The sensational news yesterday, that Celtic have signed the best young prospect in Scottish football for years, has been relegated to the back pages today, in light of an appalling night of disappointment and disarray in the Champions League Qualifiers.
Trying to come to terms with what happened both on and off the park, I have to say I find myself bewildered. Not just by a display of cowardice and indifference on the pitch, treating the game against the Hungarian champions with about as much vigour and respect as Ross County at home.
Once again on the big stage, we managed to self-implode, shoot ourselves in the foot, embarrass ourselves on the park and humiliate the Celtic support across the world at the same time. Let’s be clear about this, we should be beating Ferencvaros comfortably. Remember this is the same team who beat Lazio home and away last season, before capitulating at home to a Copenhagen team that we should have beaten easily.
Just like we should have beaten Cluj the year before and AEK Athens the year before that and so on. We can’t seem to handle being favourites in Europe. The sad thing is, as fans, we’ve come to expect it. It’s almost like a pattern that’s gotten under our skin, a residual doubt that colours everything, invades everything, creates doubt and uncertainty, follows a well-worn path towards underachievement and capitulation. What the subtext is of course, is easily spotted.
That niggling doubt that we are not really of the Champions League, we are interlopers better suited elsewhere. This is hard to say, from someone who’s been going to see Celtic for 50 years, from a time when winning the European Cup was still a real possibility, to the sorrowful examples of the last few years under Delia, Rodgers and now Neil Lennon, who compounded matters in a shocking post-match interview.
Commenting on players who didn’t want to be at the club, was something which should have been kept “in house”. That it wasn’t is indicative of a deeper underlying malaise, that is reflected in a poor start to the season, a season without fans, without the twelfth man. Is Lenny having second thoughts? Can we recover from this?
Is Edouard gone?
When I first read Lennon’s comments on the game I assumed he was talking about players who were on the field against the Hungarians, who had shown, by their indifference to the cause that their heads were elsewhere. Beyond Ajer, I couldn’t think who else he was referring to?
Maybe lingering doubts about Ntcham’s commitment to the club, but then again I thought like Ajer, he had quite a good game. I didn’t get that he might be talking about players in the squad who didn’t play last night. Although he wasn’t even on the park, many Celtic fans seem to think that Lenny’s outburst was aimed at the Odsonne Eduard, who didn’t play due to a “thigh niggle”, which isn’t what you’d expect from your prize asset who should be chomping at the bit to perform in the Champions League.
But if it was a real injury, that changes things. If that was the case, that he was doubting Edouard’s commitment, then things have clearly gone from bad to worse. Losing Edouard at this stage would be catastrophic. I thought the word was he was happy enough to stay for the 10? He’s still not signed a contract beyond this year. Are there others who are “on their way”? Lenny certainly seemed to indicate that there were. The remarks could even suggest that he has lost at least some of the dressing room.
The word from Ajer’s agent yesterday afternoon, seeking an evaluation, has clearly shown the intent in the Norwegian’s camp had already been spotted. We have no option but to get the best price for him we can and see him out the door as quickly as possible. With the fee from Ajer we should be able to buy Shane Duffy if that is what has to be done to get him in.
Is Shane Duffy a better player than Kristoffer Ajer, I don’t honestly know. But given Duffy’s proclaimed desire to play in the Hoops, in what he already knows is an historic season, he would be better than a player with his head somewhere else. Just hearing last evening that Ntcham’s agent is also reported to have asked for an evaluation. It seems he too might also fancy his chances elsewhere and could be very well on his way.
Whatever way you look at it, these have been two important figures in Celtic teams for the past 3 years. And that’s without mentioning the situation with Tom Rogic, which is very unclear. Is David Turnball, sufficient replacement for Ntcham or Rogic? He may grow into it, but for now Ntcham is probably a better and clearly a more experienced player all round. Rogic on his day oozes class, but doesn’t seem to be part of Lenny’s plans. And what’s happening with Griff if he isn’t even on the bench in a team that started without a striker? Still no word as yet from the Edouard camp, which I suppose is good news, although it is a very fluid situation that can change quite quickly.
Out of our depth?
The Champions League and our relationship to it has changed dramatically over the last number of years. The elite clubs from the elite leagues completely dominate UEFA. Obstacles to participation for the Group Stages get more difficult year on year. Even if we’d beaten Ferenchvaros we would still have had to beat two further sides of increasing quality. But that’s not the only problem.
Our ability to beat teams we should be beating, teams with only a fraction of our resources, from lower leagues has terminally declined. As mentioned earlier we can’t seem to hack starting as favourites? It’s like we’ve developed a psychological block. We treat games like Wednesday night with a slight notion of entitlement, like we have the right to win. But as soon as any questions are asked we are found wanting.
Even as we equalised last night, there was still that nagging doubt that we’d seen this movie too often. That it would follow a pattern, we’d completely dominate the game but inevitably we would concede a soft killer goal, near the end, to which we would prove incapable of responding. We’d squander chances, miss sitters, huff and puff in possession but we couldn’t put the ball in the net. The strategy seemed to be, get the ball to Ryan Christie, just outside the box, and he will shoot. Some strategy. And shoot!
Presumably on the basis that one of them will eventually find its way, maybe like the equaliser, into the net with the help of a deflection. Then as we approached utter panic, we turn to the bench and bring on a striker with hardly enough time for him to properly get up to speed, and with no obvious cohesion. Suddenly you’re there again, praying for a decent bit of injury time! 5 minutes to save the ship, save the blushes, save the humiliation. “Tick tock . . . . . Tick tock . . . . . Here we go again”. We’ve grown so used to a knife in the heart of our desire, of our expectations, of our hopes that it feels sadly familiar? Why? Answers on a postcard please to:
No.1 Celtic Park.
(cc. Peter Lawell.)
Vincent Doherty was born in Derry but now lives in Dublin, he is enjoying his retirement by travelling to watch Celtic home and away.
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