By Bernard ThompsonPublished in The Guardian
Consider this: Celtic have been Scottish champions for the past two seasons, are Scottish Cup
|For better, for worse?: Martin O'Neill & Gordon Strachan|
Wrong. Because to say that is to fail to factor in the peculiar rationale that applies to Scottish football and Celtic supporters. Celtic fans are practised in castigating journalists for failing to adequately praise their team - while they themselves disdain the club's success on the most flimsy of excuses. This makes Strachan's position uncomfortable. Just as the media has been oddly reluctant to recognise his achievements in coasting to two league titles while radically rebuilding his squad, Celtic fans remain divided as to whether he is worthy of their favour.
Why? It would be dangerous to try too hard to understand such an unhealthy mindset. Certainly Strachan's cheeky-chappie remarks have rubbed some people up the wrong way, even if he has been more reserved than during his time in England. And fans will vociferously deny that the perception that he is "not Celtic-minded" (a euphemism for those not from the appropriate cultural background) has any relevance. But however hard he tries to please, whatever he delivers, there is one thing he can never be: Martin O'Neill.
O'Neill and fans gorged on trophies, rousing European nights and the reflected glory of Henrik Larsson's heroics. The manager became so revered that his replacement would almost inevitably be viewed as a usurper.
Few admit that such excitement led to the premature beatification of a man never deserving of an elevation to sainthood. The tangible legacy he left to Strachan was a squad that had feebly capitulated in the league and was saddled with the ruinous salaries offered to a small band of underperforming "established stars".
It was no surprise that only Neil Lennon remained as a key figure in Strachan's Celtic. It was equally predictable that those who left would find success elusive. Only Stephen Pearson, who rarely played under O'Neill, has gone on to excel away from Celtic Park.
Strachan's eminently sensible approach to signing players is in stark contrast to O'Neill's hair-tearingly frustrating last-minute method. The Irishman delivered Lennon, Chris Sutton and John Hartson but inflicted a torrid season on Juninho (a player O'Neill could afford but apparently find no use for) and the club remains burdened with Bobo Baldé on a contract that would put a Philadelphia lawyer to shame.
Strachan, on the other hand, has developed a squad based on scouting and research that is probably unsurpassed in British football (including a database of around 1500 names) and a simple but effective approach that allows the club to retain the upper hand in negotiations. To businessmen in any other industry, it's plain common sense to pursue multiple options before making any major financial outlay but too often in football, clubs zero in on one target to the point of obsession, and as a result wind up overpaying. By conducting simultaneous negotiations with several players before deciding on the best overall option for the club, Celtic under Strachan have managed to make genuine quality signings such as Artur Boruc, Shunsuke Nakamura, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, Lee Naylor and Scott Brown without ever threatening hard-earned financial security.
In the case of Naylor, for example, Celtic were actively pursuing Sparta Prague's Michael Kadlec but still held talks with Quinton Fortune while Gary Naysmith and Ian Harte were also heavily touted options. When the Kadlec deal foundered due to Sparta allegedly attempting to re-evaluate the deal near the point of completion, and with Fortune, Naysmith and Harte falling off the radar, the swift signing of Naylor was a surprise move but one that secured Celtic's most consistent performer of last season.
And while "esteemed manager" O'Neill publicly challenged the money men at the club, Strachan apparently understands the value of getting on with the boss, recently praising his relationship with chief executive Peter Lawwell. In the past, that sort of cooperation with bureaucracy would have been seen as sacrilegious at Celtic but, having built a system around the manager, Lawwell has been a major contributor to the on-field advancement. In turn, Strachan, rarely a man to hold back with criticism, clearly trusts Lawwell enough to allow him to change the focus on deals, apparently without friction.
Critics inevitably point to the poor displays of Mo Camara and Adam Virgo, both of whom were signed within days of Strachan taking the Celtic job. Then again even Martin O'Neill had his Steve Guppy and Momo Sylla moments. Equally, Thomas Gravesen and Jiri Jarosik made only lukewarm contributions to last season's success but, unlike the latter years of Baldé and Alan Thompson, both remain viable options as players whether at Celtic Park or elsewhere.
Thompson and Gravesen's differing fortunes also illustrate a disparity in emphasis on the balance between tactical cohesion and favoured personnel. Irrespective of form, Thompson seemed to be guaranteed a starting place under O'Neill, most farcically filling a central midfield role while Stiliyan Petrov was banished to the right to make room. It should have been no surprise that such decisions contributed to a final season of collapse.
Gravesen, on the other hand, has been told publicly that he won't play if he can't follow instructions on positioning. Still, the Dane insists he wants to fight for a first team place while Thompson struggles for a first team. Of course it should be remembered that the ever-generous O'Neill indulged Paul Lambert with a final lucrative contract and time off mid-season to pursue German coaching qualifications while Celtic struggled in the league.
Given his remarkable performance so far, Strachan really ought to be allowed to at least borrow the Teflon halo that O'Neill took to the midlands with him. Instead, the only way he's likely to escape being branded a flop is to overclock his team with a dazzling domestic treble and/or a triumphant march to the quarter-finals of the Champions League, or further.
Infamously, while playing for Aberdeen, Strachan was once assaulted by a fan in the very ground where he now makes his living. He could be forgiven if, just sometimes, he felt as if the kicking had never stopped.