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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.

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