Mock the weak

Another week of bizarre sporting headlines are almost at close. And I’m not just talking about the over-discussed stories about playing Linfield.

With the Euro draws starting the week off, the focus was on our Scottish teams. Celtic, Aberdeen, Rangers and St Johnstone all came out of the bowl to see who they’d face in Europe.

Former Barcelona player and club legend Xavi was quoted beforehand as saying that Celtic shouldn’t “be a club that has to qualify for the Champions League”, “When you consider the size of the club, their history, their stadium”. Well we know that wee man, but there’s jack shit we can do about it….except maybe avoid playing your old club all the time or winning the tournament.

Celtic were paired with Linfield or La Fiorita and became the topic of discussion this week. The two-legged tie between our potential opponents hasn’t even begun and already Linfield have been put through, if you go by the abundance of chatter. 

I know the odds maybe against La Fiorita, but it’s a tad disrespectful. The ongoing discussion isn’t so much to do with this playing the Rangers of Belfast, more that any potential fixture in the Northern Irish city is at the peak of marching season.

This is not news. Not until the tie has been settled.

We won’t know the outcome for two weeks. Celtic will not play their eventual opponents for about three weeks.

And still, all I’m reading about is Linfield v Celtic, Linfield v Celtic. If I was involved with La Fiorita I’d be motivated to ruin Linfield’s day.

The regurgitation of this story was interrupted only by things over at Ibrox this week. The have keeping us appraised of the number of players being recruited Nasdaq style.

This constant updating of numbers sounds good if you’re a Rangers fan in need of reassurance. So to must be this wonderful new retail deal that Rangers have acquired.

Sorry, did I use the the word ‘new’? Roll up, roll up, everything must go… because it’s been sitting in a warehouse for ages. 

News of Mike Ashley settling with Rangers has been branded as a new retail deal. It’s basically a severance package.

Old stock and money owed = make a settlement. Something owners at Ibrox haven’t been too good at in recent years.

A settlement it must be said that gets the same fans who boycotted Ashley doing a u-turn. The very products they refused to buy have now beem bought and worn.

You couldn’t make this shit up. Not even the media want to write this up for what it really is – capitulation.

Their hand has been forced, anyone can see that but you won’t hear that. Not in our media but their was one rumour put forward by James Forrest that Puma and Sports Direct forced Rangers to the negotiatable.

You’ll only hear the ‘positives’ about this though. Not to mention that eight new signings will put Rangers back where they belong.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this what Warburton did last summer? How’d that turn out for you?

Celtic’s business in the transfer market will take place throughout the summer. Progress in the Champions League could well be a key part of that.

The services of Jonny Hayes have already been acquired. In truth, Celtic don’t need any more squad numbers, just one or two really good players to raise the bar going into Europe.

We have a quality squad comprised of a balance of Scottish and foreign players which is being reduced to a manageable size. The remaining players are still improving and learning under Brendan Rodgers.

Training got underway this week with four friendlies arranged over the summer. Celtic will base themselves in central Europe for the three matches against BW Linz (28th June), Rapid Vienna (1st July) and Slavia Prague (4th July).

After that they will head to Dublin to play Shamrock Rovers (8th July). That game will mean either a very short trip to Belfast or an even longer one to sunny San Marino in the days that follow the match against Rovers to play in their first Champions League 2nd round qualifier.

On the subject of fixtures, Celtic’s Premiership campaign will open at home to Hearts on August 5th. The seasons fixtures were announced today with other notable first meetings with Rangers on September 23rd (away) and Aberdeen 25th October (away).

The Ibrox fixture is likely to get an earlier than advertised kick off or put back to the 24th for live TV coverage. The match at Pittodrie is a midweek game with a 7.45pm kick off so live coverage is pretty much guaranteed without any alteration.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Drawn between two

And there you have it. Linfield or La Fiorita.
Let’s talk about the latter of the two first of all. San Marino’s current league champions.

Founded in 1967 – what a year – and five time winners of the Campionato Sanmarinese di Calcio. That’s the top flight in San Marino to you and me.

This will be their sixth straight season in a European competition as well as their total amount of seasons in Europe be it the Champions League or Europa League. It should be mentioned that they have never made it past the first qualifying round in the previous five seasons – might they mark their 50th anniversay with a bit of progress?

That will be up to David Healy’s Linfield side from Belfast. They’ve been around a bit longer of course, a couple more than Celtic in fact.

In Europe, they have been battling away since the 1959-1960 season. They peaked in the 1966-1967 European Cup by reaching the quarter-finals.

Also in that round were of course Celtic who would go on to win the competition. Since then, Linfield haven’t gone any further than the second qualifying round in any European competition despite dominating their domestic league.

If you follow the odds, Linfield are bound to go through. In Europe though, funny things can happen.

Personally, I’d like to avoid playing Northern Irish side. It could be a pretty ugly affair for obvious reasons. 

1967 is a significant year between Celtic and both of their potential opponents. I know who’d I’d prefer to face.

The Bhoys are back in training today and will be looking forward to that first tie in just over three weeks. Right now, they just need to focus on getting match fit starting today.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

All eyes on Nyon…

This morning, Celtic will learn who their opponents are for the second qualifying round in the Champions League. This is the first of three hurdles Brendan Rodgers and his players are expected to overcome in order to seal a place in the group phase of the competition.

He’s been here before with Celtic and cleared all three challenges at the first time of asking. It was by no means a foregone conclusion though.

In the Champions League, or the Europa League, there are no easy teams. Celtic lost to an ‘easy team’ from Gilbraltar in their first competitive match under Brendan as they got their qualifying campaign under way last summer.

Even though Celtic won the return leg and the overall tie 3-1, that first game didn’t exactly put supporters minds at ease. What was traditionally the ‘close season’ has now become part of the season for Celtic meaning a very short rest.

Teams like Lincoln Red Imps eat the flesh of vulnerable teams like Celtic who may go into such games with a degree of complacency. In the round that followed that one, a narrrow victory saw Celtic progress 3-2 on aggregate ahead of Astana of Kazakhstan.

At the final hurdle, Celtic showed signs of upping their game by winning the home leg 5-2 against Hapoel Be’er Sheva. In the return fixture though, the Israeli champions made a game of it and won 2-0, making it a nail-biting finish with a 5-4 aggregate victory for Celtic.

It had been three seasons since Celtic had played in the group stages of the tournament after Ronny Deila failed at both attempts. Neil Lennon had been the last Celtic manager to qualify and finally they were back at the big table again.

It is never a simple passage for Celtic these days. Gone are the days of one qualify round or even automatic entry despite being champions – it’s a sham.

These qualifiers come so early, but Celtic should be well used to that by now. A year on it will be interesting to see what the players and coaching staff have learned from last seasons experience.

The grand majority of this team will remain together and should be seen as a benefit going into this competition as the same band of brothers. In fact most of them have been together for more than a season with the exception of Moussa Dembele, Kolo Toure and Scott Sinclair.

With largely the same team there is already an established bond and understanding among this squad. That became apparrent as last season progressed under Brendan.

To progress, the players will need to push themselves further. There will be additions and departures, but the key elements are already there and are likely to remain regardless of what the media are otherwise suggesting.

Only one key player appears out of our grasp and that is Patrick Roberts. Nothing is certain, but should he go elsewhere we thank him for some memorable moments.

Yet you never know. Unless he gets something decent, he’ll find it hard to forget Celtic.

He can still have a career down south. Another year or two in Scotland would not do his career any harm.

Maybe when he tunes into the Champions League qualifying draw this morning he’ll remember what it is like to be a Celt. To be adored by the entire Celtic faithful. 

We’re only three weeks from that first competitive match. All eyes will be on Nyon at 11am this morning.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac 

Reading Reunion?

I was surprised by two pieces of transfer news today. Both involving Celtic.
It seems as though the transfer of Jonny Hayes from Aberdeen is coming to fruition. Or at least, the reports are suggesting a fee has been agreed between both clubs.

Yesterday, I said to await the truth and ignore the rumour. However, this one hasn’t gone away since it first came to light.

The brief history Brendan Rodgers shared with Hayes whilst at Reading has developed into something of ‘reunion’ in the waiting. We await confirmation as well as the role he’d be expected to play in this Celtic team.

Does he bring something to the club we don’t have? Only Brendan knows.

One player heading out is Scott Allan. Dundee agreed a deal today, but it’s only for season long loan.

Allan, like many other players brought in prior to Brendan’s arrival, is one of Celtic’s misfits. A permanent deal would have been preferred because I doubt he’ll play for the Hoops again  but I’ve been wrong before.

Like I said, there are more players in the squad in a similar position. If he stays fit it’ll do him the world of good because it’s been a rocky road for two years now.

So things are happening at a steady pace. If Hayes does sign then he’s the first of only two or three expected signings this summer.

More exits will be on the horizon though. Then we’ll have a workable squad size.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

The Transfer Truth

We’ve only just entered the second full week of June and I’m champing at the bit for the new season to start already. It is an exciting time to be a Celtic supporter.
Player comings and goings are still to reach a point of interest for many Celtic fans so far. However, I wouldn’t expect to hear anything for a week or two just yet. 

Most of the squad and backroom staff are on holiday or been involved international duty. You can be sure that with such a short close season for Celtic these days, pre-planning has been a key stage long before the season ended.

That said it doesn’t prevent the media from speculating. With so many Celtic players with uncertain futures that isn’t a total surprise.

So far senior players Efe Ambrose and Kris Commons’ contracts have expired and have now left the club as we knew they would. Further down the ranks my local team Brighton & Hove Albion took on the services of Josh Kerr who will be aiming for senior football in the Premier League – what a great opportunity for him. 

Also heading out is Eoghan O’Connell. The big Irish centre back looked like he might have been in with a chance under Brendan Rodgers, but he went out on his third loan whilst at the club instead.

Now he’s secured a permanent deal south of the border with League One side Bury. I think he’s a decent player who could’ve done a job, but I’m pleased he’s got something solid instead – best of luck to the big fella.

That leaves several other squad players though. Celtic are well endowed in terms of numbers, but quality is the focus moving ahead.

You don’t need to question Brendan at this point. He knows what is required.

He has worked with this squad for a year now and hasn’t made any hasty moves. 12 months on he’ll have a better idea who still has a chance and who needs to make a career move now.

Personally, I look forward to a bit of squad trimming. It gives youth a chance to filter through and shine. 

When you’re part of such a big squad what are your chances realistically as a young player? You only need to look at Celtic’s use of Manchester City fringe players.

Good enough for a Celtic. Forgotten about at City.

So there will be more exits than signings in my view this summer. I also think that will benefit the club.

You cannot facilitate the numbers. Even a club like Celtic.

If youth isn’t producing the goods then that is the time to delve into the market. There is no point in having a hefty squad of senior players that are not playing.

So expect many of the fringe players to have their future’s sorted out this summer. It’s for the greater good.

Don’t expect to see rumours of key players leaving. Instead, think of Celtic retaining all of their best players for the new season because despite what the media will tell you, they simply aren’t going anywhere. 

Brendan will not be parting with anyone that he doesn’t want to. For now at least. 

Looking forward to actual transfers. Not rumours.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac