The story so far…

After eight Premiership matches this season, Celtic find themselves five points better off than at the same stage last season. By contrast, Aberdeen are a staggering eleven points up from the same way point.

For both clubs, this is an improvement on last season, a huge one for Aberdeen. Celtic had a game at hand in their locker during that period last year but that was never a guaranteed three points.

And here’s the funny thing, neither team sat in the top four spots at that time. Celtic didn’t even break into third place until 1st November and finally first, eight days later after beating Aberdeen at Pittodrie.

Throughout the time Celtic had been trying to get to the top, Aberdeen had kept them company around fifth and sixth place in the Premiership. Celtic had ascended quicker, ousting Dundee United, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and even Hamilton Academical from the berths above them.

Aberdeen lay in wait that bit longer and came gushing into second spot as Christmas came upon us. The gap was narrow but Celtic would prevail.

The story so far this season is somewhat different. Aberdeen have the upper hand and that’s what makes it really interesting.

Celtic are playing catchup to the team that ran them close last season. Derek McInnes is trying to eradicate last year’s errors and so far so good.

Today it’s back to league duty for everyone after a midweek of League Cup ties. With Aberdeen dumped out of that competition at the hands of Hibernian, they’ll be fully focused on the Premiership.

They’ll still be included in the Scottish Cup when it comes along but you can Derek McInnes will be making a bid for glory here. For Celtic though, they’re battling things out in four competitions.

Ronny Deila isn’t expected to win the Europa League. He is expected to win the treble though.

No rest for the wicked. Ronny Deila has had his work cut out him.

Yes, he has the superior squad, finances etc, etc. He’s also trying to change things at Celtic for long-term.

If it were simply a case of winning the league, double or treble then you would assume that whoever takes the helm at Celtic could achieve one of those quests. Ronny Deila is changing the entire culture at Celtic though and as he pointed out to the media, even with a league and cup double success from last season, he hasn’t won over all of his players.

In comments made to the media he stated that not every player has responded to his methods and targets. So even though guys like Bitton and Griffiths are examples of those who have conformed, some have found themselves on the fringes of his plans.

That being the case, it is not simply about winning the league. He has still to achieve an influence on his entire squad.

It certainly doesn’t sound as if he has lost the dressing room. Merely that some players are simply not up to the task.

In our hearts and minds I think we can work out who those players are likely to be. So there is another arc in Celtic’s progress this season especially with new players establishing themselves as well.

At this point in the season, it is still very early but as the end of 2015 comes, we’ll see who has earned themselves a regular spot and who has not. There is also a prime importance for Ronny Deila to establish a back four.

With Virgil van Dijk sold to Southampton and Jason Denayer back at Manchester City, it is a whole new central defence. Dedryck Boyata I have yet to be convinced by and I don’t think he’s looked anywhere near as good as Jason Denayer but he still has time on his side.

Jozo Šimunović has come with a huge price tag and a lot to prove. Ronny Deila has outlined him as a very good player but with only one game under his belt it will be some time before we know if the £5.5M paid was worth it.

On loan from Manchester United is Tyler Blackett and after a few games is also still finding his feet. His ability to play at left back or left centre back makes him useful as there is little cover for that position but just how much of an impact he will have is hard to tell at this stage.

Saidy Janko also came in from Manchester United and has looked good to me. I think his signature could turn it to be one of Deila’s best.

Kieran Tierney has also thrown his hat into the defensive ring this season and the signs are encouraging. The youth player has been given a few outings at left back under Deila and played well so I expect to see more of him throughout the season.

As for our more established defenders, you have Mikael Lustig, Efe Ambrose, Emilio Izaguirre and Charlie Mulgrew. When fit, Lustig could easily play for any team in Europe and if he can stay injury free he will be a key player for Celtic this season.

Ambrose fell out of favour last season and despite naturally fit player, he can still be held back by his decision-making and ability. Izaguirre is still an important player for Celtic and the challenge of Tierney and Blackett will keep him on his toes.

Mulgrew has seen himself back in defence more recently and is always an option for left centre back or left back. That will always depend on the opponent but he is equally utilised in the midfield.

What needs to be pin pointed is the central pairing in defence. Once established, Deila can make that partnership stick and when the need comes to make a single change, it should not be so disruptive.

Who those two players will be we have yet to find out. It will be key to Ronny Deila’s success this season on the domestic and European front if he can find a pairing that works.

So to today and Celtic host Heart of Midlothian at Celtic Park. Last seasons runaway Championship winners sit four points behind Celtic in the Premiership.

Their last three league matches have all been defeats and will be hoping to avoid a fourth today at the hands of the current Champions. Celtic utilised fringe players midweek against Raith Rovers but you can expect a strong team for today’s game.

Celtic need to win this one to keep pressure on Aberdeen. The Don’s are away to Inverness Caledonian Thistle and if it were last season I know who I’d put my money.

As it is, Inverness have had a poor start to this campaign with only one win in eight games. Pitting that statistic against an unbeaten Aberdeen gives you a rough idea where your money should go but you just never know when a form team can hit the skids.

Midweek was a slip up for McInnes but not for John Hughes, Ronny Deila or Robbie Neilson. All eyes will be on these two fixtures.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

Celtic, Scotland and Andy Murray

I dunno. You go away for a few weeks and all your sporting interests lay in tatters.

Having spent the grand majority of my holiday in the wilderness of Canada, I’m just getting round to processing all that I’ve ‘missed’ over the last three weeks. It seems like the bottom has fell out of my world of sport.

This misery I speak of has a pecking order of course. With all of this bad news stacked up it makes it a little bit harder to digest.

In the grand scheme of things Andy Murray’s early exit from the US Open pales in comparison to my interests primarily in Celtic and secondly Scotland. All put together though it’s one big pot of pish.

Celtic’s exit from the Champions League play-offs was a sore one. I missed the first leg whilst on a flight but managed to tune in live for the second leg on TSN the following week.

Despite the sunshine, heat and humidity of that afternoon whilst on holiday, it turned out to be a dark and dismal day as the Champions League door closed on Celtic once more. In many ways being so far away helped me avoid the aftermath even if those in my immediate vicinity attempted to trivialise my pain.

So I ended up losing myself in a work of fiction called Ready Player One (recommended to me by a good friend, fellow geek and Hoops fan). In doing so I locked myself away from wife, child and in-laws simultaneously.

It offered a little escapism but my soul was hurting and my mind kept wandering back to the result. My next visit to planet Celtic came via my sister in law’s weak mobile signal just so I could check our Europa League fate.

I couldn’t stand not knowing our opponents. Group A will be a stern test for Celtic but I guess that’s what you want from European football right?

Having exited one European competition and parachuted into another it was inevitable that Virgil van Dijk would depart. Champions League football was the only ticket to keep him at Celtic Park this season or at the very least until January and as Ronny has said, Virgil unsurprisingly wanted to go last year.

Having played in 114 matches for Celtic and scored 15 goals his presence in the Celtic defence was significant and will be sorely missed. £13M is a good return and he has served Celtic well so I wish him all the very best with the rest of his career.

Staying with transfer news I was surprised by the amount of additional movement made by Celtic. More players out on loan and more players coming in.

Firstly was the acquisition of Jozo Šimunović. For an under-21 international defender £5.5M makes him either a signing coup or a modern day Rafael Scheidt.

I’m not trying to pre – judge the guy. I don’t know anything about him.

The price vs age bells are ringing in my head though. On the other hand it is good to see Celtic reinvesting some of the dough made from the sale of the Dutch player.

It is a positive sign from the board so hopefully this is money well spent. The club have shown further backing by bringing in two more defenders in Tyler Blackett and Ryan Christie.

The on loan Blackett will provide support to the defence and challenge for a spot next to Dedryck Boyata. With Christie being loaned back to Inverness he will not have a say any time soon.

Although not a total surprise, I thought loaning of Stefan Šćepović was questionable. Despite misfiring for Celtic no replacement has been acquired.

With Anthony Stokes staying put for now, Celtic have three active forwards. My issue with Stokes is that he’s been frozen out and more importantly not an out and out striker.

I consider him more of a wide player or playing off the front man. Therefore Leigh Griffiths and Nadir Çiftçi must bear the responsibility as the club’s only strikers.

Young Eoghan O’Connell’s loan to Oldham will do him the world of good. A chance at regular football and still a very good prospect for Celtic.

I was a bit disappointed with Darnell Fisher going on loan to St Johnstone though. I rate the guy and he has done a good job when called upon so not to see him challenging for the first team this season is a bit of let down given the work he’s put in these last few years.

Dylan McGeouch’s permanent switch to Hibs was no surprise though. His loan spell was relatively successful and he will be pleased to be able to focus his career after not really getting an opportunity at Celtic.

He began his career at Celtic, left for Rangers then was brought back by Neil Lennon. You can decide whether he was barely given a chance or wasn’t good enough but I though the guy had talent.

So now Celtic are now set up for the next few months with a fairly solid squad. What of Scotland and their quest for France 2016?

Well that’s hit the skids hasn’t it? I haven’t seen any footage, just heard the backlash.

It was all going so well but that Georgia result was a shocker. The Germany game can be forgiven being that they are World Champions.

In order to remain in with chance of a play off spot, Scotland need to close a gap of four points. Republic of Ireland stand in their way and have the tougher games but this is an all too familiar scenario for Scotland fans.

We’ve been in this situation as far back as I watched the games with my dad. I still think Gordon Strachan is the man to get us to a finals but we shot ourselves in the foot with this campaign after doing so well.

It ain’t over till it’s over the say. Well, I won’t get my scants in a twist if we don’t make a play-off spot but I’ll be presently surprised if it does go wee Gordon’s way.

Back to the here and now though ad tomorrow’s game against Aberdeen. We’ll be able to see how far Derek McInnes and his squad have come from last season.

The Dons ran with Celtic most of the way in the Scottish Premiership which was good for the league. However, they failed to beat Ronny Deila’s side on four meetings, having lost all four to the Hoops.

We’ll see just how far they’ve come since then. Most of all, I’m looking forward to casting my eyes over our new players.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Forster among equals

Fraser Forster came to Celtic in August 2010. Although a Newcastle United player, he had been plying his trade on the road.

Two loan spells at Stockport County and Bristol Rovers got his career under way. A third loan deal took him to Norwich where his performances drew praise after a fine season under Paul Lambert.

It was there that he caught Celtic’s eye. He also came highly recommended by Lambert and so Celtic took him on loan for a season.

Although still a young keeper, he maintained his position in goal throughout that first season with Celtic. He was growing in stature, as was Neil Lennon’s team but he would return to Newcastle United at the end of that season.

A further year long loan spell was negotiated and he was back in the Celtic goal once more. After another steady season under Neil Lennon, Celtic were ready to do business.

Sadly, Newcastle United wanted to play hardball. Despite being a third choice keeper Alan Pardew insisted that Forster was still a key player.

At the time I wasn’t totally convinced that Celtic should be pursuing Forster with such determination. Newcastle weren’t easy to deal with and although Forster had had two decent season’s under his belt, my feeling was that Celtic shouldn’t be held to ransom for someone Newcastle had never played in a competitive match.

Both clubs eventually agreed fee of £2M and he was a finally a Celtic player. Any doubts I may have had over the protracted negotiation were laid to rest in his third season for Celtic.

Despite showing good shot stopping ability in the past, he saved his best for Europe that season. Saving penalties, pulling off wonder saves from world class opponents and being a stand out performer drew praise across Europe.

In Barcelona, the media named him “La Gran Muralla” – The Great Wall. This was a testimony to his size and ability in defying the Catalan side.

There is no doubt he was at his best in Europe. When you consider he was rarely called into action during domestic matches, this was some feat.

His fourth season was equally as good as his third even if Celtic’s luck wasn’t as fortuitous in Europe. Forster continued to earn praise from the media and fellow professionals and rumours of his departure were almost daily.

England eventually took notice and the mild mannered giant was named in several squads. To date he has earned two England caps and was included in 2014 World Cup squad, though never featured in what was a disappointing tournament for the England team.

So it was only a matter time before the big man would leave. The rumours that have surrounded his Celtic career have now been laid to rest following his move to Southampton.

I will miss Forster for several reasons. His application, dedication and professionalism as a player are as great as his presence in goal.

He broke and set records whilst a Celtic player as well as winning trophies and plaudits. Most of all, he had his finest hours in goal for Celtic and provided fans with some breathtaking and chest beating moments.

Leaving Celtic for the fee agreed is a testimony to his growth, stature and achievements as a Celtic player. Hopefully playing in the Premier League in England will further his international ambitions.

He has earned it and he will be missed. Good luck and all the best to the future, Fraser.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

A new chapter.

With two of Celtic’s best players having now departed the club, it is time to move on. Like many Celtic players before them, Gary and Victor have been subject to transfer speculation for some time.

Things will settle down now and the team will be able to focus without the uncertainty around their team mates. Furthermore, there are positives to be be taken from these departures.

Firstly, Celtic have done some sound business. They’ve stood firm on the valuation of each player and when met, granted them freedom to talk.

There is a substantial profit in both of these transfers. That money can be used in a number of ways as well.

Any profit made will be used to improve the clubs circumstances on and off the field. Not all of it will be used on transfers as some usually expect though.

Many have argued in the past that Celtic have not spent the money earned. Some still seem oblivious to how a club is run but hopefully the penny has dropped on that one.

Geting back to the positives though, credit is due to our scouting team. Having sourced such talent in the first place only goes to show what can be unearthed at good prices.

Hooper and Wanyama were not ready made stars but Celtic helped to make them the players they are, as did their previous clubs. These day, this is Celtic’s market.

If you can bring players with potential to the club and make something out of them you have the chance to retain or sell on as a profit. It is therefore encouraging to see some of that crop staying put.

Ledley is very much an unsung hero at times and I am glad he is still here. Samaras is a bit of a cult hero these days and lets face it he loves it at Celtic.

Broony is an important player, though some tend to disagree at times. I remain a fan of his.

With any luck, Kayal will retake his midfield role with both hands. We may even see Rogic establish himself as a regular.

Add to that the influential Common’s, a rejuvinated Stokes and you have a healthy attack. And that is with an ever improving Forrest on the wing.

At the back we seem to be mostly covered. Aside from transfer speculation about Wilson and Foster, there is a decent basis for an adaptable defence.

Efe, Wilson, Izzy, Mulgrew, Matthews and Lustig have all turned in a fine season for the club. They’ve adapted and progressed to meet the demand of every fixture.

The Celtic squad remains on good foundations. We may have parted with two good players, but I look forward to seeing this squad that Lennon has assembled, progress to the next level.

New additions and emerging youth like Watt, Amido, Virgil, Mouyokolo, Rogic, McGeouch should be looking to stake a claim this season. These guys furnish the first team squad with further options.

We may see one or two more join as our road to the Champions League develops. With any luck these guys will be playing on that stage come September.

Good luck to Gary and Victor. You have both been great servants.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie