Last night I wrote about pressure. Pressure is a killer at the very top level of sport.
It turn title races where even quality can’t be a decisive factor.
Before this season started properly, I wrote a piece on this suggesting that the real danger to Celtic might come from the fact that some of the clubs who were taking points from us and Sevco left and right last season were weaker going into this one … and it has proved to be the case.
Hibs, and especially Hearts, have had an appalling season so far. The Easter Road club may or may not emerge from it better off, with Jack Ross in charge, but the Tynecastle side is a freefalling joke who can’t even get a manager in after weeks of desperate flailing.
Kilmarnock suffered too, after losing unarguably the second best manager in the league. They were never likely to scale the lofty heights they did in the last campaign, nor to be as effective in the huge games. They have settled since; the second half of the season might be better.
Don’t even get me started on Aberdeen.
McInnes had six defenders on the pitch last night, at home, and for the first thirty minutes sat back and let Sevco look like a good team. It was only when he made an alteration to the tactics – probably out of desperation as much as anything else, with the club’s new owner sitting in the stand – and pressed the ball that he saw what this site has been writing about for months; let this mob know they are in a game and panic sets in.
On top of that is what I call the “New York Yankee Syndrome”, after the brilliant insight Christopher Walken imparts to his son, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, in Catch Me If You Can, and which provides the inspiration for the rest of Frank Abagnaile’s life.
“Why do the Yankees win all the time?” Walken asks. “It’s cause the other teams can’t stop staring at those damned pinstripes.”
To me, that’s one of the great truths of sport psychology, although it was never intended to be one of those but designed to illustrate a different point.
For certain clubs and managers there is still an almost mystical element to taking a trip to Ibrox and playing the team in the royal blue jerseys; in short, they still act as if this is a swaggering Rangers they are playing and pay no heed to the more obvious truth, that this remains a shadow of a club which was, in itself, largely illusory.
Some of this is self-perpetuating. How many managers this season have gone to Ibrox doing nothing but talking about how brilliant the home side is and how difficult it will be to stop them? How many, in fact, have chucked it before the game even starts?
And of course, when they go there and get turned over that feeds into the illusion for the next visitors.
But of course, once the illusion is broken and teams go toe-to-toe with them – this is one of the reasons McInnes got success last season against them and one of the reasons why Clarke was so effective against them – fear starts to gnaw away at them.
The hype that surrounds them has grown like a bubble being constantly pumped full of air … we all know what happens when you do that too much. It bursts. This is a huge month for them, the first where they’ve faced a run of really tough games at difficult venues and already the pressure is more than they can take.
I knew it would be.
Lennon’s record as Celtic boss is so good that even when we do drop points, they will be few and far between and they will come in the midst of long runs of victories … not unbeaten runs, but runs of wins. Lennon’s win record is even more impressive than it was before; in his first spell at the club it was a solid 70%.
His current win record is 80% … in the modern game that’s almost unheard of.
It is more than formidable; it is incredible.
Aside from the matches against them – where we already have the advantage of having won away from home – the rest is going to come down to which manager can cope best when teams have the confidence to give them a game … and that’ll be Lennon.
On those days our quality will give us the edge, whereas they are overly dependent on a handful of players and the long ball up the park. More than that, it will come down to which manager has more imagination and the options at his disposal to translate it into action. Sevco is a team without a Plan B. Their manager is frequently criticised for that on their forums, which are sometimes a far better barometer of their overall performances than the media’s hysteria.
So pressure, then. Both teams have better players than the other sides they are going up against – they should have anyway, after spending £20 million in two seasons – but that means little if one of them is mentally weak whilst the other has all the swagger and confidence of one that has done it all before and before and before.
The fact that the race has been close has come down to their having had an easier run of games than we have; they are entering their difficult spell now. It’s to do with media hype that has surrounded them and made them seem better than they are.
The combination of these things has meant they’ve largely avoided real pressure … and that’s what’s going to kill them.
Keeping pace with a team as relentless as Celtic and trying to match a manager as relentless as Lennon was always going to prove insurmountable.
We were eyeball to eyeball and the other club just blinked.
It is not out of the question that they fold quickly now, like cardboard left in the rain.
We can pour on the pain on Sunday.
If you haven’t done the Sevco liquidation quiz yet do it below … another quiz will be up during the week!
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