A hard graft for Griff

Winning on flag day at Celtic Park is always a good way to start the domestic season. The likelihood of a mishap is extremely slender.

There have been a few draws on the opening day of the season down the years. However, you would have to go back to the 1997-1998 season to find Celtic’s last opening day defeat.

Remarkably, it was one of most pivotal seasons in Celtic’s history for many reasons. Despite the disastrous opening day defeat at Easter Road, you may recall a Celtic debutant by the name of Henrik Larsson.

After replacing Andreas Thom in the 59th minute, the Swede earmarked his debut by supplying a misplaced pass to Chic Charnley who duly drove home a 20 yard winner. I recall watching the game live on TV whilst away for a weekend with friends.

One of those friends (a Rangers man) gleefully laughed his socks off whilst my other friend (a Celtic man) stared at me in disbelief. If any of the three of us sitting watching that knew then what we know now, all the roles would have been reversed quite severely that day.

Winning the league was our priority of course and this would be the season which would see the Celtic put a halt to their old rivals dominance on Scottish football. None of us had a scooby how good Henrik was going to be though, especially after that debut!

Unfortunately we don’t have anyone of his class banging in the goals for the Hoops these days. He was a one-off that served the club very well indeed and almost irreplaceable.

The task that Celtic’s current crop of strikers have is not to fill those shoes. It is merely to do a good job.

Having lost John Guidetti to greed, Celtic’s best striker right now is Leigh Griffiths. His maturity and application these past twelve months have been a central to his recent success.

n he came to the club with a troublesome tag.

Despite coming to the club with a troublesome tag, every man and their dog is fully aware of Griffiths’s ability but he is not an automatic pick for Ronny Deila. Since the arrival of Nadir Çiftçi, Griffiths has found himself playing second fiddle, in Europe anyway.

Much of that of course is be down to the fact that Çiftçi is banned for six Premiership matches. If you’re Griffiths, you would understand his frustration given that he has applied himself, done what was asked of him in training and scored goals.

What is even more impressive is how Leigh has handled all of that. His responses to criticism and disappointment are genuinely a big step up in maturity.

If he continues to deal with the knocks as he has of late he will grow into an even better player. In fact sometimes I think Ronny Deila is being harder on him to mould him into a better player.

I don’t have any evidence of that but we all know what the boy can do. Sure Çiftçi brings something else to the game, like Samaras used to, but the Turk is currently short of fitness, getting used to a new kind of set up and of course a totally different player to Griffiths.

If fit for Wednesday, I’m sure Leigh will be hoping to get chosen. The odds are that Çiftçi will get the nod as he needs games and at this point in the season is the only competition he’ll get them in.

You can expect Griffiths to be disappointment by that outcome but he continues to say and do the right things. His first ever goal in Europe came against Stjarnan in Iceland and his first league goal came against Ross County at the weekend.

Çiftçi can only dream of that right now. Just keep doing what you’re doing Leigh and your chance will come.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

All the best Adam…

For a young talented player with only two years senior experience under his belt, Adam Matthews turned out to be a good acquisition for Celtic. Having signed him for nothing, retained his services for four years and sold him on for over £2M with a sell on clause, it is good business for the club.

Adam proved himself at right back, left back and on the right wing for Celtic. He played in some huge matches, scored goals, provided assists and even had a great pair of lungs!

The one thing holding him back was in proneness to injury. He isn’t the only Celtic player in the present day to be held back by such an issue but it was an issue.

It has been said that it was his desire to move on and not Celtic’s that brought about his transfer request and subsequent move to Sunderland. I see no reason to doubt that given that he has served us well and despite his injuries.

And it is was his injuries that were the only issue for me. His ability was more than enough to hold down a regular place.

If you are a manager and looking to make strides in Europe as Celtic always are then you need to be able to rely on your best players. The unfortunate thing for Celtic is that they haven’t always been able to rely upon Matthews, Lustig or even Forrest because of niggling injuries.

For Ronny Deila to even try to achieve his goal at Celtic, he needs to know the players he has at his disposal will be available for him. If there is a ‘cure’ for Lustig and Forrest then I see no reason for them to leave the club.

At the same time, the club are under no obligation to hold on to players who cannot fulfill their contract. I’m sure given maturity Matthews will overcome his injuries but he has been granted a transfer request and Celtic get something in return.

The young Welsh international has done his job for Celtic these last four years. 150 appearances and 5 goals later, he goes south with my blessing.

Good luck Adam in the rest of your career. You have a bright one ahead of you.

His departure makes more room on the right hand side for Darnell Fisher and new Bhoy Saidy Janko to compete for a place. Mikael Lustig will also compete for a place in the right back berth but as mentioned before, a solution to the Swede’s recurring injuries will make or break his Celtic career.

In the meantime, we have two young lads battling it out for a starting spot. With any luck, neither will have the injury issues either of their predecessors have had.

Celtic have also shipped out Paul McMullan (to St Mirren) and Michael Duffy (to Alloa Athletic) on loan. Both forwards will get invaluable experience playing in the Scottish Championship against Hibernian and Rangers as well as each other.

There is lots of movement for Celtic right now and things are shaping up nicely as Ronny Deila begins to make this team look more and more like his own. I expect more changes in the days and weeks ahead but today, it is back to the preseason schedule with the second of three matches at St Mirren Park.

FK Dukla Prague are today’s visitors and it’s another opportunity to see how preparations for the Champions League qualifiers are going. Today I hope to see new Bhoy Janko in at right back and those who never featured midweek to get some game time.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Competition for places in Paisley

Celtic got their preseason underway at St Mirren Park last night. The result is often not an immediate concern in these games but it was still good to end the match with a clean sheet and two goals in the bag.

Paisley was the location for these first of three warm up matches, with FC Den Bosch the first opponent. The Dutch second division club were overawed by Celtic dominance in the first half which featured both goals for the Hoops.

The first came from Gary Mackay-Steven in the early minutes of the match. The second also came via the former Dundee United player though the Den Bosch keeper saved the effort only for it to be bundled into the net by his own player.

Cruel, but fair because it was one way traffic by Celtic. In truth it could have been much more in that first half alone.

Gary Mackay-Steven was at the heart of most moves showing great energy with every run. There were plenty of other notable performances into the bargain.

Boyata looked comfortable to the point he van Dijk were mainly just feeding the ball forward whilst Lustig (C) and youngster Kieran Tierney filled the full back berths. They were rarely called into to defend much but a valuable run out in the Hoops for Boyata, a development squad player in Tierney and of course a very much missed Lustig.

Young Luke Donnelly took up the midfield attack role between Mackay-Steven and Armstrong. He turned in a good performance and looked comfortable in the role.

Tom Rogić was among a midfield holding two along with Liam Henderson. Both were close to matching energy of Mackay-Steven and is encouraging news for Ronny Deila that they both looked so capable together.

Many fans have been keen to see Rogić back in the Hoops, myself included. With Henderson back from a brief, but worth while loan spell at Rosenberg its like having two new players.

That can only be good news for Celtic. Knowing that Scott Brown and Nir Bitton have back up means there is cover as well pressure.

In fact Celtic have an abundance of wealth in the midfield. The question is who will be shed by the club to trim down to Ronny Deila’s ideal squad size?

So far Celtic have moved on four players and acquired two. Over the next two months I would expect to see more exits.

I was surprised to see Dylan McGeouch and Jackson Irvine (you have to check out his squad picture on the official website) among the recently updated squad list. Both have been on the books for a while and out on loan recently so what of their futures?

McGeouch has had a good season with Hibs and Alan Stubbs looked keen to have him stay but I believe Celtic activated an extra year on his contract. As for Irvine, he’s had good run in the Ross County side.

Despite both having a good season I was a little surprised to see them back. Not because I don’t rate them but because Ronny is trying to trim the squad.

Perhaps it is part of some bigger plan. Pool all of your talent throughout this summer and have them all competing for a place to stay?

Well I’m not sure but Ronny is intent in blooding youngsters as part of using the talent the club rear. With that in mind these friendlies are as much of a shop window as they are a warm up for the Champions League qualifiers.

Then second half of last night’s match saw the manager throw on eight players on for the last 30 mins. Though mostly players from the academy, one of those was the not so young Derk Boerrigter.

He turned in a decent 30 mins to be fair and even recovered from an injury during play. If there was one player who is on that list to exit though it is Boerrigter and he did his chances no harm if any prospective buyers were watching.

One player keen to ensure he stays will be Stefan Šćepović. After a season of woe, he will be aiming to up his game this summer.

Recently he openly admitted to struggling to adapt to the Scottish game. This season the gauntlet has been thrown down for him to perform because I doubt he will be on the snip list.

Next up is Dukla Prague where we’ll see further outings by from the whole squad. One of those could be new signing Saidy Janko from Manchester United.

His role has yet to be established but it could spell the end for someone in that right side of the park. The club cannot sustain Lustig, Fisher, Matthews, Ambrose and Saidy for that right back/wing back role so something will have to give.

It’s interesting times with competition for places are fierce. With the young talent that took to the field last night the future looks bright for Celtic.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Forget the lying King…here’s the King of Kings

Whilst the comedy show at Ibrox continues to embarass Scottish football (I mean seriously sort yourselves out over there), the name ‘King’ has been embossed in the Scottish media almost daily. However, it was the return of the King that took my attention this week.

Henrik Larsson, the King of Kings made an appearance for Helsingborgs IF on Wednesday evening. As their current manager and experiencing player shortages, Henrik threw himself on as a substitute against Malmö FF.

As if that weren’t enough he helped himself to the last of the goals in a 7-1 mauling of their Swedish rival’s in a practice match. 43 years young and still doing the business.

We never tire of watching Henrik. It does make me wonder if I’ll ever see another player of his quality in the Hoops again during my lifetime.

Topically, a striker is one key position Ronny Deila needs to consider for next season. Leigh Griffiths has done a great job as a goal provider since his arrival in January 2014 but Celtic need something in addition.

Stefan Šćepović hasn’t lit up the forward line as we had all hoped. He didn’t even get near the brief achievements of the outgoing John Guidetti, but it remains to be seen how things will pan out for the Serbian at Celtic next season.

Celtic’s shape these days is completely different to the era when Henrik was the first name on the team sheet. Lone strikers are all the rage these days with support coming from the channels.

Ironically, Henrik used to work the channels himself (as well as other positions), particularly at Feyenoord before achieving legendary status at Celtic as a striker. Who will be our next star and is he already at the club?

When Henrik arrived we had no idea he would become the player he did. Especially after an abysmal debut against Hibs where he gifted them a goal resulting in a 2-1 defeat at Easter Road.

Some players can make that kind of error and be remembered for it for their whole career. Instead, Larsson carved out his own history at Celtic as well as Barcelona and Manchester United in the final years of his career.

To see him play is always a joy. A true legend.

Will we ever see his likes again? Well, we can dream.

Hail! Hail!

Caution with Caley

Today, Celtic take on Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Hampden Park. The Scottish Cup Semi-Final is yet another significant match that stands between Ronny Deila and the treble dream.

Last weekend saw his side face a tough Inverness side in the Premiership away from home, earning only a draw in the end. Despite coming from behind during the week to eventally scalp Kilmarnock 4-1, last weeks 1-1 draw will serve as a reminder that this will be not be an easy match for Celtic.

Caley Thistle have been a bogey team for the Hoops stemming back several years now. Nobody needs reminding of Scottish Cup results in 2000 and 2003 and the accompanying tabloid headline from that first defeat suffered at Celtic Park.

The highlanders have also enjoyed some notable battles with Celtic over the years, raising their game when called for. And this season, they’ve given a very good account of themselves under former Hoops defender, John Hughes.

So going into today’s match, Celtic must proceed with caution. Thistle are more than capable of an upset and can demonstrate the kind of tough tackling and stubborness to frustrate most teams, though mostly Celtic.

Last week, I didn’t think the draw was a bad result given that it can be tricky to get one up in Inverness. At Hampden today though Celtic must show who is boss because there is the personnel to do just that.

Before I come to the team, its worth remembering that almost a year ago Celtic recorded one of the biggest wins over Caley Thistle in the Premiership. That 6-0 win was preceded by another 6-0 thrashing of them in League Cup in September 2010, so Celtic have had their revenge over the years.

That is a reminder of what Celtic can inflict upon Thistle given the right blend on the park. And that is the burning question today: how will Deila line up for this crucial cup tie?

There is no doubt Leigh Griffiths is our best striker right now but Ronny still interchanges him with John Guidetti, a man not hitting the netti. Although Griffiths was totally frustrated at being hooked against Caley Thistle last week despite scoring in the third minute of the match, he did come off the bench midweek and bag a sweet hat-trick to win the game.

That should make him a starter for today alongside the usual suspects of Gordon, Matthews, Izaguirre, Denayer, van Dijk, Bitton, Brown and Johansen. With Gary Macakay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong both cup-tied, the remaining berths are likely to be filled by Commons and Forrest, unless Ronny fancies going with two up front and playing the moody Swede alongside the Teacake.

Personally, I can’t see him doing that from the outset though. With Scepovic rarely featuring these days, it is more likely that Deila will play one striker at a time, only playing both at a point in the game when dual power is called for, as seen on Wednesday night.

Let’s hope for a good contest today, whatever the result. The treble is our goal, but we’re not at the final yet.

The hard work must be put in today to make sure there will be a day in May at Hampden. Falkirk made their first final in six years by beating Hibs 1-0.

Its another rare Scottish Cup Final appearance by the Bairns. Let’s make it a date.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Celtic’s first Bosman comes home.

Earlier this week, Celtic appointed former midfielder John Collins as assistant to new manager, Ronny Delia. Collins returns to Celtic Park 18 years after he left the club for AS Monaco.

He was the first Celtic player to leave under the Bosman ruling. During his time at the club, he was a key part of a Celtic midfield which included club legend, Paul McStay.

Collins’s had an influential role for Celtic and was a key ingredient to the attack. In addition to his good all round game, he had a tremendous ability to strike free kicks with his left foot.

In his six years at the club he was a stand out performer despite not being the best years for Celtic it has to be said. Yet he stayed and he performed so it was no surprise that when he left in 1996 with only one trophy to his name that Celtic fans accepted he wanted to move on, despite feeling the loss of a quality player.

There was no doubting the calibre of Collins and he could have played in most teams in Europe. That (and possibly the fact he was free) was enough to attract the attention of Monaco in the first place.

His playing career would eventually go from the shores of southern France to the banks of the Mersey with Everton and then alongside the Thames with Fulham. Beyond the domestic scene, Collins was an important player for the Scotland international team as well.

Although an ageing international squad, it was players like Collins who could breathe life into a starting eleven. Scoring in the opening game of the World Cup at France 1998 against Brazil from the penalty spot was one of his most significant goals in his international career.

That was is 11th goal for Scotland and in total he scored 12 goals in 58 appearances. He would eventually retire from international football after being pipped to a place at Euro 2000, losing out on aggregate to England in a two match play off.

However, it was those six years of dedication to Celtic that stand out for me. Like Paul McStay, Collins was an important part of Celtic during an unbearable trophy-less period.

It was players like Collins who kept the hearts and minds of the Celtic fans going at a time when all was not well at the club. Winning the Scottish Cup in 1995 would be the only honour he would pick up at Celtic having made 223 competitive appearances and scoring scoring 48 goals.

After departing in the summer of 1996, he would go on to win the league with Monaco in his first season in France. Ten years later, having moved into coaching, he picked up his third honour winning the League Cup as manager of former club, Hibernian.

It was a short spell there with the relationship lasting only fourteen months. He endured a player dispute, received an apology from the players in return and delivered Hibs first top flight trophy since 1991.

A year after resigning from Hibs over separate dispute with the board, he spent less than a season with Belgian club Charleroi. He also had s short spell as Director of football at Livingston.

For some, these brief interactions with clubs might ring alarm bells but many like myself have only never heard positive things about Collins’s knowledge of football. Like the appointment of Ronny Deila, the vibe regarding Collins’s return to Celtic is generally positive with the fans.

When working with the media, he has always expressed himself well as a football pundit. Alongside Gordon Strachan, he is one of the few Scot’s who actually comes across well and demonstrates a deeper understanding of the the game.

Of course, its making sure things happen on the field of play that counts when you are on the management team. In John Collins, I feel Ronny Delia has a good sidekick to enter the Scottish football arena with.

As we all know, the Celtic job comes with a certain degree of baggage. Collins know the club, the league, country and of course, the media (Gerry McNee take note).

Many fans are intrigued and indeed excited to see how this all plays out. Despite the World Cup keeping most of us preoccupied, its hard to ignore what’s going on at Celtic right now.

With just under four weeks until Celtic’s initial Second qualifying round of the Champions League, Deila and Collins have their work cut out for them already. Its a gruelling task they have ahead of them but one which this group of players have already been through together and a challenge that the management team are certain to embrace.

What remains to be seen is how Delia and Collins approach it. And will there be any moves and changes in the playing staff before then?

Well, one thing at a time I suppose. Until Monday’s draw then…

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Until Tuesday then…

There’s nothing better than playing at a stadium with bit of noise. Sadly, there aren’t many to choose from in Scottish football anymore, but from my sofa Easter Road sounded decent enough for the viewer.

Celtic travelled to Edinburgh for the lunchtime kick off against Hibs. It wasn’t an eyecatching first half but at least the atmosphere generated was one more deserving of TV coverage.

Hibs took a disputable lead on 18 minutes much to the distaste of Neil Lennon. Celtic were closed down quickly and hassled off the ball during that first 45 minutes but it didn’t prevent them making attacking moves.

The second half saw a better performance from Celtic but it took until the 77th minute to draw level. As is often the case, they had the lions share of possession but still had to contend with some rough tackling from Hibs.

There was ample time and opportunity for Celtic to do something about the scoreline though. Neil Lennon had deployed a whole host of attackers but it was second half substitute James Forrest who scored for Celtic.

He’s often received criticism for disappearing in games but he showed the fans and his teammates where the goal was. It was a superb finish to the far post from the outside of the boot which is right up there with the best of this seasons goals so far.

Forrest almost grabbed another later on had it not been for an excellent one handed save from the Hibs keeper. The winger looked a little dejected at the end having come so close to getting all three points but he singlehandedly got one point for his club.

With a starting lineup including Commons, Pukki, Stokes and Samaras I suggest Lennon was trying to put this match to bed early. Had any of these players been as clinical as Forrest then the manager would have got his wish.

Instead Commons had to come off early with an injury. If it weren’t for the fact Celtic face Ajax on Tuesday he may even have walked that one off.

My feeling is that it was more a precautionary measure than a conclusive inury. That’s what I’m hoping for anyway.

One refreshing feature from yesterday’s match was the performance of Darnell Fisher. I first saw him turn in a good display against Liverpool, albeit it in a friendly.

It was always going to be a bit of a step up for him given the void left by Lustig and Matthews. On yesterdays contribution alone I would say he stood up to task well.

Fisher bore the brunt of the hefty tackling from Hibs but he also took it in his stride. His progress up the right channel often led to the exchange of passing moves rather than just a defending role.

Champions League duty may prove a daunting task for him should Lustig fail to be fit. I don’t think it will come to that but he seems capable for a young player.

From what I saw on TV, there is no doubt the Celtic players had their minds on the Ajax match yesterday but they can now give Tuesday their full attention. Decisions will be made in the next couple of days on the fitness of Commons, Lustig and Izaguirre.

Players who haven’t featured much recently such as Ledley will be considered for starting places as well. Though it is more likely that Kayal will be first pick in midfield along with Mulgrew.

There is also the option of new boy Nir Biton. He hasn’t looked out of place on early viewing and with the absence of Scott Brown for the next three Champions League games, Neil Lennon will need as many options as possible.

On the attacking front, things need to settle down. Stokes has started the season on spectacular form but he isn’t an out-and-out striker.

Despite some goals, Pukki hasn’t settled in yet but his role is in the striking department and hopefully there will be more to come from him very soon. Samaras looks confident right now but a goal from him and a victory on Tuesday night would supercharge the Greek for sure.

In the Champions League he has been fantastic for Lennon. Two narrow defeats against Milan and Barcelona haven’t prevented him from putting in good performances either so Lennon will be counting on him big time.

Celtic’s first Champions League points must be taken against Ajax. In the stands the fans will be right behind the players and I’ll be in travelling north to be there.

I can’t wait. Until Tuesday, Bhoys.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie