One of the best TV shows of the last 10 years was the HBO series Rome. In its climactic episode, Marc Antony’s navy has just been annihilated by the forces of Octavian. His dream is over. It is the first major military defeat of his long career and it will be the last.
He knows how the story ends.
This man, one of the finest Roman generals of all time, a Consul, one of the most powerful men ever to live, turns to one of his trusted lieutenants and says;
“All my life I’ve been fearful of defeat. But now that it has come it’s not near as terrible as I’d expected. The sun still shines, water still tastes good … glory is all well and good but life is enough, nay?”
And I always loved that sentiment.
In Cleopatra, Richard Burton’s Antony is devastated by that moment.
James Purefoy handles it the way I think the real Anthony might have.
With a certain amount of dignity.
Today the defeat we all knew was coming has.
The feeling of it is not nearly so terrible as some of us expected although the result was shocking and the performance appalling.
No-one from Celtic emerges from today with a shred of credit; not the players, who were abysmal, not the manager, who’s decisions were ridiculous and substitutions inexplicable, who’s blind-spots about certain players have ended our unbeaten run and almost certainly will see Zenit put us out of Europe if they are repeated.
No, all the credit belongs to Hearts and to the much maligned Craig Levein who did what Brendan Rodgers was apparently unable to do; he watched the closing period against Hibs, realised that a team who presses Celtic with a high line will do damage to this defence, and set his entire tactical game-plan up accordingly.
And we had no more answer to it than we did against PSG, Bayern Munich or Anderlecht at Parkhead.
This was not a European super-club who dismantled that back line today; it was Hearts. This defence is all out of excuses and so is the man who keeps picking them. These guys look good when they have all the time in the world on their hands – although there were dreadful moments today when in acres of space they still managed to find Hearts players with the ball – but when they are pressed they fold like cardboard boxes in the rain.
I am late to the party when it comes to dismantling the entirety of the back line save for Kieran.
Today I am not only a convert to the cause but well on my way to zealotry. Excuses about going up against the best players in the world and no defence being able to cope with them collapse when you’re facing a 16-year-old kid and Kyle Lafferty and those players emerge from the game like swaggering conquerors.
Our defence needs radical surgery. The money is there. If it’s not what’s the point? Build all the hotels in the world, and sink cash into faraway places … none of it matters if the first team squad, the core of the whole operation, does not get what is required.
There will be no hiding place for those above the manager if he is not backed properly.
Some thought he wasn’t in the summer. Many of us were prepared to overlook that because the team was playing well, but even we were appalled that no central defensive reinforcements were brought in. The feeling of being short-changed is hard to shake. All talk of how our plans did not anticipate an injury problem with our first pick target don’t wash and never did. If we had only one player in mind, then that indicts everyone inside Celtic Park.
Today it’s clear that even without the injuries that plagued us at the time we’d have been on shaky ground. Forget trying to stop world class players; today, to use the Glasgow vernacular, those defenders didn’t look like they could have kept weans out of a close. That’s a major problem. These guys have been exposed against top players, today they were toasted by a bog-standard SPL team. That cannot be explained away. It cannot be ignored.
And yet, for all of what I’ve just written, the general feeling is not horror or disgust or even shock.
The latter doesn’t come into it, because Hibs showed us what we needed to know a week ago and we ignored it at our peril.
I cannot manifest the disgust because the run has been remarkable and it was always going to end, and the suspicion has been growing for weeks that we were watching the threads start to unravel. I cannot fault the players for the stamina and fortitude it takes in modern football to put together such a run.
The horror is tempered by the fact that the manager has clearly already seen some of the writing of the wall. What was the point, some asked me yesterday, of signing a defender who couldn’t play in the Europa League? Today’s your answer. These guys can’t be trusted in domestic games any more than they can against the pride of the continent. The German is being brought in to shore up this backline for the domestic run-in.
That doesn’t excuse the absence of Bitton or Ajer in the defence today.
It doesn’t excuse two halftime substitutions which took off our best midfield performer to bring on the increasingly frustrating Armstrong, or to take off Kieran whilst leaving on the depressingly weak Boyata or Simunovic.
He, in particular, has become a major question mark.
When a player can’t be relied on to play every week, when he doesn’t like artificial surfaces or more than a few games in a row, when he is injury prone that alone suggests he’s a waste of a squad number and the manager’s own frustration with that stuff has already bubbled to the surface.
But such a player could probably get away with all of it if he turned in sterling performances in the games were he was fit and did play. Today’s performance from him was disgraceful and no other word will suffice. It wasn’t just his culpability in some of the goals, it was his entire display. At one point late in the first half he was in acres of room with all the time he needed to pick out his pass. He hit a thirty-yard speculative effort left and, of course, there was only a Hearts player in the vicinity of it. Had I been his manager he’d have been hooked there and then and we would all have been spared the abject start to the second half which ended the game.
He can go any time he likes. I wouldn’t even wait until a replacement was signed. He hasn’t contributed enough to justify keeping him. His injury problems on their own demolish any sense that he offers us long term solutions to our defensive woes.
Questions linger over others. Armstrong is in serious danger of veering into territory from which he will not emerge whilst a Celtic player, that of the guy everyone expects to make a mess of the simplest thing. His lack of commitment to the club seems obvious to me. Like others today he looked like his mind was elsewhere. For some of them it was clearly the winter shutdown and the promise of sunshine and some relaxation therapy.
I don’t know where Armstrong’s head was. Brighton maybe. If they had scouts at the game they would have quickly crossed him off their list. They would also have scored a line through the name Moussa Dembele. £18 million is a joke for a player with his potential. But right now he’s not playing to his potential. If teams based their transfer offers on form alone, then frankly we’d be lucky to get an offer of half of it.
And yet … this doesn’t feel quite so bad as I thought it might.
I am not clutching at straws to say that part of this feeling is relief. Relief that defeat doesn’t hurt as much as I feared it might, relief that it hasn’t come in a cup game or against certain other clubs, relief that, in fact, the pressure has fallen away from us.
Pressure is like a bag of bricks. The longer you carry it the heavier it gets.
There were two schools of thought as to how this would go; either Celtic would dominate for so long that other clubs would feel beaten before matches even began or the relentless wave of team after team giving everything just to end the run would wear us down.
Until our form started to waver, I thought it might result in the first, where the run would just go on and on until complacency ended it. When it became clear that we were well short of our level of performances last season I always suspected and feared it would be the second, especially, as I highlighted yesterday, the ways in which teams have almost burned themselves out against us. It’ll be interesting to see if Hearts can win their next game; don’t bet on it.
It was never likely to be pretty when those bricks became too heavy to carry. I always thought when we lost a game it might be a bad one, a sore one, a comprehensive one.
But now that it’s over, I wonder if perhaps the team will re-emerge from today with a different mentality. The bricks are off our shoulders now. The pressure is gone. The fear of every mistake has been erased. Games are now there to be enjoyed again rather than endured, as so many have been this season. And that might change things.
That changed mentality will extend beyond Celtic Park too. Other teams will see opportunities, but none will play with the intensity they have all season long. Aberdeen will think they can do it next weekend at Parkhead, but my money is on us thoroughly, almost casually, dismantling them. These players are no longer carrying this weight … the pressure will all be on the Pittodrie club and their manager to finally prove he’s got the goods.
Our form has been poor all season long. It’s as if our players were doing the minimum required just to keep the run going. It’s finished now and there’s real business to be done. We’re still Scotland’s best team by miles and miles and miles. Those who look at that performance today and think it means more than just the combined weight of pressure, certain players getting found out and an unrelenting series of games taking their toll … well they are just as deluded as when they thought a four game winning run meant they were title contenders.
I hope they enjoy their day. It’s just one day. We’ve been defeated, but it doesn’t feel crushing; quite the opposite. It feels like a weight has been lifted. Unlike Anthony at Actium it does not represent the collapse of all we’ve built. It feels oddly liberating.
The onus is on this team and the manager to respond.
I am looking forward to midweek.
I am looking forward to seeing how we do it.