Strachan v O’Neill: Round 2

When former Celtic managers Gordon Strachan and Martin O’Neill went head to head on their old stomping ground last November, it was Scotland who took all three points. Shaun Maloney, a player for both managers during his club career, scored a terrific goal in that game to keep Scotland on level points with Germany.

With half of the Group D fixtures now played, Scotland will be looking to increase that points total and retain 3rd place in the group to keep the pressure on 1st and 2nd. A victory is not out of the question this evening and personally I don’t think I’ve seen a more confident or competent Scotland team with potential in recent years.

What I find most encouraging though is that this Scotland squad have yet to peak. Generally you won’t get a passionate crescendo from Gordon Strachan but I do see his work ethic coming through.

Influencing the players at his disposal to flourish and flow is not far away. Who knows, we may even see something special in Dublin this evening.

Poland (1st) and Germany (2nd) are odds on to win their games against Georgia (5th) and Gibraltar (6th) respectively. So the importance of this match could not be clearer.

It doesn’t add any more pressure though. Results during group stage qualifying on the international scene can be unpredictable at the best of times.

I doubt many expected Germany to lose to Poland in October or even Wales to beat Belgium on Friday night. Strange things can and will happen as Strachan himself knows as a player and a manager.

The Republic of Ireland have home advantage and the shorter odds going into tonight’s tie. The spirit amongst the Scotland squad right now though is positive.

I have complete faith in Gordon Strachan and what he is trying to achieve. He knows what it is like to wear the Scotland Jersey and was a brilliant player for club and country.

His knowledge of the game goes beyond match day tactics and dressing room pep talks. Strachan’s analysis and perception of football comes across as simplistic and direct but it’s because of his in depth knowledge of fitness and discipline in the game.

The Scotland job is his fifth managerial role but not all jobs have been fortuitous for him. Players can go through a similar experience and sometimes you have to admit that certain relationships just aren’t meant to be.

For me, the Scotland job is ideal for Gordon as it allows him to impart a wide range of experience in a non-complicated manner during a small window of opportunity. International football doesn’t afford you the preparation time club football does so your approach must be effective and efficient.

This current European campaign is an important one for Scotland and so far I cannot complain about their efforts. The challenge of qualifying remains a tough one though and if achieved it would be the first tournament Scotland would have made since France 98 coincidentally.

Tonight’s game could go either way and I’m already on the edge. Let there be no doubt though, Scotland are more than capable of beating the odds and sealing the points.

A third place finish in Group D secures a play off place at the very least. A victory tonight would help Scotland on their way but they are still capable of finishing in the top two.

Poland have yet to lose a game with the only points dropped being against Scotland and Republic of Ireland. Both matches were draws though I’m sure Scotland will feel the happier given that they were away from home and it came off the back of the Pole’s beating Germany three days earlier.

Talking of the Germany, I expect a firm response from the World Champions now. They’ll only get stronger and having played them away early in qualifying, I’m glad the next time Scotland face them will be in Glasgow.

In fact, the same goes for Poland. When that tie comes around it will also be in Glasgow.

A good result tonight will set Gordon and his squad up for the final push in September and October. All eyes are on Dublin this evening!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

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Football’s house of cards

The state of Scottish football has been a recurring theme since I started writing six years ago. In the last week we’ve been reminded that beyond the shores of Scotland, corruption is currency in the world game.

The venality plaguing football has been all over the news but this isn’t news to football supporters. In fact, these investigations are long overdue.

With a number of arrests being made, there was a waft of ‘scandal’ in the media. It didn’t halt FIFA continuing with their elections though or Sepp Blatter being voted in for another term.

This guy has been untouchable for years and I’m disgusted with those who have supported his cause. Watching those corporate eejits queue up to shake hands and have their photo taken with him after being elected once more was totally nauseating.

Having seen Blatter step down since then, some sort of message has got through. As far as a shake up in football goes it’s just the beginning, but it remains to be seen how far this will go.

Power should not rest in the hands of one man or for so long. Nor should it be allowed to remain within a network of men without the say of those who support the game.

As Jock Stein once said, “Football is nothing without fans.” If fans aren’t watching in the stadiums or on TV then you’ve lost your audience and your revenue.

Fair enough, there is always sponsorship from a variety of business areas. On the whole they need the fans to direct it at though and if nobody’s watching….well, you’re stuffed.

That has always been the issue. We love football, we’re passionate about it and want it 24/7 so we’re playing into the hands of FIFA et al constantly.

A seat at the table is not likely but some kind of say from the fans has been missing from football its entire existence. If this were to begin locally with our own football associations at least you would know you’re views were being represented in front of FIFA or whichever body is geographically relevant to your region.

Old boys networks like the SFA are feeding are into larger ones like UEFA. In my view, neither represent or govern fairly.

For me this is the perfect time to perform a hard boot. Depending on the extent of these enquiries and the murkiness of the overall findings, this will determine world football’s destination.

It is time to shake up the entire sport. The last thing I want to see is like for like replacements.

Leadership should inspire greater things but all FIFA have done is protect their own and cross too many palms. They are an old regime trying to float new ideas but in order to adapt you must dispense with the old.

There’s just one burning question. Is everyone prepared to topple this house of cards?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Waiting for a decent match

During the international break, football fans find themselves divided. Some will tune in or travel to follow their country whilst others a dislike of the whole bout of fixtures.

As a Celtic fan, I’ve always followed Scotland. I’m not in the Tartan Army league but I always had time for Scotland (except when they’ve had really awful managers).

Last night Scotland played Northern Ireland but I wasn’t all that interested. International friendlies are,for the most part, tiresome.

I don’t mind meaningful qualifiers and of late Gordon Strachan has reignited the fires . So I’m happy to wait until Sunday’s encounter with Gibraltar to get on board.

If anything, I think friendlies could be played behind doors. They’re good for the players but not always for fans.

On the subject of meaningful matches, I tuned into El Clásico on Sunday. As far as huge fixtures go, this is one of the best and yet I always find the same disappointment.

Diving.

When I was growing up folk used to go on about the dirty South Americans and the divers from Italy, Spain etc etc. Whilst the former may be a distant memory (except maybe Honduras in last year’s World Cup Finals) the latter is still in full flow today.

El Clásico had plenty of antics going on last Sunday. I get that its part of a culture with some countries but its a negative one.

I tune into these matches hoping to be dazzled by the things that Scottish football cannot produce. So when I see guys billed to be the best in the world, falling over holding some part of their body Family Guy style is a little embarassing to watch.

If you’re not very good and you need all you can to get the game, fair enough. These guys earn a fortune though and have global exposure, yet collapse with all the drama of an injured ballerina.

Its a total disgrace to football and its crept into the game in the England. That may be to do with the influx of huge salaried foreign ‘stars’, in fact it is.

Lets hope it doesn’t become prevalent  in Scottish football. We need a helping hand now and again but this we can do without.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

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

The World Cup is over, now its time for Celtic

With the World Cup now behind us, it is time to refocus on club football once more. Most teams are still in or just beginning pre-season training right now but tomorrow night that all ends for Celtic when they take on KR Reykjavik in Iceland.

Celtic have played four friendlies in Austria over the last week winning two and drawing two. You can’t read too much into the results but it has been a fast track learning curve for Ronny Deila to assess his squad of players.

When playing these ridiculously early qualifiers for the Champions League there is little time to prepare. For Deila, he’s had the additional challenge of getting to know his players quickly before putting them to work in European competition.

The Champions League is a vital part of Celtic’s season these days. It isn’t just the money of course, its the competition, the glamour and the chance to shine on a bigger stage.

For fans its an essential component to an entertaining season. In all fairness to the rest of the SPFL, without European football, it would be pretty dull as a Celtic supporter these days.

With no real threat to Celtic’s Championship crown, its not a case of ‘if’ but at ‘what stage’ they will win the league. Because of that, I think Celtic might be finally taking the correct approach to procuring talent.

Ronny Deila seems intent on nurturing youth and giving them a chance. I would like to think that Celtic will support Ronny in doing this and that together they will see this through.

The transfer market’s current state is not one that Celtic can compete in. Transfer fees are overinflated so that leaves Celtic in a position where their scouts must talent spot the unknowns that could potentially turn out to be gems.

That isn’t an easy task and still involves taking risks, though not necessarily expensive ones. Having said that, Celtic have and will continue to profit from these kind of moves which puts them in the position as a selling club.

This is the position Celtic find themselves in as a large club in a weak league but it is the state of Scottish game that is the issue here. The only way out of this hole is found in youth.

That is where hopefully Ronny will come in. Its not just about him though, its about all of Scottish football following the same blueprint from youth to senior level in club and international football.

Scotland for example have put out some decent youth sides over the last few decades. Sometimes I’ve found that half of a Scotland youth team is filled with Celtic youth players flourishing at that level.

They all play together and they develop an understanding but as these guys careers progress, they find themselves out of the picture at club level. Subsequently their international careers falter and this once lauded young group of players find themselves playing further down the leagues or out of football completely.

Now I’m not suggesting that every youth player has a bright career ahead of them or will make the grade. I just don’t think the transition from youth to senior level is supported enough.

This is an inherent problem in Scottish football that needs some serious attention. For a nation that used to produced some fine talent, we are sadly well behind the times.

When you look at the infrastructure that Germany have in place it is enviable. Its not all about money, more about support from the bottom to top ensuring that these players achieve their potential.

If Gordon Strachan stays in the Scotland set up for a good few years there is a chance that some success in development can be achieved. Strachan may not have got the vote from all Celtic fans but his insight into coaching, fitness and tactics is exactly the type of influence needed in the SFA.

Clubs will always want to delve into the transfer market but Scotland needs to show faith in youth otherwise what is the point? With Celtic being Scotland’s number one club for the foreseeable future they have a responsibility to set the example.

There is no instant fix or quick solution so it will take time. Now is the right time to begin and I hope to see great things under Ronny Deila.

Tomorrow night is about Celtic flying the flag for Scottish football. Let’s hope we will see that flag being held a little big higher for those young boys knocking on the door.

All we are saying, is give youth a chance.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Georgios, Humam and assembly of a new era.

Celtic kick off the second of their preseason friendlies in Austria this evening against old foes Rapid Vienna. I’ll avoid the usual historical reference to this fixture and instead focus on the present.

More of Celtic’s current squad will see some match time against the Austrian side, but one player mentioned by Ronny Deila recently  is no longer at the club. The manager was quoted by various media outlets stating:

“Samaras had a great career at Celtic but we’ll see. We’ll look at the whole picture. I have not decided yet and there are many players on our list. I’ll never close the door on anything. I haven’t spoken to Samaras because he has been in Brazil.”

Its fair to say that most if not all Celtic fans accepted Sammy moving on. If however Ronny feels the Greek striker has something to offer then I am not opposed to it.

Neil Lennon was the man keeping him at the club but even under his management he saw limited appearances. Deila may see the same type of role for Samaras if he did indeed want to bring him back to the club but only as long as he wanted to bring him back for the right reasons.

Another player linked with the club and mentioned in the media these last 24 hours is young Iraqi international, Humam Tariq. I think most of us will acknowledge that we’ve never heard of this kid but his name has sparked some attention unlike other young talent.

If his ability can match the few plaudits I’ve read about he could be an interesting acquisition. Young talent appears to be something Ronny is keen on so I’m hopeful this could be a positive move.

Back to today thought and with any luck another victory. Keep it coming Bhoy’s.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Ronny kicks off with a victory

Celtic’s preseason training under Ronny Deila and John Collins has been up and running for just over a week now. Yesterday at their training camp in Austria, the new management team notched up their first victory.

Celtic beat Russian side FK Krasnodar 3-1 in a preseason friendly in the Hofmaninger-Stadion. Ronny Deila utilised two different teams to play each half, both groups of eleven showing hunger and determination.

Anthony Stokes opened his preseason account in less than two minutes with a nice touch but the Russians equalised in the 19th minute. On 42 minutes Stefan Johansen put Celtic ahead again from a tight angle and after a full cha he at half time it was young Callum McGregor who sealed the victory,having spent last season on loan to Notts County.

Given the timescale the new coaching staff have to prepare before that first Champions League qualifier, it is unsurprising that they used 90 minutes to run the rule over 22 players. That trend may continue for the next game against Rapid Vienna as well.

By the time the LSK Linz and Dukla Prague matches come around Ronny and John should have a better idea of a starting eleven. That first competitive match against KR Reykjavik is now only 11 days away.

The management team have already underlined the room for improvement but they will be encouraged by the start made in Austria. The most important thing from this was that Ronny got to cast is eye over so many of his players in one match.

Celtic are of course without a handful of players such as Forrest, through injury. They are also without their World Cup contingent of Izaguirre, Forster and Ambrose.

The latter three are unlikely to feature in the first competitive match over in Iceland. Though there is the chance that they could be included in the squad for the return leg at Murrayfield a week later.

That will all depend on whether Ronny feels they have each has had sufficient rest after the World Cup. It will also depend on whether he deems it necessary to call upon their services.

All are important players for the club but Celtic have sufficient cover. What is encouraging is that Ronny is already talking about how different things will look a year from now.

For the time being, its a positive start for Ronny and John and they will be keen to influence and improve the team further. The next friendly match is on Sunday against Rapid Vienna where we will hopefully see another advance in preseason preparations.

New signing Craig Gordon has joined up with the squad now. With four keepers now involved with the first team matters, it is likely one will be shipped out on loan or sold.

Fraser Forster is the prime candidate tipped for a big move away from the club. It has also been mooted that Lukasz Zaluska could depart but it even young keeper Leonardo Fasan could find himself on a loan move if he requires experience.

This story will unravel itself over the coming weeks but for now we know there is no shortage of keepers. The same can be said throughout the squad, unless of course Celtic move anyone on or accept bids for players in key positions.

For now, Ronny Deila must assess what he has in experience and what he has coming through the ranks. Youth finally looks like it will be given a chance and for me that’s encouraging and long over due.

Ronny seems determined to make that happen. With that in mind there may be no rush for new signings.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie