Life At Celtic Has Become Brutally Darwinist And It Will Make This Club Better.

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Last week, when I was writing about Callum McGregor, I thought about how things at Celtic have changed and how a certain type of player can thrive in this environment.

One of the things about professional sports, as noted by writers before me such as Nick Hornby – and every football fan has a duty to his or herself to read Fever Pitch, perhaps the greatest book on being a supporter that you will ever find – is that the game allows nobody to hide.

I’ve been doing this gig long enough to know there are people of various different skill-sets in it. Some of them have a long way to go in their writing before it’s genuinely of a high standard. Others are so fantastically talented that I lament that the media is so full of dreadful writers when honest to God wordsmiths are working away on the margins.

Whilst I don’t believe it’s possible to be genuinely terrible at this gig and make a living in it, I do believe that you can be only moderately talented and succeed.

Part of that is simply the individual tastes of the audience. That’s the thing with stuff like this … it’s very subjective and what one person might find impossible to like or admire, someone else will be comfortable embracing.

But as Hornby and others have pointed out, professional sports is probably unique in the field of entertainment and leisure where there is just no escaping reality whilst out on the field or the track or in the pool or on the range.

Think of it this way; on Broadway, even bad plays have run for years and made profits.

Bad books sell by the millions; it’s widely accepted that some of the bestselling novels of the 21st century are dreadfully written. Dan Brown has entire websites devoted not to loving his books but to hating on them for their corny turns of phrase, awful descriptions and clunky dialogue. The Mr Grey books are so bad they have been turned into brilliant, devilish spoofs. Even other writers, such as Stephen King, find Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series virtually unreadable and have said so. Yet all of them are massively successful.

One of the worst films ever made – The Room, a calamitous shambles of a picture so bad that it’s sort of brilliant – has not only gained a cult following but is the subject of both a book and a movie called The Disaster Artist, about The Room’s writer, director and producer Tommy Wiseu. Both book and film are masterworks, thoroughly enjoyable and telling a story which seems almost too mad to be true. I cannot recommend them enough.

The Room itself is rollicking entertainment, but absolutely dreadful in the ways that matter to most film-goers; it is incoherent, badly written, nonsensical and with acting, for the most part, which would get movie making stopped, and for all that, I’ve always wanted to see it in a cinema setting with a crowd of like-minded “fans” throwing plastic spoons at the screen. (Don’t even ask.)

Years ago, in a pub debate, I lost an argument which I opened by saying that bad players do not win Champions Leagues. Immediately, one of the guys around the table came back with Phil Neville. Now I don’t necessarily agree that he’s a bad player, but I didn’t feel that there was much point in defending the claim after that. Other names were thrown into the discussion on top of it, but I had lost the basic thrust of my argument with the mere mention of his name.

And yet I sometimes think that the point was right. Because if we take it literally, we’re not talking here about a player who had a good career but just wasn’t as talented as some of his peers. I said “bad players” not “not quite great players” and that’s important to note.

Because even in a good team – even in a very good team – a bad player cannot hide. He stands out a mile, and is ruthlessly exposed. A smart side will target the one bad player in a good team over and over again and find him wanting, and more often than not win the game.

Efe Ambrose was brutally exposed yesterday. He is never going to win a Champions League. But he has been part of good sides. I hate to put it so horribly, but he has dragged those sides down which is why we moved him on, albiet way too late in some respects.

Hornby wrote an entire chapter about one such player, and the realisation that slowly dawned not only on Arsenal fans but on the player himself that he just wasn’t good; Gus Caesar who rose phoenix like from their youth academy, burned brightly and then flamed out in short order. He went on to play, for a while, at Airdrie amongst other clubs.

Unless you’ve got a very good base of football knowledge or have read Hornby’s book you might never know that the plodding veteran of hard tackles and muddy fields was once considered quite the prodigy and was on the verge of the England team.

But as Hornby says, in football all this stuff gets found out. Bad players don’t play for long in top flight teams and they certainly never pull on the hallowed national shirt, whatever that shirt may be.

(This is where Efe is a better player than some of his critics will say; he played regularly for his national side, and they were no slouches either. The thing is – and this is important to note – the Nigerian national team usually played him as a defensive midfielder, where he must have been much more comfortable than as a centre back.)

But this is football. You cannot bluff your way to a career at the top.

Every single year we announce which of our academy players we’re letting go and there are always shocks on that list and fans scratch their heads in bewilderment at some of them.

Last month, I published a list of the Scottish players who are out of contract in England at the end of the season and two jumped out at me and another one occasioned a nod of recognition; Regan Hendry and Jack Aitchison were the surprises, and I remember all of us being disappointed that they had been allowed to leave. The other was Dylan McGeuogh.

Doubtless there are just as many in Scotland who will likewise leave on free contracts who were once part of Celtic’s setup and who we all had high hopes for.

But Celtic’s decision has been vindicated in their cases and many others down through the years, which is why it’s a big deal when someone like Andy Robertson goes on and proves somewhere else that he had the goods all along. Because that’s rarer than a total solar eclipse. When clubs make these decisions it’s because the people in them know … they know deep down that these kids just aren’t good enough to make it at the top.

Football is a brutal, Darwinian business.

If you can’t cut it you won’t make it, and even talent itself is not good enough if you lack the commitment and discipline to push yourself. If you go into a football career, or indeed a career in any sport, without conditioning your mind and body as to the requirements of competing at a high level all the skill in the world won’t help.

But Celtic has never been as cutthroat an environment as it is right now, where every player knows he has to be on his toes if he’s going to stay in the team. Even being good is no longer good enough, and the days are gone when an obvious Bombscare like Ambrose could even get on our bench. Every player is in a battle to get in the team and stay there, and I’m sure that’s frustrating for some of them but in the end they will be better footballers for it and we will be a better club.

Because Darwinian theory says that the most adaptable survive, and thrive, whilst those who can’t get with the program perish.

Celtic is letting go two players, and although I liked Juranovic and Giakoumakis both (and I really the Greek striker, as everyone is aware) it should be noted that he was comfortable doing one specific job … and Ange wants more from his players than that.

The boy who looks as if he’s going to replace him in the squad is much more versatile, and the same is true of Alastair Johnston, who signed as a right back and quickly announced that he’s equally comfortable as part of a back three; these guys are different options, they offer us something more.

Every player at our club has to learn to adapt. Every player has to be patient and wait for his chance to come. Every player has to understand that the team comes first … and that’s also brutally Darwinian.

Look it up. The species which survive are most often those who evolve to work together, to share the labour and the spoils with it.

This club is better off for this process, and it will infuse every part of Celtic’s football department.

Which means that players will come and go.

Which means that the exodus of young talent will continue.

But those who rise to the first team squad will have done so under the most extreme and intense conditions … and thus we can have belief in them. They are ready for it. They have survived.

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  • Brian Cavanagh says:

    James I thought the principle of a good writer was to hold the attention of the reader from the first line. It didn’t work me I was hoping to read about Celtic- not a film and book review.

  • Charlie Kelly says:

    Yes I must agree completely bored after a few lines,the difference between Efe and two players mentioned he may not have been as talented as both,but appreciated what he got from Celtic and supporters unlike these two mercenaries who used the club to benefit themselves.Would rather have a loyal player who knows his limits everyday of the week

  • Anthony Mcquade says:

    Yesterday I like approx 50,000 other Celtic fans went to see my team .
    Hopefully, play some nice football, score goals and generally entertain us .
    From my perspective that is exactly what they did .
    In the way home I unfortunately put the radio on . Unusual for me ,
    Then I remembered why . Some clown was moaning about the Celtic line up and bench .
    Ange has made very few mistakes and I believe will continue to do us proud.

  • Charlie McGuire says:

    Harsh on Ambrose; we know all about his weaknesses but there were enough strengths to his game to ensure he was a regular for a team that won the African Cup of Nations . As for him holding Celtic back, he was a central part of a team that got to the last 16 of the CL and both beat and lost very unluckily to Barcelona . I would say that is as good as it could possibly have been for that Celtic side and every one we’ve had since

  • Iain McDougall says:

    Good points well presented. Ange’s revolution is built on rapid evolution and his pragmatic natural selection approach leaves no room for sentiment. It’s survival of the strongest and while that might appear ruthless, it’s the absolute key to success in any competitive pursuit.

  • S Thomas says:

    Yes I suppose it’s all about opinions.. I think Starfelt is pish, and you think he is solid James. I also read a few years back, that Stephen King wasn’t impressed with the Shining movie, when I personally think it was one of Jack Nicholson’s best performances. The Shining is one of my favourite movies, but I suppose everybody is different. Efe always tried his best, so yes I think your harsh here.

  • Paul Mac says:

    Think when they won the AFCON Efe played as a right back if my memory serves.
    But the crux of the piece is something that as fans we find it hard to do .. and that is to watch our “favourite” players leave. We need to change the mindset that these players will stay forever .. and we need to start looking more coldly at them .. We sign them for 5 years .. after 18 months we should already be looking at their possible replacements and getting them into the club, learn the way we play etc. by the time they have 2 years left on their deals we should be looking to sell. Definitely not let them enter the final year of their contract without having made some decision on their future (The club should be deciding this rather than the player dictating)
    As we know too well keeping a player when they have had their head turned elsewhere is not a good idea. We have been burnt various times in not selling when a player was at a premium selling point (usually the problem being that we had not targetted a replacement)
    I am NOT talking about the great Ntcham urban legend of 15 million to Porto .. THAT WOULD NEVER HAVE HAPPENNED .. purely and simply Conceição likes his centre midfielders to be committed 110% allied to their skill .. now tell me does that sound remotely like Ntcham ?

  • Benjamin says:

    Something about a chain only being as strong as its weakest link…

    I don’t remember where I read this (The Athletic maybe?) but in the days leading up to the Jan 2 derby game, it was noted that one of Beale’s pressing tactics was to identify who the opposition player is who makes the most unforced errors and then press opposing players such that the ball ends up at that player’s feet. And to be fair to the Mooch, I’ve heard of worse ideas. But that got me thinking who on Celtic’s team would they try and target, and would that player even be on the pitch given the amount of squad rotation Ange employs? Turns out the answer was, to my surprise and delight, that they were targeting McGregor!

    • Woodyiom says:

      The obvious player to target in that strategy would be Starfelt as he has at least one calamitous mistake EVERY game and appears to be a guaranteed to play (if fit) which to me is Ange’s only real blind spot. Clearly the Rangers “tacticianery” team are just as calamitous in their own way!

  • Jim says:

    Benjamin, they would surely be wanting the ball to go to Starfelt or Hart.

    As for Efe, you can’t really judge him by that performance yesterday.

    He could cover the ground faster than anybody at his peak and his distribution was mainly tidy but he was a marshmallow in a 50-50 and even weaker with crosses into the box than Starfelt.

  • Hugh Reilly says:

    Always enjoy your well written articles though don’t always agree with them. You only mention Andy Robertson but Nesbitt and Hickey also come to mind. By the way, the same sharp intake of breath at parkhead when Ambrose had the ball is heard when Starfelt has possession.
    Keep up the good work.

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