Today Manchester City were destroyed – thoroughly, comprehensively, totally – by a rampant Chelsea side that looks a different team than the one which lost the place in the latter weeks of the managerial regime of Jose Mourinho.
One of these clubs had the mid-season blues and acted accordingly.
Today the benefits of doing so were reaped in full.
The other club made what looks like a crass, un-necessary and self-harming decision and, to many observers, today all the chickens came home to roost in a single afternoon.
Hot on the heels of their thumping at the hands of Leicester, Manchester City fans are already looking forward to next season, although there’s a lot to play for in this one.
Confidence isn’t exactly sky-high over there at the moment.
Few, if any, believe they’ll win the Champions League, the reason all those hundreds of millions were lavished on the team in the first place. A growing number can imagine the league title slipping away too, in a season where they should have been favourites.
Yet, on the horizon those same fans see good times ahead … and I think they’re quite right to, because the finest manager in the world is on his way there and that speaks volumes about a board that took a colossally risky decision in what they believe to be the best, long term, interests of the club.
Across the city, their local rivals are embroiled in a truly disastrous mess of their own making, in circumstances they manufactured for themselves, and this one is a result of dithering and hesitancy, although there’s a very clear path they could already be following towards eventual recovery.
Louis Van Gaal is a dead manager walking, and there isn’t a person in the English game who isn’t well aware of that. The result that sunk him, this week’s defeat in the Europa League, was a shocker but the bigger shock, by far, is that the club hasn’t acted as you would expect in the wake of such an appalling setback.
In Manchester both clubs continue to go backwards this season, although at City at least the future appears to offer reasons for great optimism.
They were ambitious enough to go out and try to entice the greatest manager in the world to the club, and they succeeded; all that is to their credit. But the public nature of that pursuit and the decision to announce it in advance seems like a drastic mistake which cut the legs out from underneath Manuel Pelligrini.
And that’s where I feel a stab of sympathy for the Celtic board, and for the manager himself, because when I heard him talk yesterday what struck me – aside from his new found conviction and sense of purpose – was his reaction when asked if he had been given assurances about his future and he got irritated with the question and said “There are no assurances in football.”
He’s technically correct, of course, but that answer is revealing.
It’s revealing because it’s clearly a no; this guy has neither been told he’s safe or that he’s being replaced … and I understand why the Celtic board has kept publicly quiet about having doubts, but cannot shake the feeling that it’s typically indecisive.
Some of us argued that the time for making this decision, publicly and fully, was at the end of December. If the manager was going to go – as a lot us felt he should – then that was clearly the time to do it.
Go through that window with him still in charge and back him to the max, and make a full public declaration of that or cut him loose and let someone else take the reins.
Those appeared to be the choices; Celtic strode the middle of the road.
There are some Celtic supporters who ask “What kind of club sacks a manager chasing a treble?” You only have to look at Manchester for part of the answer; Manchester City didn’t believe Pelligrini was capable of elevating them above their present status, to where they thought the club needed to be, and acted accordingly.
They were still in four competitions when they told the world he wasn’t going to stay beyond this season and that they were bringing the finest manager out there in as his replacement.
In a sense they had no choice; Guardiola wasn’t prepared to walk out on Bayern whilst there was still business to do there and he was the man they wanted.
His appointment will transform City into a genuine contender for European superpower status, and you cannot blame them for doing it, but the execution of it was absolutely horrendous and humiliating for their current boss.
In that context, I understand why some people at Celtic might point to Manchester City and their current form and say “See, this is what we might have become.”
Yet I would argue that City have done absolutely the right thing, and it’s no different to what we did with the appointment of Kenny Dalgish as interim boss whilst we considered the options and decided who would fill the post.
There’s an upside to doing things that way; it gets it all out in the open.
If you’ve already identified someone it allows the incoming boss time to analyse everything and it allows the departing boss the certitude of what the future holds for him.
Everyone can focus on the task at hand, with absolutely no uncertainty darkening the skies above … and one look across Manchester shows the even costlier consequences of opting to live under such storm clouds.
Manchester United are treading water right now. The only legitimate excuse they can have is that they’re waiting for someone better than Jose Mourinho to become available, because for them to appoint him would, in my view, be an enormous risk and the only time in my living memory where that club has actually, wilfully, gone for a “second best option” knowing that is the case.
They would undoubtedly have preferred to have Pepe in their own ranks next season, but it makes zero sense for them to go for the man Barcelona rejected to appoint him, and who Guardiola has bested time and again on the big stage.
Either way, the sense of waiting for something to happen pervades the air at Manchester United and the longer that goes on the worse things look for this once magnificent club, now falling fast into a bad place and years of “settling for”, like Liverpool did in the 90’s and from which they’ve yet to fully emerge.
All of this is to say that Celtic’s failure to give a definitive answer to Ronny on the question of his future hasn’t hurt us, not on the surface anyway, but it’s not really helping us either.
If our board is still “evaluating things” what they’re really doing is trying to decide whether a league and cup double justifies giving Ronny another year.
Perhaps they see signs of improvement that some of us don’t; maybe Ronny has, in private, offered to change things a little and that’s convinced them. But betting £15 million on this guy getting us to the Champions League – as well as on fans not already having made up their minds and buying season tickets, or not, according to that view – is an awfully big risk for the board at Celtic Park to take.
For all that’s afflicting Manchester City right now, I think what Celtic fans need most – and what the whole club needs – is some certainty.
It isn’t right for Ronny to be answering the same question at every single press conference, and he’s right to be sick of it. If the board has taken a decision to keep him on they ought to have the guts to tell us all that and end all the confusion and doubt at a stroke.
Likewise, I don’t believe there would be anything lost by the board telling Ronny, in private, that they’ve concluded that he’s going to be leaving when the season ends.
He has a healthy league lead and if he can focus between now and then he might yet leave with the Scottish Cup as well as the SPL title.
Does anyone think that would hurt us, even if it went public? Guardiola’s decision to go to City next season affects two clubs; has Bayern collapsed because he’s not staying?
Our own players ought to be professional enough to get on with things regardless.
It’s indecision that ultimately wrecks seasons and costs a club precious time.
When Celtic dithered in December, neither getting rid of the management team or fully supporting them (and I won’t hear, from anyone, that we did; we patently did not) we had no choice but to let these guys finish the season come what may.
So a certain amount of that most precious commodity has already been lost to us.
I hope to God that, inside Celtic, there is an understanding that we can’t afford to lose much more of it. Waiting until the end of this season won’t do at all. Because surely the direction of our club over the next couple of years isn’t going to come down to the result in a Scottish Cup final? Surely we’re thinking beyond that?
Manchester City and Chelsea, ultimately, got it right.
Manchester United will too.
City appear to have paid a high price for taking a ruthless decision, but their board will have taken that into account, sacrificing one season for the long term good.
Chelsea couldn’t afford to wait, and didn’t.
United, on the other hand ….
How much longer are their fans going to wait for the inevitable?
If Ronny is staying he, and we, deserve to hear it long before the final whistle in the final game. If he’s going, I hope to God a lot of people inside the club are already working hard with that knowledge in mind … and that we’re not kept waiting for the news.