2014 saw Celtic win their third consecutive league title, but we didn’t reach either cup final. A period of significant change got underway during the summer when we said farewell to Neil Lennon.
Neil took over from Tony Mowbray, his first managerial appointment after working with the Youths at Lennoxtown. His first season was the one that got away. Defeat at Inverness with the title within their grasp, Walter Smith’s Rangers took their third successive title against the third difference Celtic manager.
Three months into the next season, Celtic were 10 points behind a Whyte-McCoist inspired Rangers, but that was overcome, with interest, by Christmas. Celtic went on to win the league by 20 points, although 10 of them were as a penalty for Rangers incurring an insolvency event.
Thereafter it was plan sailing for Neil. He never looked back in the league and reached the Champions League group stage twice, progressing to the knock-out stage on the first occasion. He learned the managerial ropes at Celtic and did enough in his four years here to establish himself as a European-class manager. He was our third unqualified success in four appointments.
By this summer it was evidence to all, including Neil, that significant rebuilding was needed. The job was handed to Ronny Deila.
Ronny’s first challenge came in the Champions League qualifiers in the form of Legia Warsaw. Despite the record books showing Celtic progressed after a 3-0 default home win, Legia wiped the floor with Celtic home and away. Celtic looked like a team of strangers, unfamiliar with the system they were asked to play.
That was, of course, true, the system was unfamiliar, but it’s execution was miscalculated, the on-field results were deserved. The Champions League playoff round against Maribor was unusual inasmuch as Celtic dominated the away first leg and deserved more than the 1-1 draw, but the Slovenians arrived in Glasgow with their game face on. Celtic were outplayed and out of the Champions League.
Things slowly got better, although home performances against Motherwell (by my measure the worst) and Hamilton Accies (who were impressive), and latterly Ross County indicated there is still a long way to go.
Ronny’s Celtic found their feet in the Europa League, where they finished second behind a very accomplished Salzburg. The away performances against Salzburg and Astra gave an insight into how things could be for this Celtic team.
It was, to say the least, disappointing not to qualify for the Champions League. It denied the club millions of pounds and shaded our trump card in to be used in attracting players, but in reality we’re not a Champions League team this season. The Europa’ gave us an opportunity to play European football on our level, pick up coefficient points and extended interest after Christmas (if you’re young this won’t mean much, if you’re my age, you’ll recall this being our Holy Grail).
Inter Milan await in the next round. They are also going through a rebuilding exercise and are as vulnerable to lesser-resourced teams as Celtic – so unlike Juventus two years ago – we have a sporting chance.
The tactical direction of the club is visibly distinct from what went before Ronny. Is this a good thing? Probably. Neil Lennon and his players over-achieved in their first Champions League season on a scale it’s difficult to measure. That squad had no right to reach the levels they did; theirs was a herculean effort. Play Matthews at left back, alongside a central pair of Wilson and Ambrose. Put Miku up front, with Mulgrew and Ledley in the middle – then go beat Barcelona. It was beyond impossible.
Barca, Ajax and Milan were prepared for Celtic last season; we finished bottom, out of ideas and direction on that stage. We needed to change, same again wasn’t going to wash.
Ronny’s played a high-pressing game, mostly with players who are unaccustomed to the demands of this game-plan. This has been a mistake on several occasions, most notably against Legia and Maribor. He’s working on player fitness, but in all likelihood it will take the next two transfer windows before he can craft the squad into the shape he wants it to be.
We’re halfway through the season and, with Aberdeen playing before us tomorrow, there’s a chance they could go top of the table, for a couple of hours, anyway. That’s not good enough, by any measure. Notwithstanding the revamp, we should have done better in the Champions League qualifiers and we should be further ahead in the league, but the fundamentals remain intact:
We needed to start post-Neil Lennon with a new tactical strategy.
Trying hard not to be disrespectful to Aberdeen, but we’re going to win the league.
We’re in both cup competitions.
We remain in the Europa League.
I was happy with the direction we took in appointing Ronny Deila and remain so. The problems of the last six months could be classified as First World Problems. We’ll get over them, while others watch on from the Other Worlds.
Have a Happy Celtic New Year, strap in and enjoy the ride, I promise it’ll be a great one.
Sale on at CQNBookstore, fill your stockings.