Time for Celtic to discard sentiment

The removal of Tony Mowbray from his post as Celtic manager – following the shambolic 4-0 loss to St Mirren on Wednesday – has caused an outbreak of what can only be described as a cocktail of sympathy and relief. Sympathy for a decent man who had perhaps taken on more than he could handle. Relief that it was finally over. Watching Mowbray with head in hands on Wednesday night – clearly stressed beyond any reasonable level – suggests calling an end to the saga benefits all involved, the now ex-manager included.

Amid the chaos of the last few days, it is easy to forget that Mowbray’s start at Parkhead was not bad at all. A sensational 2-0 win away to Dynamo Moscow was the Hoops’ first away victory in Europe’s elite competition since 2003/04. That Arsenal proved too strong for them in the final qualifying round was more of a reflection on how far the SPL has fallen in comparison with the major leagues in European football – a point underlined by their Glasgow rivals’ subsequent troubles when they reached the group stage. In the league they opened up with five wins and a draw from their first six matches before a 2-1 defeat at Ibrox which triggered an alarming decline in results. Placed in a Europa League group with Hamburg, Hapoel Tel-Aviv and Rapid Vienna, it was not a bold leap of faith to expect Celtic to qualify. That they bravely came back from 3-0 down to draw in Vienna suggests it was not for lack of effort, but one win out of six games against such opposition suggested a lack of tactical nous in the continental format. Domestically, the evidence of history suggests that an Old Firm manager finishing second is not considered a terminal failure as long as there as evidence of gradual improvement. That the opposite appeared to be the case is a large part of the reason why Celtic made the decision that they have.

One of the problems was that as Mowbray introduced more of his desired personnel and implemented his ideas accordingly, the club’s results actually got worse. Celtic lost to Dundee United, Hearts, Hibernian and Kilmarnock as well as taking only one point from three Old Firm clashes. The core of the squad he inherited from Gordon Strachan was dismantled – Gary Caldwell, Paul Hartley, Barry Robson, Scott McDonald, Willo Flood and Chris Killen were just some of the players moved on. This both enabled and necessitated re-enforcements and no fewer than fourteen new players were signed – either permanently or on loan – by Mowbray in just short of nine months at the helm. That many of them have not featured regularly is a problem in itself, and only the loan signing of Robbie Keane could be seen as a move that has definitely improved the side. Danny Fox – signed from Coventry in the summer – was then sold to Burnley in the January window. The general consensus is that overall, Mowbray’s dealings left a squad that was weaker than the one he inherited and had been stripped of the leaders who were already there. With personnel clearly better than the opposition, Mowbray’s attacking philosophy is the right way to go. Having inadvertently reduced his own playing strength, that strategy began to fall apart. A casual approach to basic defence cost them two points at Pittodrie as Aberdeen salvaged a 4-4 draw from numerous losing positions. The doubters will tell you what happened on Wednesday night was a result that had been coming for some time. An energetic but distinctly average St Mirren side ran riot in a second half that resulted in green and white scarves being disowned by loyal supporters. It was Celtic’s worst domestic result to anyone other than Rangers in 30 years. It leaves a gap between the Old Firm that could go up to 16 points if the Ibrox side’s form holds in their two games in hand.

Mowbray accepted his attempt to reverse the half-time deficit had “backfired” and “left young defenders exposed” but vowed to carry on. Clearly, he still believed given time, he could mould a side that would dominate Scottish football but in the pressure-cooker environment of the Old Firm, time is not something that managers get a great deal of. That brings us to the question of who should succeed Mowbray and what the approach should be from those who appoint him. With Peter Grant and Mark Venus having left with the previous manager, former player Neil Lennon is the man in possession and could stake a claim for the post between now and the end of the season. How he will fare is something of a lottery, but it will be interesting to see if he gets more out of the same group of players by using a more pragmatic approach. As a student of former Celtic boss Martin O’Neill, Lennon may well follow the philosophy of the sides he played in at Leicester and also at Parkhead – results are what matter, playing nice football is a bonus. Given the situation in Scotland, neither of the Old Firm have the spending power the enjoyed in the mid and late 1990s (indeed Rangers are actually in a worse position, having not paid for a player in 18 months). The options when recruiting are going to be narrowed down to those who can get a team performing to its optimum while dealing intelligently at the lower end of the market. This is a club that regularly attracts 60,000 fans and has one of the biggest support bases in Europe – no wonder they and Rangers look South with an unhealthy level of envy.

What is more, whoever comes in is likely to reach the conclusion that many of the players signed in the last nine months do not hit the required level of a side looking to at least finish a competitive second. Another clear-out is going to be necessary and getting substantial fees for players who have failed may be difficult. This will not be a quick fix, but a project that will take time and patience, plus whatever money can be found by John Reid and the board. A lesson one hopes has been learned is playing for the club should not automatically propel a candidate to the top of the shortlist. Mowbray had done fairly well with Hibernian and West Bromwich Albion, but had essentially overseen the yo-yo club that Gary Megson managed a few years earlier. However, his distinguished career as a Parkhead player was seen as evidence of ‘passion’, which is possibly the most over-rated commodity in football. Neil Lennon may impress sufficiently to warrant a longer-term opportunity and as a neutral, this writer hopes that he does. Nevertheless, should results follow a similar path to what has occurred recently, it is hoped that sentiment does not get in the way of making a rational decision. The name of Roy Keane – a manager who still has much to prove – has already been mentioned. The green and white tinted glasses have resulted in one mistaken appointment from Celtic’s board. It is of vital importance they remove them before making the next one.

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