Celts in Europe – Was it really so awful?

by Johnny Connelly

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As a dejected Celtic side trudged off after a 6-1 skelping against the majestic Barcelona, Hoops fans voiced their anger and frustration at what many of them judged to be an inferior and lacklustre performance by their heroes.

Now that the dust has settled, was it really so awful? Both in terms of the performance on the night, and the effort given in the Champions League overall?

True enough, Barcelona demolished Celtic. Not since 1965 have Celtic conceded six goals in a single match; but on the night, what could have been done to stop the rampant Catalan side?

Twitter, Facebook, and football phone-in frequenters were aghast at Neil Lennon’s team selection, (after the match of course). What a fine thing hindsight is. The most frequent questions asked circulated around the omission of Charlie Mulgrew, Kris Commons, and Anthony Stokes.

I’m sorry, but does anyone really believe that  the inclusion of any of these players would have reigned-in the likes of Xavi and hat-trick-hero Neymar? Celtic were played off the park, in every area of the park. Surely there’s no permutation of Neil Lennon’s current Celtic squad that could’ve changed the outcome of the game? The fact is, when Barca set the heather alight, the best teams in the world struggle restrain them.

If we’re truly honest, Celtic have rode their luck against Barcelona pretty much every time they’ve come up against them in modern history, even when they’ve managed to beat them. Particularly in the last handful of fixtures between the clubs, Barca have had the lion’s share of chances and territorial possession.  Brave, resilient performances from Celtic have helped keep these matches tight, with any defeats being inflicted by the odd goal, but given the gulf between the sides and the control held by the Spanish giants, a heavy drubbing was always a possibility.

The expectation of Celtic fans is for their team to play well, contest every game, and win in style when it’s humanly possible. To achieve what they have in recent times in the Champions League is formidable. As much as this season’s Champions League campaign could be viewed as disappointing, Celtic have in no way been humiliated, when compared with the other  teams that finished bottom of their group in the competition.

Marseille, Copenhagen, Anderlecht, CSKA Moscow, and Real Sociedad for example all finished 4th. Nobody would dispute that these sides are major European entities, so there’s no shame in suffering a similar fate to them.

Although Celtic have previously reached the knockout stages, to do so this year seems to require major financial clout. When we compare Celtic’s first team wage budget to some of the sides that topped their groups, we begin to understand the David v Goliath nature of the task they face.

Celtic pay just over £300,000 every week on wages to their squad. This is by no means miserly, but Borussia Dortmund (top of Group F), pay almost three times as much. Chelsea pay more than six times more than Celtic in terms of wages, and Barcelona pay an astonishing, 11 times more than Celtic.

Perhaps a shift in mentality from the fans is required. Sadly, Celtic can’t be the world-beaters they were in the 60’s and 70’s. Since then it’s been a rollercoaster ride. For every triumph against Man Utd, Juventus, and Barcelona; there’s been an implosion against Neuchatel Xamax, Wacker Innsbruck, or Artmedia Bratislava.

Celtic are operating well on and off the field at the moment. A few key signings could give them the edge and excitement they long for. Ok, they won’t win the Champions League anytime soon, but 99% of clubs in Europe are in that same boat.

Crack a smile Hoops fans; your team are cruising to another league title, competing in Europe every year, and living within their means. There’ll be ups and downs; good times and bad. Sit back, and enjoy the ride.

Forster or Hart? Roy decides…

Does Roy Have the Hart to Pick Forster?

By Johnny Connelly 

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Manchester City and England’s no.1, Joe Hart, added to his CV of calamity at the weekend by dropping another high profile clanger to gift Chelsea a late winner in the English Premier League.

All the while, Celtic’s man between the sticks continues to cruise through matches at a domestic level, and attract plaudits from all over Europe, most recently for his heroics against AC Milan, Barcelona, and Ajax.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, for starters, Forster still seems to be about as far away from an England cap as ever.

The question is why? Surely it’s not a simple case of ignorance towards a top athlete because of the league he’s playing in?

Roy Hodgson’s England side have been uninspiring, although admittedly still churning out results in the qualifiers. Lapses in concentration from Joe Hart have historically put England under pressure, and given his current form, is it wise to trust a shaky pair of hands going into Rio 2014?

Who could forget his blunder against Scotland just a few months ago? His fumble against Southampton back in February? His corner flap to give Cardiff their first win over City in August? Or his misjudgement against Bayern Munich earlier in the month?

Any notion of replacing Hart was unthinkable last season, but suddenly the recurring errors have led to more than a few whispers of a less than guaranteed no 1 England jersey and on club form even Manuel Pellegrini is fighting to come up with excuses for Hart in the City goal.

In terms of realistic options for England, they have but three. John Ruddy, Ben Foster, or Fraser Forster. Three top goalkeepers, that much is clear, but for some reason Forster feels furthest away from the no.1 jersey.

There’s only so many times Forster can come up trumps in Champions League games, only to be fed lines like “we’re impressed with Fraser, and are watching his development.” Soon a time will come when the England manager has to come off the fence and make a call on his ability.

To choose Forster above any of the other potential suitors for the England no.1 jersey would be a brave decision. Elements of the English media and support believe their league to be the best in the world, so much so that to opt for a ‘keeper playing in Scotland would seemingly verge on an insult.

Forster has a proven big game mentality, and at just 25 years of age, has a good decade of top level football in him. Neil Lennon backs his goalkeeper to the hilt, and openly admits, “it’ll be impossible to keep the player here when he’s performing like that”.

Spanish star Xavi has also spoken of his admiration for the 6ft 7inch goalkeeper. The Barca talisman said: ‘I can’t say that I watch him every week – but when we have played Celtic he has shown that he is a world-class goalkeeper.

‘From what I have seen he has everything to succeed at a club like Barcelona – and with his Champions League performances for Celtic I am sure there will be more than one big club interested in him.’

All interest now turns to England’s upcoming friendlies with Chilie and Germany in November. The squad will be confirmed in the next few days, and given the non-competitive nature of the fixtures, Hodgson will never have a better chance to call-up or feature Forster, with little or nothing at stake.

Brave decisions by managers can be the difference between success and failure. Will Hodgson be brave enough to rise above the false stigma of the Scottish game to select Forster? We’ll find out soon…

 

Bring on the English! – After Brave Scots Lose At Wembley, The Tartan Army Want A Rematch!

by Johnny Connelly

Scotland players applaud the crowd after a 3-2 defeat against England at Wembley
So near, yet so far. Scots have come a long way in a short time…

12 years, 8 months, and 29 days had elapsed since Scotland last took to the field against our auldest of enemies on the football field; but when the players lined up, the national anthems boomed out, and the kick-off finally arrived, the excitement and passion around the match was so overwhelming that it was hard to imagine how the sides had ever been kept apart.

An explosion of energy right from the word go was a welcome change for the long-suffering Tartan Army. Gordon Strachan’s side, psychologically charged by the deafening noise from the 30,000 travelling supporters, the players lay siege to the England side, battling far harder than we’ve been used to seeing in recent years. It was always going to be an uphill battle, and nobody in the football world gave Scotland a hope against the highly ranked England, yet the Scots managed to take the lead on two occasions, before eventually succumbing to a 3-2 defeat.

Both the euphoria of putting the ball past Joe Hart twice; and the agony of watching Ricky Lambert’s bullet header crash into the top corner leaves the Scotland fans with a gaping hole to fill, a hole that can only be filled by the promise of another chance to take on England again in the near future.

The powers that be surely must see the light and put this fixture back into the diaries of both FAs on a regular basis.

The positives we can draw from having an annual or bi-annual match against England are too great to ignore.  Speaking on Peter & Roughie’s Football Showlast week, former Scotland ‘keeper Alan Rough stressed the importance of the annual Scotland v England fixture back in his day: “It gave the players something to aim for. Everyone wanted to play in that game.”

Roughie’s point is an excellent one. In a time where we’ve seen players ‘retiring’ from international football, withdrawing from the squad with debatable injuries, and at times showing apathy towards the prospect their own involvement in the Scotland setup, a focal point such as the prospect of getting a crack at England on a regular basis could be enough to get them interested in Scotland again.

Scotland lost the talents of Kris Boyd, Barry Ferguson, Kris Commons, and Steven Fletcher (albeit temporarily) prematurely for a variety of reasons. The disappointment of not reaching major finals may have led some players to feel as though representing Scotland in lower profile matches and friendlies is somewhat meaningless. With no focal point to aim for, it’s understandable to see how this mentality could creep in. The psychology of a player can be a difficult thing to unravel. We’ve seen it 100 times before in the domestic side of the game: players will continue to fight hard and produce top performances in league matches that would be otherwise meaningless, if the club still have a cup final scheduled to take part in later in the season.

A match against England every year or two could be our cup final.

It’s nothing short of scandalous that England and Scotland have been kept apart for so long, and it’s a minor miracle that they’ve never drawn each other in the qualifying groups for World Cups or European Championships. Celtic captain Scott Brown donned the captain’s armband for his country against England, but had he been injured or unavailable, a player like Brown may never have played against his country’s greatest rivals. Brown was just 14 when Scotland played England in 1999, surely it’s only right that the best players we produce get to showcase their skills in what is the biggest grudge match possible for the country? Can you imagine Manchester United never playing Manchester City again? Or Barcelona and Real Madrid waiting 14 years for another ‘El Classico’? Everyone in football would be worse off for it.

As much as almost 13 years is a long time to wait to face England; our wait to reach the finals of a major tournament has been longer still. France 98’ is but a distant memory, Gordon Strachan and everyone at the SFA has a responsibility to do everything in their power to give us the best chance possible of reaching a major finals within the next few attempts. England always qualify, it’s just the way it is. A regular match against them could help our campaign, as it’d serve as a barometer and progress marker, year on year (or every two years).

Our road back to reaching the finals of major tournaments will be a long one, so measuring our progress in a tangible manner is key. England’s performance in major finals is fairly stagnant, and as such serves well as a way of measuring how far away we are from being good enough to qualify.

The timing of these matches could aid us too. World Cup and European Championship qualifying campaigns can be long and arduous. Those big 6 month gaps between competitive matches for Scotland can’t be conducive to forming and maintaining a cohesive unit, capable of challenging for qualification. There’s only so much you can learn from the likes of the recent friendly against Luxembourg. When compared to the heated nature of our 3-2 defeat to England, it’s plain to see that as a team, we benefit more from the experience of being pitted against our neighbours.

Away from our immediate qualification and progress goals, current manager Gordon Strachan made a great point about the financial benefits that could be harnessed from a regular Scotland v England fixture. It’s no secret that developing young players, and getting things right for both Scottish and English players from an early age is an expensive task in this day and age. It’s for this reason that Strachan suggested ploughing all the benefits from the annual or bi-annual match directly back into the grass roots of UK football. Wednesday night’s match attracted around 90,000 to Wembley stadium, before we even look at the TV money involved, we’re talking about gross revenue of £3,150,000 from ticket sales alone. This match could easily raise around £10m for grass roots football, and that’s money that our game could put to very good use.

It remains to be seen whether or not the powers that be will bow to the snowballing pressure from fans both north and south of the border to make the match a regular occurrence, but even if we don’t get the action we’re looking for, we’ve come a long way under Strachan. The team look passionate about playing for their country, and the fans are beginning to believe that we can take on anyone, regardless of stature. Strachan’s infectious attitude and personality is under the skin of the nation.

Just a few months ago we wouldn’t have wanted a regular shot at England for fear of the skelping that could ensue. Now, after our victory in Croatia, and a spirited performance at Wembley, Scotland’s lion is well and truly rampant once more.

Bring on the English.

 

The SPFL – Fan Fuelled Evolution

by Johnny Connelly

(As hosted on http://www.plzsoccer.com/news)

It’s been a long, long time coming, but we’ve successfully reformed the structure of our professional football league format in this country. It’s all kicking off this week, and not a minute too soon.

That arduous, seemingly never-ending string of weeks where we find ourselves with a gaping football hole to fill is almost at an end. We kid ourselves that pre-season friendlies, and even old Youtube clips of bygone years will anesthetise us throughout the summer, but the truth is, nothing but the real McCoy will do. In Scotland, the fans need football; but more importantly, the football needs fans.

This interdependency has never been more apparent than it is now. The dark cloud of doom that lurked over Rangers throughout the Craig Whyte/Charles Green/liquidation saga served as a stark warning that all clubs can fall victim to the perils of the business aspects of the modern game. Yet, at the other end of that turmoil, we saw glimpses of the finest element of our game, the unwavering and unquestioning support of the fans.

Clubs in our country have been plagued by problems of their own, but we’re fighting through it together as football fans. The news this week that Dunfermline’s long standing threat of liquidation could be at an end is huge shot in the arm for our wavering game. The fact that the CVA came from ‘Pars United’, an ordinary group of Dunfermline supporters, further enhances the remarkability of this particular happy ending.

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The New Way – Neil Doncaster showcases the new SPFL logo at Hampden

As we prepare to embark upon the new dawn that is the SPFL, it becomes apparent that fan power is more important than ever. Last season was resplendent with hints that the fans will have the final say when it comes to football in this country.

Last season we saw something of a siege mentality at Ibrox, as Rangers fans flocked to support the team in their darkest hour. Attendance records were challenged, and dare I say it, the much maligned Glasgow club seem to be through the worst of their troubles, all thanks to the fans.

Similarly, Dunfermline looked doomed just weeks ago, probably more so than Rangers, but the collective presence of likeminded fans have all but saved their club, albeit through the means of a CVA and by virtue of an empathetic set of creditors.

The SPFL’s big focus now should be channelling energy into finding a solution for Hearts. They too will sink or swim based on the actions of their fans. The effort and commitment so far from the Hearts fans has been overwhelming, and if they could somehow meet the desired monetary amounts to satisfy the creditors, we’d be witnessing a miraculous escape for one of our country’s most revered clubs.

Clubs defying the odds to survive thanks to fan power are perhaps somewhat sensationalised examples of what the common punter can achieve in the world of football. We can however, step back and see that the fans have the power to make the new SPFL a success, despite the apparent downgrading of our domestic game since the days of Larsson, Laudrup, De Boer, and Sutton.

As fans, we’ve faced debacles like the Setanta deal and uncertainties galore, yet here we are, on the brink of another glorious season. Excitement is cascading across the country in anticipation of the big kick off. Yes, there’ll be more problems, and yes, it’s far from the polished product that our neighbours across the border take in every weekend, but it can still be glorious in its own inimitable way.

Small steps are being taken in the right direction all the time. It’s looking positive for the start of the season, as there’s no clearer indication of support than a rise in season ticket sales. 7 of the 12 SPFL Premiership clubs have reported increases in season ticket sales so far, and another 3 SPFL Premiership clubs say their sales are on a par with last season.

Even without the presence of Rangers in our top division, the clubs do have something to attract their fans this season. Celtic, Motherwell and St Johnstone have a taste of European football. They’ll be looking to maximise their involvement this term, and ensure they get to participate again next time around.

Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle will strive to continue their meteoric rise, challenging for 2nd place in the Premiership this season perhaps? Hearts, Hibs, Dundee United and Aberdeen will seek to right the wrongs of last season and finish in a position that befits their club stature; while St Mirren, Kilmarnock, and the new boys Partick Thistle will be well aware they’ve been touted to go down, so they’ll have fire in their bellies, and a will to escape the drop.

The road back to the big time for Scottish football is a long one, we may never get back to where we were, but football in this country is a labour of love. We’ll forever indulge in nostalgia, we’ll forever exaggerate the glory days, and we’ll forever dream of a product better than the one we current showcase.

Our excitement for football is insatiable, there’s nothing quite like those start of the season butterflies. This time around, we’ll take the bad news with a pinch of salt and remember that football is for enjoying.

It may not be perfect, but it’s our league, and we love it.

Jambos Rejoice, Romanov’s Offski

by Johnny Connelly – Archive piece from PLZ Soccer – April 2013

9 years ago, a little known Lithuanian of Russian descent embarked upon a trailblazing scheme to take over one of Scotland’s biggest football clubs.

He promised, under his leadership, they’d win the Champions League within a decade.

Now, with less than a year to fulfil his promise, and with his millions and millions of pounds of assets now allegedly in the hands of others, said Lithuanian unquestionably has his work cut out for him…

READ THE FULL STORY HERE…