Betfred Cup Final: Celtic 1—0 Rangers

Betfred Cup Final (what we used to call the League Cup Final before the rights were sold for hard cash).

I know how Steven Gerrard must feel. I had two quid on Julien for first goal and lost the bookies line. Going further back than that I remember when Celtic used to play Rangers off the park during the Tommy Burns era, only for Brian Laudrup to gallop up the park and score the winner and the flying pig, Andy Goram, to make save after save. Here we had Fraser Foster save a penalty from Alfredo Morelos in the second half, and a world-class save from Ryan Jack in the first half. He also made a fistful of other top-notch saves. Fraser Foster might well have been Neil Lennon’s best signing.

The strange thing about the aftermath of the final is both mangers can feel quietly pleased. Julien was offside when he scored. Rangers did batter Celtic from the first to the last of the 96th minute. By some margin this was Celtic’s worst performance against Rangers in years. Worse than the 2—0 defeat at Ibrox last year under Rodgers. Worse than the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat at Hampden to a Rangers team playing in the First Division. Craig Gordon, Scott Brown, Nir Biton, and Leigh Griffiths played in that game. Callum McGregor and Tom Rogic came on as subs. I was looking for James Forrest’s name, but it was missing. You’d be hard pushed to have noticed he was playing yesterday.

Neil Lennon brought Forrest into the Celtic team and he’s been a consistent presence since then and in the ten domestic trophies won in the last three seasons.   He’s added goals to his game and managers such as Rodgers were quick to tell us how hard he worked. But we’re not digging up bags of coal. Our eyes don’t deceive us. He was rotten yesterday and not much better in the last home game against Hamilton. But his performance was hidden in a team display that never reached the level of mediocrity. Ironically, the miss of the game was not Morelos from twelve yards of the penalty spot (and yes Forster did move off his line) but Mikey Johnston’s. He was played in by Odsonne Edouard and had a one-on-one with McGregor, but put it by the post. That would have given Celtic a 2—0 lead and game over signs would have flashed around the stadium. And despite Ranger’s defenders missing some good chances to score from corners and free kicks, the biggest miss of the afternoon was Kris Ajer’s free header, six yards out, and all he had to do was score.

I was surprised to hear Lennon praising Ajer. I think he must have had on his James Forrest specs on. At one point he tried to play Morelos offside, got nudged aside by the Ibrox psychopath as he ran down the touchline. We knew what was coming next, because Ajer does at least one of these Inspector Gadget tackles every game. Stick a long leg out and hopes to hit the ball. He didn’t, Morelos was in on goal. Only for Fraser Foster to start laughing at the Columbian striker and put him out of his stride. Morelos should have been sent off for kicking Scott Brown, Julien and any other Celtic player within spitting distance when the ball was at the other end of the park.

Lennon had a big call to make before the game, whether to play Edouard or not. Player power. He let the French man decide. He was on the bench and came on to do everything that Lewis Morgan did not and could not. Connor Goldson is not the best centre half in Scottish football, but having Lewis Morgan as an opponent was like having a day off yesterday. Morgan’s not a centre forward and not even the best winger at Celtic. He’s probably fourth or fifth choice.  Vakoun Issouf Bayo, who does not play as a forward for Celtic because he’s either injured or not good enough (probably the latter) wasn’t fit to fill in for Edouard. Neither was Leigh Griffiths deemed not sharp enough or fit enough for a place on the bench. In contrast, Mohamed Elyounoussi was deemed fit enough to start despite missing a few games, but was subbed at half time when the score was 0—0. To use the argument he wasn’t the worst is to invite comparisons for the race to the bottom and there you’ll meet James Forrest, who’ll outpace you and show you his winner’s medals.

Only three Celtic players deserved to pick up a winner’s medal, because individually all the others lost their battles all over the park. Fraser Forster is the giant in which stand the shadows of Edouard, who came on in the second half to cause the Rangers defence problems and Jeremie Frimpong. Little Pingpong might have been the smallest guy on the pitch, he might have given away a penalty—Julien and Ayer sleeping as Morelos got in behind them and Pingpong was the wrong side of the Rangers’ attacker—but the little full back was Celtic’s best defender and attacker. Apart from Forster, Celtic’s best player full stop. He’s a gem of the Kieran Tierney variety and the right back position that was once so troublesome looks sorted.

I’ll take any kind of win over Rangers, whether it’s darts, ludo or pingpong. Yesterday’s final was the tenth on the trot. A marvellous achievement. We have the luxury of a Europa tie against Cluj that is a practice match for Sunday when we play Hibs. I expect us to win there and for Young Boys to beat Rangers and Motherwell to win at Fir Par against Rangers too. Wins like yesterday give a bit of breathing space, but the next game and the one after that are the only ones that matter. Old glory is no glory. Yesterday’s news. Celtic need a replacement and back up for Edouard. Simple. And if they can’t put their foot on the ball and play football, which they didn’t manage yesterday, then the players shouldn’t be at Celtic. Simple. The pleasing thing about yesterday was the win and not the manner in which we won. Quite simply, we didn’t deserve to, but yesterday’s fixture also knocked about twenty million quid off the over-inflated price tag for Morelos. He was that bad yesterday he should have been wearing the green and white hoops.   

Rangers 0—2 Celtic.

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There’s an afterglow to this sweet Old Firm derby. Neil Lennon had a few hard choices to make. In goal he could have played Fraser Foster, Craig Gordon or my mate’s mum. He said she could have played in goals and he was right enough. Lennon went with Fraser Foster. Celtic’s dodgy defence was on display. Rangers were at home. The bookies made them favourites. Celtic were 2/1. All the Daily Record pundits gave Rangers the edge by a goal or more.

At the end of the game, topped by a Johnny Hayes’s second goal, in the dying minutes, which complemented Edouard’s sublime first goal, Lennon went to shake hands with Stephen Gerrard and his assistant manager Gary McAllister. He holds his hand out and they looked past his shoulder and through a smirking Lennon, quick to move on. Lennon looks at the camera and lets out a roar, his ersatz composure ripped to shreds. He’s as delighted as us. He’s a manager but a fan.

There wasn’t much football. What football was played was played by the men in green and white. Every Celtic player won their 50-50 battle. We didn’t play the ball from the back and invite the opposition onto us. We were in their faces and it was there for all to see, they aren’t very good. They are a media construct based on a few half-decent results. We’ve got better players. Sometimes it’s that simple and it shows. There was only one twenty-million-pound striker on display and he scored again, when it matters.

In the European ties I expect Rennes to beat us in France and perhaps we’ll get a draw at Parkhead. They are a good team. The Italians could and should beat us home and away. Cluj, well, our nemeses aren’t great. I think they’ll finish bottom of the group. We’ll beat them at home and away. For now we are happy. It doesn’t last.

Next up, Hamilton away. Away win. Rangers have signed the new messiah. Where have I heard that one before? They’re spending even more money they’ve not got again. For every pound I’ll spend a tenner Murray. Bury it.  Where did I here that before? Hail Hail.

Tear along dotted line – the Celtic season starts here.

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Most Celtic supporters I’ve talked to would be happy with another domestic treble, perhaps with a European Cup thrown in for good measure. In Lennie we trust (well kinda).

Lennon got us over the line last year, winning the Scottish Cup  and the treble. There was a minimum and maximum as there is this year. I’d guess the minimum is a domestic double, Scottish League and one other trophy. In terms of Europe, qualification for the group stage of the Europa League.

The Europa League is a bit boring. We really want Champions League nights. Money and prestige are stitched together here. If Lenny gets Celtic through four qualifiers and into the Champions League group stages then he’s half way to being able to say job done. Then we can start kidding ourselves that other teams hate coming to Parkhead. The truth is the bigger teams love playing in a packed-out stadium where they always win. Yes, I do remember Tony Watt’s goal against Barcelona, loved every second of it, but freak results do happen. That’s why domestically Celtic are unlikely to win the treble again this year. They are the best team in Scotland, but an off day and we’re out of the cup.

Qualifying for Europe also means the squad is stretched and we’ve more games to play. After Rodger’s first season we began to regularly look vulnerable and drop points to teams like Kilmarnock and Hearts.

Strangely, despite Celtic’s treble-treble Rangers’ fans believe again. Their optimism is based on Celtic not spending and taking  two steps backwards in the last two seasons and Rangers finally going four or five games unbeaten. Rangers can win the league this year, but only if Celtic go into meltdown.

Celtic’s biggest buy of the season and long overdue is a centre-half in Christopher Julien. I’ve not seen him, but sometimes you just get that feeling…Kris Ayer will probably play alongside him in the centre of defence. Both are six-foot five, both are good with the ball at their feet. Both are called Chris. If they play to their potential Celtic will continue to monitor all players called Chris/Kris and try and integrate them into the Celtic family for Christmas.

I guess Jozo Simunovic will be the odd man out. He’d a great end of season, scoring that goal in the 67th minute and honouring Billy McNeil while wearing number 5. He looked like a half-decent defender at Parkhead, which must give Jack Hendry hope.

Lustig also had a fine end to the season and his Celtic career, but any winger with pace gave him a chasing, so it was thanks and no thanks. Anthony Ralston, for the moment, holds the jersey. Ironically, it was the young right back for Hearts in the last game of the season and in the Scottish Cup Final, a former Celtic graduate, who showed Ralston how it should be done.  I guess Celtic need to strengthen here. The Heart’s boy would be worth a punt, but we’ll go for the tried and tested, although I’m not sure who.

Arsenal and Napoli are interested in Kieran Tierney. He’s injured. He’s been injured quite a lot recently. The selling price is allegedly £25 million. I’d like to see Tierney stay. He’s a Celtic man and the best left back since Anton Rogan of Lisburn Distillery, but that might have been taking things a bit too far. Kieran Tierney is one of us, a fan, blessed with ability. Stay.

Johnny Hayes has been filling in at left back. I like Hayes, he’s street-smart, but never Celtic class (see Anton Rogan) and neither is he good enough to play as an out and out winger.

With Tierney out in the short, and perhaps longer term, Celtic have brought in a replacement. Under Rodgers it tended to be of the loan-deal variety. We paid more than £3 million for  Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo. He talks a good game. Telling us he has pace and…we’ll wait and see, but if Tierney stays, he’s our improved model of Emilio Izaguirre (good luck to the Honduran, but never a good idea to bring an old player back, hopefully the same thing doesn’t apply to an old manager).

In midfield we were always stacked with riches. Let’s start with the one that wants away. Olivier Ntcham had a few good games. He had a few bad games. You’ve got to laugh when he comes out with the excuse Scottish football is holding him back excuse. It never held back Henrik Larsson or  Harald Brattbakk or Virgil van Dijk. Two of these went on to lift the European Cup. Nitcham looks more of a Harald with every word that comes out of his mouth. He’s decided to go. Celtic want to sell. We’re waiting, but we’ll drop the price until someone takes him.

Ironically, I’m a big fan of Scottish, under-twenty-one international, Ewan Henderson who has fallen down the pecking order. Henderson, like his brother Liam, is Celtic class. I did predict years ago that Celtic would build their team around Liam. I’m not going to predict they’re going to build their team around Ewan (although I am tempted).

Remember Eboue Kouassi? He’s still there. He might do a Ryan Christie, you never know. Nah, he willnae. But wishful thinking is allowed.

Lewis Morgan is of that ilk. He went to Sunderland on loan and came back. We’ll probably send him out again somewhere. Special pre-seaon offer, three-for-one deal with Kouassi and Jack Henry.   Not bad players. Just not good enough for Celtic.

Scott Sinclair is on the final year of his contract. Anybody comes in, he can go. He’ll spend a lot of time on the bench if he doesn’t. He’ll be the type of player we bring on in the 85th minute hoping he can reproduce some of his penalty-box poacher- magic of his first two seasons.

Daniel Arzani lasted five minutes at Celtic, before getting injured. He’s got a chance, but only if young Karamoko Dembele  is thought too young for the first team.

Maryan Shved is a winger that excited Celtic fans, without playing a game for us. It was all highlights from abroad. Need to wait and see. Here’s hoping.

I’ve not mentioned James Forrest, the Celtic winger, who Lennon played through the middle in friendlies. Lennon brought Forrest into the team when he was here the last time. He used to talk him up and we’d be watching the same game and thinking…Whit? Lennon had a good season. Rodgers loved him. Lennon does too. He’ll play all the big games and most of the little ones. It’s going to be a big season for James Forrest.

Mikey Johnstone looks to be a Forrest stand in. Johnstone has plenty of trickery. He scores goals. He’s a Celt, here’s hoping he follows the Forrest pathway.

Scott Brown does what Scott Brown does. Lennon trusts him as did Rodgers before him. He’ll play the majority of our games.

Nobody played more games for club and country than Callum McGregor. If Forrest was Lennon’s love child, McGregor was Rodger’s. He played in almost every position for Rodgers apart from striker and goalie. I’m sure Rodgers would have handed him the gloves. There’s talk of a £20 million bid from the Leicester manager. That’s a wait and see.

Tom Rogic is another wait and see project. He didn’t look out of place when we played Manchester City in the Champions League under Rodgers. As good as anyone. But prone to injuries. Scores goals in big games, but in the Scottish Cup final (I can’t even remember if he played) and games against Rangers, in fact, most of last season, a wash out.  If clubs are offering £9 million or £10 million, I’d be very tempted to take it and bring back Paddy McCourt.

Ryan Christie wrote the script of the forgotten man biding his time. After losing out on John McGinn we were dreadful against a long-ball Hearts team at Tynecastle. Christie came on and scored and turned the game around. He was a goal-a-game man afterwards. Automatic first pick. His energy was of the Stuart Armstrong variety, but he had a better touch, better end product, a better player. But then that dreadful injury. He’s back but what Ryan Christie will emerge?

Luca Connell was coveted by other teams. Here’s hoping Lennie knew of him from his Bolton days. He’s young, which is always good. Is he ready for the first team?

Odsonne Edouard is our main striker. He missed a penalty in our last friendly in Switzerland against Gallen. Nobody cares about that, as long as he scores goals. He can be deceptively brilliant or just deceptive. He’s scored in big games, at crucial times in a match. He won us the league and Scottish Cup, but he doesn’t score enough. Maybe this season?

Leigh Griffiths is back. That’s fucking magic. Remember Griffiths once scored 40 plus goals in one season. He is a striker. No messing. There is a fair chance Lennon will play two strikers in games. Griffiths will get his chance. It’s really up to him. Here’s hoping.

I’d high hopes for the Ivorian international Vakoun Issouf Bayo. His strength is in the air. Lennon knows more than most, when pressed, as we were at Ibrox, a big target man gives you the route out of your half and adds goals. Recently, he’s been injured. That’s been a pattern. We don’t need any more projects. We don’t need another Kouassi. We need Bayo to force his way into the team in the same way Christie did, by scoring goals.

Are we stronger than last year? Yeh, we’ve been crying out for a decent centre-half for the last four years. One man doesn’t make a team, but it’s a start. We need a right-back, pronto. Perhaps Bayo won’t be good enough, then we need another striker. We might need a back-up centre-half for the back-up centre-half. If we sell Rogic or McGregor, we need another midfielder. The joker we have in the pack is Dembele. He looks a player. This might be his season. We’re in Sarajevo, let’s hope we can win and make the second leg a formality.

 

Celtic’s Treble Treble.

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There have been disappointing times as a Celtic supporter, but this era isn’t one of them. Celtic defeated Hearts on Saturday to complete a clean sweep of Scottish trophies for the third season running. Out of nine competitions, in three years, Celtic have won all nine. Yet, amid the joy there was a bubble and babble of discontent. Neil Lennon had been appointed the new Celtic manager.

I remember him when he was the old Celtic manager. I remember him playing for Celtic. I even remember watching Harry Hood, who joined Stevie Chalmers and Billy McNeil in Paradise. My da loved Harry Hood, he scored goals when you needed them. Like many older players he retired to become a publican. Future-proof and sorted.

I remember when we got to a cup final against Raith Rovers in Rangers, you spend a fiver, and we’ll spend a tenner era. We lost. But we found the man with the bubble perm, Wim Jansen. Some you Wim and some you lose. Thank god we were winners and that nine never became ten.

I remember the coming of the Sainted Martin O’Neil. Henrik and Lubo were already there, all he had to do was dominate Scottish football. And we’d a glorious trip in a friendly to play Man Utd, half of Clydebank was there and we gubbed them. The whole of the green side of Clydebank was in Seville. Glorious defeat, our speciality. Our season in the sun.  Maybe we should arrange a friendly against Man City and the treble winners in England should play the treble winners in Scotland? We could call it the Get it Right Up Yeh, cup.

We’ve already played Man City in the Champions league. Drawing two of the games. The second game didn’t matter to Man City, but it mattered to us. Every game matters when Celtic play. The jersey doesn’t shrink to fit the player.

We had wee Gordon Strachan, who contrived to lose the first game 5-0 to a team in Europe nobody had heard of. Oh, dear. Remember Nakamurra’s free kick against Man Utd. Home win.

Tony Mowbray and us getting scudded 4—0 at half time by St Mirren. I’d good memories of Paisley. I was there that magical night when we won 5—0 and Dundee and Walter Kidd beat Hearts. Glory, Glory.

I was there when that Murdo MacLeod rocket hit the back of the net and Ten Men Won the League, tra-la-la-la.

Remember when we beat one of the best teams of all time, Barcelona at Parkhead, 2—1, with a Tony Watt goal, and we only got to kick the ball twice than night. Neil Lennon was the manager. Glory, Glory.

Remember all the media shit about a certain Celtic centre half ripping it up in Scottish fitba but never being worth £10 million? Neil Lennon’s protégé did OK, as did Victor Wanyama. Celtic are no longer contesting European finals, but former players showcase the hoop’s mentality.

When Lennon felt he could go no further, we had the interim and experimental manager, Ronnie Deliah. He was a nice guy, but the job was too big for him. Rangers beat us in a penalty shoot-out at Hampden and Deliah was done.

Then we had Brendan Rodgers. Let’s not forget he delivered eight of those nine trophies. In his first season he could do no wrong. When playing Rangers we used to cheer their players because they were so awful and a four or five goal gubbing was pretty standard. We were football gods.

This season has been a slog. We used to be four or five steps ahead of Rangers. This year we were one. Rodgers walked into mediocrity for ‘professional reasons’ in the most unprofessional way. If he had seen the season out nobody with any sense would have batted an eyelid. It would have been the honourable thing to do, the professional thing to do.

Lennon stepped in and it’s like that film somebody up there likes me. He left Hibs or Hibs left him. Nobody cares. Then he gets the Celtic gig. Lennon goes with the old guard to get us over the line. Jozo Šimunović, number 5, scored that goal in 67 minutes that helped us finish first. Every goal we get seems to be a last minute effort. Even on Saturday, we get a penalty and then a late goal. The stars align.

The question now, of course, is what happens when the stars don’t align? We need five players, maybe six. We need a massive clear-out. Unlike our indebted Glasgow neighbours, we’ve got the money for the job. Is Lennon the man for the job?

Well, there’s money and there’s money. Champion League winners (Spurs or Liverpool and I don’t really care which it is) will pocket around £6 million. Aston Villa win £170 million, going up to around £300 million in the first year of the Premiership. Celtic won about £3 million in prize money. If they make the Champion League you can factor in another £30 million. You can pay for a better quality player.

Brendan Rodgers had a run in with Peter Lawwell and there was only one winner. Neil Lennon in his first incarnation did the same. Peter Lawwell runs Celtic. John McGinn, who scored the second goal that took Aston Villa to the money- tree of milk and honey, would have been a Celtic player if Brendan Rodgers had his way. He didn’t.

Neil Lennon is smart enough to know who is in charge. You might not need to shrink from fitting the jersey, but you need to shrink from questioning the logic of the money men. In Lennon we trust. You can bank on it. You can bank on the supporters, but please don’t patronise us in the way that Rodgers did, with the bullshit I’d like to return some day. Fuck off and follow the money. Lennon is a genuine Celtic supporter.

Can he do the job? Well, he’s got a head start. Every manager needs his share of luck, I just hope Lennon hasn’t used all of his in these end of season fixtures. They sure weren’t pretty. Winning is simply enough, but not so simple. At Celtic we demand more. We dream of more. Money can’t buy that. Our dreams are not for sale.