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.
Today at Hampden Park in Glasgow, the oldest national football trophy in the world will be presented to the victorious captain at the end of the final of the Scottish Football Association Challenge Cup. Eighty teams will have been eliminated over the course of eight rounds of the tournament by the time the winning team receives the prize and parades it to their rapturous supporters.
For reasons which have never been made clear to me, there is a mysterious requirement nowadays to distract attention from the presentation by means of a mass orgy of litter-dropping so millions of tiny pieces of foil are scattered over the playing field while the players are dwarfed by irrelevant, forty-feet-high inflatable figures, pumped full of hot gases.
Simultaneously, the stadium public address system attempts to overwhelm the spontaneous celebrations of the crowd by playing tedious recordings of generic team anthems. These are invariably far better and much more in keeping with the spirit of the occasion when they are sung unaccompanied by the crowd at the tempo and pitch of their own choosing. There is something distinctly sinister afoot when these control freaks can get away with drowning out the sound of a joyous football crowd at the climax of a major tournament.
I’m old school, I am.
It’s always a downer when your team gets knocked out of the Cup. The disappointment of losing a cup tie is compounded by the realisation that when the teams run out onto the park on the day of the final, with tens of thousands of supporters cheering in anticipation, your own team’s season will have already finished. For Kilmarnock there is some consolation today in that they can still savour the taste of their recent League Cup victory, which is the next best thing, so today’s Hampden occasion will be more likely to remind them of their finest achievement in many years. For Celtic, the league champions, the Scottish Cup would have been an extra treat but the return of the SPL trophy to Celtic Park was always a higher priority than a successful defence of the trophy. Everyone else will watch the game, wondering what might have been and hoping that next year it will be their team in the spotlight for the show-piece finale to the season. (Note to Rangers supporters: Not you lot. This time next year you’ll no longer have a team. Bad luck.)
Here it must be said that from the point of view of the neutral supporter, the 2012 Scottish Cup final is a rather appealing dish. Jam Tarts against Cabbage and Ribs. The Edinburgh Derby. Hearts versus Hibs. As the green and maroon hordes head west along the M8 today this is a prospect which many of us thought we would never live to see; for once, it might be possible to find a parking place in Edinburgh on a Saturday. For me, however, that’s still not a good enough reason to go to Auld Reekie.
For Hibs supporters, today’s final is probably a once in a lifetime occasion because the Hibees only win one Scottish Cup in each century. Those supporters who are under the age of one hundred and ten – which may well be the majority of them – missed the opportunity to be amongst the 16,000 crowd which saw Andy McGeachan score the only goal of the 1902 final. (A suspicion of offside, I thought, from where I was standing but it was a hard one to call.) Could this be the moment when the men from Leith finally equal Vale of Leven’s proud record of three (3) Scottish Cup successes? Or will they collect their tenth set of runners-up medals and keep the Scottish Cup interest alive for the rest of the century?
Hearts will obviously be hot favourites, having won all of their previous Scottish Cup finals against Hibs as well as every Edinburgh derby in the league since colour television was introduced. Even though Lee Wallace is still mysteriously unavailable, all they really have to do is turn up on the day, play their normal game and the Cup will be theirs for the taking. Therefore they will probably choke, throw away a couple of goals in the last few minutes and burst into tears when the final whistle blows.
I’m actually looking forward to watching this game. A Scottish Cup final between Hibs and Hearts in front of a capacity crowd is undoubtedly an attractive fixture and will make for very good television. Those who are unfortunate enough to have tickets for the game itself can tune in to the radio coverage to find out what is happening on the pitch or follow twitter for regular updates. One or two of the lucky ones might even have seats from which it is possible to see the game, especially if they can catch sight of one of the television monitors. Come what may, both teams will be relieved that they haven’t also made it to the final of the Champions League, with all the travel issues and logistical problems which that could have caused, especially if this afternoon’s game goes to extra time and penalties.
A very wise man recently pointed out how much money Scottish clubs have lost out on over the last decade and a half through the skulduggery with dual contracts over at Ibrox stadium. In Hibernian’s case, the figure is anywhere between a minimum of £3.6 million up to a potential sum of £34.8 million. Hearts have been even harder done by. They have lost out on a minimum of £6.2 million and a top figure of an eye-watering £72.3 million. If the two Edinburgh clubs had actually received the prize money which their own, honest efforts had entitled them to, the line-ups at Hampden Park today would probably look very different. Who can say that players such as Scott Brown, Craig Gordon, Gary Caldwell, Ricardo Fuller or Steven Whittaker would not be turning out today if £100 million had found its rightful home over the last few years? What other players might either side have signed with that kind of money? Is it out of the question that one of today’s finalists might have been taking to the field today with a chance of doing the Double? Answers on the back of a dual contract please.
I recently tried, unsuccessfully, to register on a Hibernian forum to invite their supporters to name a possible starting XI which Hibs might have fielded today if they’d had the benefit of a few tens of millions of pounds to strengthen their playing squad. If any of them read this blog, I’d ask them to speculate in the comments section below and I’m putting the same question to the Jambos with regard to their team. Mind you, I suspect I haven’t timed this request very well since they may have better things to attend to today.
Let’s hope for a splendid final which shows the Scottish game in a good light. Let’s all enjoy the occasion and hope for a memorable climax to a season in which the three major domestic trophies will find homes in the trophy rooms of three different clubs. Let us also take note of the fact that there will be a capacity crowd for a final which has caught the imagination of most of the Scottish football-following public. This will give us our first glimpse of the promising future of our domestic game, freed from the malign and corrupt influence of the tax-dodging, account-fiddling, dual-contract-peddling vampire club from Ibrox.
Today is a memorable day for the capital city’s clubs. I hope their supporters make the most of it and I hope all of us are treated to an excellent and exciting cup final.