Shuffling the pack

When you shuffle the pack, you get a different challenge. Once again, Brendan Rodgers gave youth a chance. 

Celtic’s 0-2 victory at Rugby Park yesterday was another step toward a long unbeaten run that goes way back to last year. He did so by swapping out six players from the midweek thumping of Astana.

With the Champions League group participation all but confirmed, Brendan Rodgers is almost certain to see that run comes to an end against one of Europe’s high rollers. The last team to beat Celtic was Barcelona on 23rd November 2016 in the Champions league.

However, Brendan is now showing his willingness to play youth. After an invincible season where he ran the rule over the inflated first team numbers he inherited, he has a new challenge at the club.

Celtic have a very successful talent pool but the yield isn’t always bursting at the seams. We’ve had many introductions over the years though few have held down a regular first team spot.

Kieran Tierney and Callum McGregor are the two standouts in the past few years. We’ve also seen guys like Liam Henderson for a similar if not longer period of time but he has struggled to impose himself in a talented and busy midfield.

Other players to get competitive first team time are Jamie McCart and Jack Aitchison. They remain part of the Development Team, but both have demonstrated their worth.

With focus on youth and home-grown talent it would be interesting to see what sort of team Celtic could field using just Scottish players. Well, using the current crop of senior and youth it could look something like this:

Gordon

Ralston McCart Tierney Miller

Brown Henderson

Forrest McGregor Armstrong

Griffiths

Whilst this might not be a team you’d field every week or in the Champions League, I’m certain that it could overturn several Scottish Premiership clubs. I don’t think that’s an unrealistic view given the current standard of football that Celtic come up against.

The future continues to look bright for Celtic. You just won’t read about it in the SMSM.

Many have already uttered their feelings about Celtic’s success in Europe having a negative effect on the rest of the game. Baffling to say the least.

Apparently Celtic’s dominance, despite using fair play, is unhealthy for the game. They didn’t say that when Rangers 1872 bought their way to success under Sir David Murray.

A period where Celtic could not compete financially or on the field of play as other teams of the time like Aberdeen and Motherwell demonstrated. Eventually the tide would turn as Celtic got their house in order.

Some twenty odd years later, our club is flourishing. From youth through senior level.

As a business we are running like a well tuned engine. We have a top drawer manager into the bargain.

Why should Celtic be criticised for doing it right? Other clubs had the opportunity to step over Celtic, but they didn’t.

It seems many people out there envy our club. We cannot be criticised for doing it right.

If anything other clubs should be trying to emulate what Celtic have been doing. Whilst it does require prudence and working within your means you need some sort investment to get up and running.

Here we go ten-in-a-row.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 Middle ground with Armstrong

So big Stu has signed a new two-deal-year for Celtic. Good news for both parties.

Many will see this two-year-deal as a one-year-extension. The expectancy would be to sell Armstrong next summer with one year left to run.

However, I’ve got a different take on this. What if he’s been given a transitional deal to allow both parties to come back to the table at the end of the season?

It’s obvious Armstrong and his advisors were looking for more. Something that Celtic were not willing to give right now.

I have been of the opinion that the club would like to see the same if not better from the player this season. Should that come to fruition he’ll have proved his worth for a better contract.

As I said in in an earlier blog, Brendan deserves as much praise as the player. Another season will demonstrate how much he has learned and executed in consecutive seasons.

Are Celtic being tight fisted? I don’t think so.

If Armstrong comes up with the goods again this season I would expect he can write his own contract. If offers were as fruitful as reported down south then why is he still here?

Celtic could just cash in on him now and move on to another project. The club aren’t short of midfield talent and I see this as a sign he wants to stay and the player is wanted.

I don’t imagine this new contract is of the length or income he was looking for. So in order to get that, another year (possibly with extra bonuses) will allow both parties to negotiate a better deal.

Personally I don’t think any player can make big demands after one good season. Not unless it was written into your contract or you are hot property, doing it on the park all of the time.

Don’t forget he was average for a season and a half before Rodgers came in. Sure he was out of position, but I’m sure more will be expected from him.

I’m glad this middle ground has been reached and both the player and the manager can concentrate on the football again. Armstrong is a fabulous talent but we’ve yet to see the best of him yet.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Celtic Ecstasy

The ecstasy from last night’s 5-0 defeat of Astana courses through my veins still. Celtic Park was jumping and significantly the Green Brigade were back among the supporters and helping to raise the roof once again.

This significance of the playoff was to secure entry into the group phase of the Champions League once more and the guaranteed income that comes with it. In truth this was something more, it was about teamwork.

This was Celtic’s eighth game of the season, and their fifth in Europe. Not everything has been rosy in the garden though. 

With injuries to key players, Brendan Rodgers has been deprived of both central defenders and strikers. That has meant using alternatives from within the squad, alien to the roles required.

Then there has been the matter of player sharpness. Form has been sporadic at best, but last night that all changed.

After an opening thirty minutes where Astana looked at comfortable and organised, Celtic began to click. It was as though someone had flicked a switch and suddenly all the misplaced passes, missing runs and misfiring in front of goal ceased.

A two or three goal victory without reply was a target but it was better. Much better than we had hoped for. 

Good fortune came Celtic’s way but not without digging deep and working together. That was the key to this win. 

The joy among the players was just as apparent as it was in the stands. The atmosphere was electric as the goals rolled in one by one.

2-0? Great. 3-0? Ideal!

5-0? Wonderful.

We were all concerned about narrowly beating Astana last season. This session we knew we were a better team, but we still had concerns.

Bitton filling it at centre back and Forrest and Sinclair both off the boil. They came good though and then some.

The players all seemed to acknowledge that things had kicked in again. We saw that from stands and we rejoiced in unison.

What a great feeling. What a great night. 

With the hard part done, all we need now is for Paddy to sign, Armstrong to re-sign and a decent draw after our place is confirmed. Well, two-out-of-three wouldn’t be bad!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Make the home tie count

Tonight’s visitors to Celtic Park need no introduction. Similarly, Celtic need no reminder of the task.

Overcoming this stage of qualifying is a massive of injection of entertainment and finance for the club. It may also help one or two footballers decided where their futures lie.

Brendan Rodgers must set up for tonight to get the best possible result. As much as I think Celtic can score away goals these days, I would be over the moon if we kept a clean sheet are Celtic Park.

With the second leg away, a clean sheet is essential at home. More important is a victory. 

So ideally we’re looking for two or three goals without reply tonight. Tough ask, but not impossible. 

We’re a far more rounded team this year and with a few additions. There have been some teething issues though with form, injury and suspension.

Celtic must keep things tight and take full advantage of playing at home though. Conditions will play a factor in this match as the Glasgow summer continues to unleash rain.

Bitton or Ajer? Forrest or Hayes?

Brendan has done decisions to make. The rest of the team picks itself.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

We are all Neil Lennon

The Scottish Premiership was anything but dull over the weekend. Six scheduled fixtures produced 18 goals, 5 red cards and plenty of talking points.

Whilst I would normally have focused on the Celtic match our attention was drawn toward the bigger picture of discipline and refereeing. That has now been eclipsed by a far more serious issue.

It isn’t a new subject, but rather something of a historical, ongoing, unresolved disease. Think of it as a cancer that has spread across our game but unlike the old man Scottish football is, he refuses to have it investigated by a doctor.

A huge thing was made of Neil Lennon’s reactions at Ibrox. The home fans were outraged at Lennon’s celebrations during the match. 

It prompted a statement from the fans group Club 1872. They appeared to be unhappy with his happiness at beating their team.

Of the gestures made by Lennon one was deemed as going a bit too far, but wait. The same guy has received verbal and physical abuse from the day he set foot in Scotland by your very own fans not to mention throughout that match. 
On top of that the media have continued to paint an unpleasant picture of the Northern Irishman. That agenda came to interesting peak on Sportscene at the weekend.

Unsurprisingly, the studio pundits threw the book at Lennon. This is standard practice and think Lennon as ‘brings it on himself’.

Interestingly Michael Stewart revised his comments yesterday and made an apology. That retraction says a lot about just how influenced things are in the media.

Himself and Steven Thompson stuck together in condemning Lennon. It will be interesting to see what else comes out of this especially when you saw Chris Sutton’s show of support and mockery of the Ckub 1872 statement.

These people have very short memories. If they were ever in any doubt about what I’m referring to you can read about the death threats Lennon had after that game which is now as ongoing investigation. 

The key part of every Lennon reaction is the abuse he’s taken for nearly two decades. Though tough on the field, he wasn’t a dirty player and far worse have existed in the Scottish game before, during and after his time as Celtic’s number 18.

You don’t have to question why fans at all grounds dislike him so much. He’s a Catholic Northern Irishman with a big presence and personality playing for Celtic.

This is red rag to a bull if you’re of the union flag waving, sash wearing variety. These people are also Scotland’s shame.

The irony is that despite the football authorities and the Scottish government’s efforts to address bigotry and sectarianism in our sport, they are strangely lenient or silent when Lennon is a victim and his attackers are out in the open for all to see. How many times has he been threatened, attacked and received parcel bombs in the mail targeting him and his family?

More to the point, what has been done about it? Nothing.

Put simply, Lennon is enemy number one for those whose purpose in life is to inflict anger and hatred. Just like the Linfield game and Leigh Griffiths, if you can’t control your emotions in the stands then the problem is in the stands not on the pitch. 

The hurt amongst the Ibrox support is massive. Their club died thanks to their former knighted leader and his cronies. 

That slow painful death occurred during Celtic’s continuing reign as Scotland’s number one club. A club with a business model to die for. 

Lennon is a constant reminder to the Ibrox fans and their new club, of their old club’s ultimate failure. That must hurt very much indeed.
He isn’t going to go away though. He has endured everything you have thrown at him for nearly twenty years.

It’s time for those of you filled with hatred to move on. We don’t need your kind.

Lennon is here to stay. You lot are not welcome.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Armstrong needs to be open about his future or move on for the good of the club.

Brendan Rodgers has claimed that Stuart Armstrong’s form is being affected by unresolved contract talks. Whilst I agree with the obvious I would also say that this is having an impact in the dressing room and amongst the fans.

Uncertain futures raise concerns about a player’s application, dedication and happiness. You don’t get many players like Kieran Tierney, but he’s in a different bracket altogether – Mr Celtic you might say.

I was discussing Armstrong’s situation with a friend at the weekend. We agreed on all of the positives and negatives about Armstrong playing down south or staying a Celtic. 

The most significant point we agreed on was the player’s final decision. That if he failed to agree a new Celtic contract we wouldn’t lose sleep over his departure. 

You may ask why this was our thoughts or you may already know or think the same. The fact is, nobody is bigger than the club though you can win the fan’s hearts and minds if you play it right. 

I was just as pleased as any other Celtic supporter to see Armstrong flourish for the Hoops last season. We all knew he wasn’t playing in the right position under Ronny Deila.

In his two-and-a-half years at the club he has had one stand out season. That’s as much down to Brendan as it is down to Armstrong though. 

If you bear those two facts in mind then you have to say to the players negotiators “Just how strong a position are you in to get a better deal?” A Premiership club may double or treble his Celtic terms, but one good season doesn’t make you a god.

Whilst the details of any offer are unknown to me, I would imagine that the Celtic offer is a decent one for the immediate future. The player’s advisors shouldn’t get carried away until he’s proven he can repeat the same form.

Armstrong is a natural, but he is far from the finished article. Using the Premier League as a bargaining chip is a sly yet common tool by agents.

The question for the player is does he want to become the best he can be under Brendan Rodgers or does he take the money and his chances down south? The manager is convinced of the former and my gut instinct is the same and we know all to well how moving south turned out for many other former Celts. 

Understandably, I would find it very hard to say “no thanks” if I was offered twice or treble my salary. In my current job it would be a no brainer, but in football there are other factors. 

There are some really average players earning tonnes of money down south. If money is the key factor for Armstrong and he has an offer from a Premier League club then he should take it.

If he truly wants to be a better player, become a club legend, play in Europe, win domestic silverware and maybe even captain the club one day then it is probably only going to happen at Celtic. Down south he’ll get the money, but that’s about it unless he secured a decent move. 

To get a club in England that offers the same chance of success as Celtic he’d need to have good back-to-back seasons. So far he only has one and that will only secure him an average side.

Virgil an Dijk, Fraser Forster and Victor Wanyama are all players who made a name for themselves over a period of time. They all got their moves eventually and Armstrong can still get his if he wants it, but he has plenty of time and isn’t in the same bracket of the players I’ve just mentioned. 

Why not take a new deal at Celtic, continue to prosper under Brendan Rodgers and raise your status whilst winning trophies? In a couple of years you would be in a much better position to negotiate a decent move south or a bumper deal at Celtic. 

If done right, Armstrong could have a very good decade in the game. So far there is little to suggest any progress has been made.

So as much as a new deal is important, Armstrong’s advisors should not be overstating the players case at this stage. It is having an impact on the player, the team and the fans.

Armstrong is a fantastic player who can have a very career in the game. Now he needs to step in take control of this situation and make a decision. 

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Flying high at Firhill on Friday

To say Celtic have begun their domestic campaign on fire would be an understatement. Nine goals from the opening two games have got the Hoops off to an absolute flyer.
Having dispatched two Premiership teams in the space of four days, many of us are wondering if an unbeaten run could be on the cards once more. It’s early days of course, with another nine opponents of varying calibre in waiting, but it would be an unbelievable feat if another invincible season happened.

Though unlikely, Celtic will use that as their yardstick for the season ahead. Let’s also remember that the team aren’t even at full strength yet.

Injury and suspension have claimed the availability of key players. Match sharpness is still being worked on as well.

Since the Champions League qualifiers began, Brendan Rodgers has fielded his best available team selection. He’s maintained that through to the opening league match.

A strong home performance saw off managerless Heart of Midlothian at Celtic Park last Saturday. A fine 4-1 victory was a solid enough performance to mark the flag day celebrations.

Celtic were in good rhythm despite four qualifiers in the previous weeks where match sharpness was expectedly absent. With a striker and a focal point back in place though, things are been beginning to click.

Leigh Griffiths has been the catalyst in better fortunes since he reappeared as a substitute in Norway. Coming off the bench in the second leg against Rosenborg altered the dynamic that night and made a significant contribution in getting the win.

Despite not scoring in that match, he carried his performance into the Hearts game and bagged a superb brace. Scott Sinclair and Callum McGregor each providing a goal too.

Next up was Kilmarnock in a rare home fixture in the League Cup. Instead of going for his best available eleven, Brendan mixed things up a little.

As holders you want to retain the trophy you’re competing for again. What Brendan did though was something bold and beautiful.

An outfield team with the average age of less than 20-years-old buried their Ayrshire opponents 5-0. This was a match of such dominance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Killie hadn’t turned up.

Old man Craig Gordon had all but taken his teeth out and put them in a glass by his goalside table. It was a youthful batch of players taking the game to Lee McCulloch’s woeful warriors.

Is it too early to say they’ll go down this season? Don’t let that take any credit from Celtic – the Hoops were on fine form.

Kieran Tierney captained the team for the second time. This was his first competitive captaincy having deputised in the Sunderland friendly. 

Playing in a back three, he was joined by Kristoffer Ajer and Anthony Ralston. The midfield was equally as youthful.

Calvin Miller, Eboue Kouassi and Kundai Benyu joined the experienced Tom Rogić, Stuart Armstrong and Jonny Hayes in the middle of the park. The blend was tireless and endlessly productive.

At the tip of the attack was an effervescent Leigh Griffiths once again. And it was himself that opened the scoring from the spot on 14 minutes. 

Ralston popped up with a header seven minutes later for 2-0. Griffiths continued his goal scoring form with a well placed finish eight minutes later to make it 3-0.

That was the score at half -time, but before the interval Celtic lost Kouassi to injury. He was replaced by the young, experienced and tidy traits of 21-year-old Olivier Ntcham.
In the second half, captain Tierney decided that if Ralston could score then he could as well. So he stepped up and unleashed an unstoppable 40 yarder to make it 4-0.

Goal of the season? Well, we’ll still be talking about it in May 2018 that’s for sure.

Celtic swapped out Griffiths for Forrest and Benyu for McGregor. That kept the momentum going. 

Armstrong wrapped things up with close finish to make it 5-0. He looked pretty happy to score as well. 

Given his unresolved contract status he showed encouragement that night that he wanted to stay. We’ll have to wait and see how that pans out though.

This was as good a performance than you could hope to see from such a young team. No, it was better than that – it was a masterclass of youth and experience working in unison.

Were Killie poor on the night? Yes they were.

They offered nothing in a game which is a knockout competition. Didn’t have a go/couldn’t have a go – it didn’t matter.

Celtic wiped the floor with them. Partick Thistle are now awaiting Celtic’s arrival this evening at Firhill. 

The Jags lost their opening league game of the season away to Neil Lennon’s Hibernian who returned to the top flight with a 3-1 home win. Thistle bounced back midweek in the League Cup by hammering St Johnstone 0-3 at McDiarmid Park.

The only thing that goes against Partick for tonight’s live match is that Celtic are likely to field their strongest side. Scott Brown is back after his suspension and we’ll probably see Mikael Lustig and Jozo Simunovic return to defence.

Whether Brendan decides to stick with Ajer or redeploy Nir Bitton at centre half is anyone’s guess. Both players are actually midfielders, but have seen themselves in defence this season due to injuries.

I think both have acquitted themselves well though. Ajer seems to be the one who is more likely to be retrained for this position long term, but Bitton offers cover as midfield chances will be rare for him.

The midfield can take many forms these days. There are so many options to start with and so many you can bring off the bench as well.

Up front we’ll be looking to Griffiths once more. I genuinely think he’s going to push on this season.

Celtic have set their stall out early. They are the current benchmark.

Friday nights and Celtic. What’s not to like?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac