Heads, You Win

The League Cup semi-final against Danny Lennon’s spirited St. Mirren side ended with another Hampden let-down from a Celtic team which is getting to the stage where it can be relied upon to under-perform in do-or-die matches where victory is expected.

Last season’s League Cup Final was a fairly evenly contested game for the most part but Kilmarnock got the breakthrough and deserved to edge it in the end. But there’s no doubting that Celtic didn’t do themselves justice.  The Scottish Cup semi-final against Hearts was another occasion in which the Hoops looked as if they had forgotten how to do their jobs.

Ross County’s stunning upset at the same stage of the same tournament was well deserved on their part but it was a mystery that Celtic played so badly when they were in the middle of a superb winning streak in the league and should have had great confidence in their ability to overcome their First Division opponents.

This season, although Celtic eventually knocked Arbroath out of the Scottish Cup at the second time of asking, the performances in both matches belied the colossal gap in the status and resources of the two clubs.

Many supporters would add to this list a severe disappointment in the Highlands a couple of years ago when Celtic seemed to be strong favourites to win the SPL until they lost an away match in Inverness. We should bear in mind, in fairness to the Highlanders, that they have consistently presented a difficult challenge to every club that visits them and it was Celtic’s turn to be ambushed that night but the result was still a shock.  Personally though, I strongly maintain that the fix was in that season to ensure that Murray’s fraudulent enterprise got first dibs at the Champions League booty. The refereeing in that particular match was McCurryesque. That was a big factor in the ultimate result, not only in that match but also in the final league standings.

But there is no denying that Celtic have regularly failed to show the hunger and will to win which the supporters are entitled to expect of the team. There can no longer be any doubt that this is true.  I think it is highly significant that after the match Neil Lennon stated in an interview that some of the players were like spoilt children in the first half. That is a very strong – and not entirely inaccurate – criticism of the side’s thoroughly abject display but it is also very unusual for a manager to say such a thing in public. It makes me suspect that he has tired of regularly feeling duty bound to shield players from well deserved criticism in the wake of performances which are far short of what is rightly expected from them.  However, I don’t think it addresses the core problem.  More on that later.

As far as the league is concerned, there has been criticism of the fact that Celtic haven’t won as many points this season as they had at the same stage of the last title campaign.  I couldn’t care less how many points Celtic accrue so long as we end up with more than anyone else. Celtic fans are well aware of the nine-in-a-row which Jock Stein’s sides achieved. I doubt if there’s one fan in a hundred who could say how many points Celtic won in each of those years.

When Wim Jansen’s team won the league title in 1998 with 74 points and stopped the nine-in-a-row achievement from being surpassed, I don’t remember a single Celtic supporter who grieved over the fact that Tommy Burns side had won more points in each of the previous two seasons while finishing second. (75 and 83, to save everybody looking it up.)
What matters is winning the title.

So I’m prepared to cut the team some slack in the league because, highly paid or otherwise, there is a limit to the amount of physical wear and tear which professional footballers can withstand over the course of a season. A successful quadruple campaign would require at least sixty-five games. The possibility of cup-tie replays and representative call-ups could easily take that total above seventy. It’s too much to expect any player to perform in every one of those games at the required standard so I’m glad that we have the opportunity to use squad rotation to rest players who need a break.  The fact that several points may be dropped without fatally damaging the title quest is nothing but good news in my book.

But in one-off, knock-out cup-ties, there’s a different set of criteria altogether and I don’t think the players have developed the correct mentality for these competitions. This is underlined to a certain degree by the fact that Celtic very rarely win a match in which they’ve lost the first goal. Games can be lost on the way to winning league championships but not in the course of a triumphant cup campaign.
Recent Celtic teams have not shown that they have the ability to deal consistently with the pressure of playing in a match which they can’t afford to lose, most especially against opponents who set out to exploit that factor. There have been a few notable exceptions but Celtic’s best performances have generally come in games where they have felt that they have nothing to lose and lots to gain.

The current Celtic side has a number of good qualities but it only overcomes its numerous deficiencies when every player’s work rate, self-belief and resolve are at a very high level.  It’s the players’ responsibility to ensure that they rise to that standard every time they are called upon to discharge their professional responsibilities. If they’re not self-motivated, they’re wasting everybody’s time.
The first-team coach can only encourage them and give them an opportunity to show that they are up to that challenge. If they don’t have the correct approach to their work, they need to look at themselves instead of hiding behind the management team. I expect that there are at least a dozen current Celtic players who are being honest with themselves tonight about why they froze this afternoon but they might not necessarily know how to find a solution.

It appears to me that the fear of losing to underdogs strongly inhibits the present side.  Too many players tighten up and, as their performance consequently suffers, so the prospect of defeat further erodes their self-confidence and they enter into a negative feedback loop.  Losing the first goal highly exacerbates the problem. The downward spiral continues as players begin to panic or show petulant signs of frustration. These responses in their turn further reinforce the sense of impending doom and self-doubt.  Opponents sense this and are inspired to raise their own game still further, buoyed by the growing belief that they have the psychological upper hand. Meanwhile, baffled coaches watch from the technical area, trying to understand why under-performing players are behaving like “spoilt children” or why they don’t seem to have the same hunger as their opponents.

This is where I would have hoped and expected  Jim McGuinness to earn his corn as part of Celtic’s coaching staff but I fear that his role is currently limited to working with youth players. I feel that Celtic would lose nothing by looking in the direction of professional advice from a successful sports psychologist to address some of the recurring issues that are afflicting the team.  These regular pratfalls can no longer be dismissed as blips or off-days. They’re a direct result of well researched and fairly well understood mental processes and states of mind which need to be, and can be, adjusted with suitable programmes, specifically designed for each individual player.
Football is still years behind other sports in this field but Celtic could do a lot worse than to make room for a Head Teacher in the first-team coaching staff.

Posted on January 28, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Cracking analysis, only the players will provide the honest answer as to whether you’re on the correct track here Henry, but there is clearly a reoccurring problem and I’ve not seen a more plausible reason. So your article provides pause for thought and it initiates an interesting debate and talking point.

    • Thanks, John. I appreciate your comment.
      I was interested to read over the weekend that Novak Djokovic started travelling with a sports psychologist about three years ago. Looks to me as if he’s got his money’s worth since then.

  2. Think your spot on Henk.

    We have players who will do the five yard sideways pass because that pass doesnt tend to fail doesnt lead to a shiriking from the crowd but is no use when you are up against it.

    It takes courage to play for Celtic ,the courage to drive forward to take a man on to thread a pass.

    Av felt for a longtime that the club and fans should have a mantra.

    We will play the game at pace .

    The management should spell out to the fans that we will strive for a high tempo game but lets all be in it together and try an restrain the criticsm when a move breaks down or a player loses possession trying to beat his man or produce something creative.

    The fans can by into mistakes and all out commitment when the game is quick but sideways ponderous football usually tells me that the player is lacking confidence or courage.

    It looks like lack of urgency bad attitude but its not.

    Its fear.

    Fear cripples.

    Work on the head of the players they have the ability.

    • Well said, Terry and thanks for commenting.
      Your specific point about sideways passes coming from fear is bang on the money.

      A parallel situation occurred to me. I’m a musician. I’ve been in bands that have played live in front of fifty thousand people and everyone just does their thing without a second thought, really enjoying the experience. Two days later, the same people are in a recording studio, doing take after take of a lick that they’ve played hundreds of times without a problem. Yet suddenly there’s sweat pouring from them, their hands are shaking and their heads are shaking in frustration.
      They’re trying to play the line better than they’ve ever played it because this one’s for keeps. What they don’t realise is that what they normally do is more than good enough. It’s the reason they’re being recorded in the first place.

      I think there may be a wee bit of that about the Celtic players in some of these games. Because they’re frightened of making a mistake, they end up trying too hard to rise to the occasion without realising that they only need to do what they usually do.

      The best performances come from performers who are slightly on edge but still entirely focussed, confident and relaxed.

  3. Well said, Henry, constructive criticism
    See the Herald seem to have picked up on it too except they put a totally negative spin on it, making out tht NFL just cannae hack it.
    Here’s their article.

    Psychologist questions Celtic’s mental preparation for semi-final
    Graeme Macpherson
    Football Writer
    Tuesday 29 January 2013

    HAMPDEN will be a football-free zone for the best part of 2014.

    Celtic will be glad to see the back of it. In recent times the national stadium has become a venue to be approached with some trepidation by Neil Lennon and his players. The Scottish Communities League Cup semi-final defeat to St Mirren on Sunday was the third time in succession that they had made the short trip to Mount Florida only to encounter failure once they got there.

    The beauty of football is that any team on their day can beat anyone else. Upsets happen. When they start to happen as regularly as Celtic are finding, however, it is only natural to stop and question why. Have they become complacent because of their superiority? Are they not mentally tuned up? Are they uncomfortable playing at Hampden for whatever reason? Unsurprisingly these are all questions that fascinate Tom Lucas, a sports psychologist whose book Just Help Yourself, an alternative approach to dealing with life’s stressful times, might just sell a few more copies around Parkhead this week.

    Lucas has witnessed first hand Celtic’s recent traumas and, in his expert view, the flat, lifeless performance in Sunday’s capitulation to St Mirren, suggests a number of flaws in the players’ mental make-up. “I’ve been at all of Celtic’s recent games at Hampden and when I’m there I try to take a more pragmatic view so I can take in what’s going on in front of me and not get caught up in the emotionality of the experience,” he said.

    “The thing that strikes me is that Neil Lennon needs to look at his preparation. What is he doing, or not doing, that makes these guys turn up and seem to forget that it’s a semi-final or final? Are they treating these teams too lightly maybe because they’ve beaten them comfortably in the past?

    “You have to reach a happy medium between overplaying the significance of a game and underplaying it. I think at the moment Celtic are underplaying it. They must have known St Mirren would have seen it as a one-off chance to reach a final and so would be willing to get in about them. But from the first whistle Celtic looked lethargic.

    “That suggests that they were underprepared mentally for what they were about to experience. Complacency is a factor but there seems to be more to it than that. Maybe they need to change their build-up to these games, do something different to try to snap out of this cycle.”

    There is an irony that a club so accustomed to playing in the national stadium would appear to shrink in the big games while opponents who would have more of an excuse for a bout of stage fright have thrived. “If you look at their recent record, it seems there is something about playing at Hampden that doesn’t agree with Celtic,” Lucas added.

    “They are continually struggling there, particularly in games where they have been strongly expected to win. There is quite clearly an issue with their preparation regarding the venue and a question mark over their mindset before they get to Hampden. They should approach these games bursting with confidence, with a positive approach, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

    “Instead it is the other teams who appear to have greater desire and Celtic are struggling to match that intensity. Physical and mental energy is needed to win big games. On Sunday, St Mirren had both and Celtic had neither.”

    After a poor first half – made better only by Gary Hooper’s late equalising goal – Celtic were expected to come out far stronger after the interval. Instead there was more of the same, much to Lucas’s bemusement. “Questions have to be asked about just what was said at half-time in the Celtic dressing room,” he said. “Gareth Southgate was once playing with England when Sven Goran Eriksson was the manager. Southgate said he was hoping for a Churchillian-type speech at half-time. Instead they got an Iain Duncan Smith. Maybe that happened again here.”

    • Cheers, Doc.
      I saw that this morning. I posted this comment on the Herald article.
      It doesn’t appear to have got past their moderator yet. Surprise, eh?

      “It strikes me as curious that the Herald now chooses to subject Neil Lennon to public psycho-analysis. In the wake of the failures of the Sevconian Galacticos to progress beyond the quarter-finals of the Ramsden Cup, ingloriously going out of the League Cup at home, and stumbling against the might of Montrose, Stirling Albion, Annan Athletic, Berwick Rangers and Peterhead in the fourth division of the league, I don’t recall a shrink being called in to speculate about Ally McCoist’s psychological deficiencies. Perhaps I missed that?

      However, you may well be on to something here. I look forward to subsequent professional psychological profiles of Charles Green, David Murray, Campbell Ogilvie and various other figures whose wretched performances and disappointing conduct have been well short of what we ought to have expected of them.”

  4. Had MCCourt played on Sunday and performed like ANY of the outfield players, he would have been derided by the Celtic posters and confined to the scrap heap. When will he be given a decent run ? Or, does he have a genuine problem ? I watched him play for N Ireland in last World Cup qualifier and he was exceptional.

    • Some people are natural athletes, endowed with exceptional stamina or strength or speed.
      Then there’s the rest of us.
      No matter how hard we train, we will never reach the level of international class middle distance runners or professional boxers or Olympic sprinters. Indeed, there comes a point where trying to reach those standards will simply do us an injury. I’m never going to be able to lift 200kg but I could definitely do permanent damage to my spine in the attempt!

      My thoughts on Paddy are that he would unquestionably be the Player Of The Year if we had a 5-a-side league but he’s never going to able to put in the amount of bread and butter work for ninety minutes a couple of times a week on a consistent basis.
      That means that when he’s not on the ball or close to the action we’re effectively going to be playing with ten men and that will cost us dearly.

      It’s just one of the harsh realities of the game today that running around daft for an hour and a half is more of an asset to a team than being able to do things with a ball that nobody else on the park can match.

      I had hopes that Paddy might develop into a player who could take on a Lubo role since he can retain possession under pressure and find himself an opening to play intelligent passes. Sadly, it looks very likely that this is ever going to happen.

      • I don’t think that he has been given much of a chance. I know it was a different era, but Charlie Tully was not a great athlete and Stan Matthews was never booked in his career, probably because he made very few tackles. I can think of many internationals today eg Kenny Miller who can run and run all day without achieving a great deal. If you look at Celts defeat at Easter Road, Paddy played very well channelling back.It would be good if he was given an extended run. Going back to the title losing defeat at Inverness, I recall Paddy dancing through the defence before being hacked down in the last minute. No penalty awarded, of course…though we would have missed it anyway !

  1. Pingback: Some More Thoughts on Celtic Players’ Mind-Set | Liam Conway

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