Last night, as the full time whistle went in Molde, you could almost feel something shift, imperceptibly, on Planet Celtic. The tectonic plates moved; it was only a hair, but it was real, and you could feel it whether you were in Norway or Stornoway. It was undeniable.
It could not be confused with someone cutting a loud fart in the main stand.
Ronny Deila arrived at Celtic Park amidst great promise. I thought it was a great appointment, and there have been times during his tenure when I’ve been convinced we were on the right lines. Equally, there have been times when I’ve been sure we weren’t.
I’ve tried to put the positive gloss on Ronny’s time at Celtic Park, and indeed there are times when it hasn’t been hard. But for a scandalous refereeing decision last season we’d have been within a hair of the treble, which would have put our manager in a very small, select club including Martin O’Neill and Jock Stein. That would have been one Hell of a debut season.
Equally, we’ve witnessed appalling performances and scandalous results, things which have given form to the creeping doubts some of us have felt for a while now.
Even in games where we’ve won, those where our results have been positive, those doubts have been hard to shake. Glaring problems plague us.
The way we constantly concede goals from set pieces is dreadfully scary, putting us at risk in every match, no matter the level of opposition.
Then there’s the way this much vaunted “high pressing game” – which seems to have missed the pressing part in recent months – leaves us lethally exposed to the high long ball.
In addition is Deila’s unbelievable inflexibility in playing one man up front, even in the SPL, and his sticking with the same basic playing system even in games where it is plainly not working. In the SPL we can sometimes get away with it. In Europe we never will.
Ajax’s manager took a while to adapt his playing style to counter ours, and they got a 2-2 draw out of it. Fenerbahce’s manager sussed it out quicker; his teams was already 2-0 when he realised that our system was vulnerable, and he acted accordingly. We were the ones lucky to get the 2-2 draw in that game because they ruthlessly exposed us every time they want up the park.
Last night though, well their manager came prepared. He knew our system from the start, because it never changes a bit, and he knew exactly how to counter the attacking parts and expose the defensive ones. We were awfully goddamned lucky that wasn’t a bigger defeat.
We’re playing Molde at Celtic Park in early November, and those who’re talking about us winning that match and getting back on track are more optimistic than they ought to be. Their coach will be bringing his team to a half empty stadium where we’re no longer feared, to play against a system and a manager he can already predict well in advance, who’s weaknesses he’s already exploited in full … why does anyone fancy us to take points out of that?
Likewise the Dutch and the team from Turkey. I think we’ve had our shot at beating both, when they didn’t know what system they’d be up against or the relative strengths of our players. They’ve both seen how little we have to offer and frankly I think we’ve blown it. I don’t expect to get anything from those games, because our team is there for the taking and they know it.
I saw nothing last night which makes me feel positive; indeed, everything I witnessed scares me about as badly as anything at Celtic Park has since Tony Mowbray was manager there.
There were signs, many of them, even in the early part of his tenure, that things weren’t working, that there was something wrong under the hood, that the club wasn’t going anywhere.
Can anyone, honestly, point to this Celtic team and say it has improved in the last two years?
That there’s a clear direction of travel?
That things are … progressing?
In truth, you could make an argument for saying we’ve gone backwards. What boggled the mind last night was not simply the result, it was how easy it was for the home side.
Are we better than the side who took on Milan last season?
All the evidence suggests we’re not.
There’s no sign of the verve and passion and determination of that night. All forward momentum has been lost, and I fear we won’t get it back.
A lot of the attention today will be focussed on Kris Commons, and his reaction to being subbed. That, too, worried me and ought to worry every Celtic fan.
If I were in charge of our first team he’d have played his last game in our colours; no player should ever think he has the right to pull that kind of crap, in public, whether he’s angry or not.
Jock Stein would never have accepted it for one second.
What worries me is that Commons felt he was on solid enough ground to do it. That suggests that our management team is shockingly weak and that’s a concern above and beyond bad results and performances.
I’ve never liked John Collins, and I never wanted him at Celtic Park, and I can actually trace the moment Deila first started to worry me all the way back to the press conference where he was appointed manager. He was talking, then, about bringing in his own people when he was flatly, and publicly, contradicted by Peter Lawwell who “promoted” the idea of having someone who “understood the local game” on the payroll.
I wrote a lengthy, angry article on that for Fields at the time.
I wondered then whether our manager was capable of being his own man; that suggestion made no sense whatsoever either then or now but he accepted it as if it did, and everyone knew Collins was the guy the board had in mind.
He was someone imposed on Deila rather than someone brought in by him, and it was notable last night that Commons focussed much of his ire on the Scot rather than on the Norwegian who is supposed to be running things.
Something else scared me. Scott Brown, on TV, seeming to slap down Commons.
All of this would all be bad enough if the dressing room had been lost to the manager entirely, but that would, at least, narrow our problems down to one simple solution.
Instead, Brown made it seem fractured, factionalised, divided against itself …. a recipe for disaster if ever there was one, and something that won’t be cured simply by replacing the management team.
We have problems here that go way beyond the coaching team. At every level of our club is the reek of fear, and the undercurrent of defeatism and lack of imagination.
We will dominate Scotland for the next couple of years. No-one realistically disputes that. The one club that might have presented a challenge has shown it has no appetite for the bright lights. To get to the top and stay there requires more than Aberdeen has.
But there are other threats out there, of course, and if we continue to go backwards someone will catch us, and end any ambitions we have of reaching ten in a row … which seems, on a day like today, such a pathetic and parochial wee ambition anyway, and the ultimate proof of how little we’ll settle for.
Our sights used to be far, far higher than that.
On that greater front, our decline is now abundantly clear and it’s all the more shocking for being entirely predictable.
During the last months of Tony Mowbray’s time at Celtic Park there were a number of our fans who started mentally preparing themselves to enter a very dark place. They knew a night like St Mirren was coming; you could see it a mile down the road.
At around about that time, someone told me they’d started thinking of the Mowbray tenure as like caring for a terminally ill relative.
Every day brought with it new agonies, until, finally, for the sake of everyone involved, you start yearning for it to be over, for one dark day to bring matters to a close, letting everyone grieve and then get on with it.
“You want it to be over with quick,” is what he told me.
That same person later told me that watching the third and fourth goals go in that night in Paisley was horrible, but oddly cathartic because everyone in the stands realised it was finished.
For the last twenty minutes of the game last night, I thought about that guy and those words, and had we conceded a fourth, and a fifth, I may, too, have felt that odd sense of cleansing, of relief, because that, surely, would have been the end.
I’ve got no more faith in the Deila “experiment”.
I saw enough last night to convince me that we’re already on the down slope to the end. A lot of fans, who otherwise were keeping their own council, last night similarly made up their minds, and you could hear it in the stands at the game when Commons was taken off, and it was there, real and raw, on the forums.
And with that now firm in my mind, with that now settled, I hope that it’s quick, that we don’t have to drag it out, that it’s not going to hurt any more than it has to.
(This article was amended to change the top line, which originally read Malmo not Molde. The consequence of writing with a pounding headache, entirely brought on by that nonsense last night.)