, but it is assured.
Have a great New Year, you deserve it.
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