Friday 19 January 2018

Brian Kerr: Celtic's struggles leave me yearning for the days when money wasn't everything

Football world was a better place when Hoops were Europe's kings rather than its whipping boys

Dembele: Arrival at Celtic Picture: PA
Dembele: Arrival at Celtic Picture: PA

Brian Kerr

I am sitting in my front room mesmerised by what is happening. Fourteen years old and obsessed with sport, living in an era where only four or five football matches get televised each year and where names like Helenio Herrera, the Argentinian manager of Internazionale of Milan, sounded wonderfully exotic and new.

It is 1967, Cooley Road in Drimnagh, the European Cup final; Celtic, a team brought together from within a 30-mile radius of Celtic Park, up against Inter, the winners from two years previously and champions of this defensive philosophy embodied by their famous coach. "It's called catenaccio," my friend explained.

"It's bleedin' malojdon," I replied, earning a laugh from my pal and one of those 'mind yer manners' looks from the mother. Yet she was doing her bit as well to prolong the world of imagination we had fallen into.

It was her savings which allowed us get this 12-inch telly, which we were all gathered around, following grainy black-and-white images from the National Stadium in Lisbon, where Celtic's hooped jerseys relentlessly attacked the striped, darker shirts of Inter.

Half-time came and so did the dinner, the mother timing her cooking to coincide with the break.

Those final 45 minutes seemed to go on forever, Celtic relentlessly pressing forward in search of a winning goal, which came six minutes from the end of a game which is as vivid in my head now, 49 years on, as it was back then.

The match ends, the house clears, shouts of 'see ya later ma' are heard, followed by a chase up Cooley Road and around to the field on Dromard Road where me and my pals all gathered with a ball at our feet and dreams in our head.

"I'm Jimmy Johnstone," someone said.

"No, I want to be him."

"You can be Tommy Gemmell."

"Well, I'm Stevie Chalmers. And that's that."

Four years later, I'm back in the same sitting room. Only this time, it's different. The black-and-white TV has been upgraded to a colour one and the familiar-sounding names of Chalmers, Gemmell and Johnstone have given way to new ones: Cruyff, Neeskens and Swart.

We knew little about Ajax until that night, bar the fact they had thrashed Liverpool five years earlier and had made it to the European Cup final in 1969.

Now, though, they were in full flow, delivering this concept of Total Football where the frequent rotation of attackers and defenders made them the Barcelona of their day, the team everyone else tried to emulate. And here they were, beamed into our living rooms.


This is how it was. Ajax beat Panathinaikos in the final of the 1971 European Cup, a year after another Dutch club, Feyenoord, defeated Celtic to win the trophy, kickstarting the decade of the underdog, when clubs from provincial towns and cities would reach, and in Nottingham Forest's case, win, the final of biggest competition in club football. Saint-Etienne, Leeds United, Malmo, Club Brugge, Borussia Monchengladbach didn't care for reputations back then. Instead they forged their own ones.

As did Celtic. While 1967 is indelibly inked into their history, and while their appearance in the 1970 European Cup final is also remembered, what has been forgotten is how consistent they were in that period, reaching additional semi-finals in the 1966 Cup Winners Cup and the European Cup campaigns of 1972 and 1974.

When I think back to that era, and then think about what happened in the Nou Camp a couple of weeks ago, part of me despairs that the element of unpredictability has been removed from the game.

I know we can't live in the past. And I know the modern game is essentially dictated by the men who write the biggest cheques.

Yet part of me thinks there can still be a place for a club like Celtic, who, in some ways, are bigger than Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain and Atletico Madrid in terms of the size of their stadium and support base - but who, in monetary terms, are dwarfed by the continent's heavy hitters.

Yet the best they - or almost any team from a country outside of England, Germany, Italy, Spain or France - can hope for in today's monetised world is a place in the last 16 of the Champions League.

With all this in mind, I'm reluctant to be overly critical of Brendan Rodgers for what happened in Barcelona 11 days ago. Notwithstanding the tactical mistakes that were made on the night - his imposition of a three-man central defence, as an example, was desperately misguided - some mitigating factors have to be considered.

Firstly, the Barca team his side conceded seven goals to, is home to the greatest trio of attackers I have seen in one side since Gento, Di Stefano and Puskas did their stuff for Real Madrid (with all due to respect to the damage caused to Dublin defences by Pat Spillane, 'Bomber' Liston and Mikey Sheehy a couple of decades later).

Bearing this in mind, defeat for Celtic seemed inevitable. Yet is the manner of it that will hurt, even if Rodgers did try and put a positive spin on events, claiming not to be "embarrassed by the scoreline".

At times, I feel he is guilty of talking too much, of undermining his fine managerial and coaching skills by overselling certain situations, like when, in the aftermath of their victory in the Champions League play-off round against Hapoel Be'er Sheva, he thanked Dermot Desmond, the Celtic owner, for 'sticking his neck out' and taking him on as manager.

Why did he need to say that? Given his status in the game - he was one of the favourites for the England job - Rodgers shouldn't feel the need to endear himself to his board. They are as lucky to have him as he is to have them.

Still, privately he will be really hurting. He is rightfully proud of his achievements, even if he makes a few too many references to Liverpool's second-place in the 2013/14 Premier League, and is proud of his ability to organise, coach and motivate a team.

And then they go and lose 7-0.

Yet it happens every manager. I know what it is like to get a stuffing. Back in 1998, a couple of months after our U-16 and U-18 sides had each won the European Championship, reality bit. A newly assembled side, playing their first game of the season, were thumped 5-0 by England at Tolka Park.

Could we have imagined then that we'd end the year as European Championship bronze medallists? That we'd beat a Spanish team - who had a teenage Iker Casillas in goal - against the backdrop of this beautiful wooden forest, with ABBA playing on the PA system and Richie Partridge and Richie Baker playing on the wings?

The answer was no. Yet even as we walked out of Tolka that night, we knew things could get better. Managers train themselves to think that way. Your first job is to convince yourself. Then you convince the team.

That season, the 5-0 defeat was never talked about. Not once.


And you can imagine that neither Rodgers nor his staff will reference the 7-0 loss, either.

Instead he will have looked at Celtic's schedule and will finally have found time to breathe.

Since losing in Catalonia, they drew with Inverness last Sunday, before beating Alloa 2-0 in the League Cup in midweek and now play Kilmarnock this weekend. In contrast, 72 hours prior to the Barca match, they were lining up against Rangers in the most hyped Old Firm derby in four years.

This time there is a longer lead-in time for Rodgers to prepare and come up with a better plan. Sessions on the training ground won't have focussed too much on either Alloa or Kilmarnock but will have been based around the clarification of a plan to deal with Manchester City's considerable threats on Wednesday.

So I don't expect them to get a hiding this time. But nor do I expect a repeat of the heroic results conjured up by Martin O'Neill, Gordon Strachan and Neil Lennon over a 12-year period when - among others - Barcelona (twice), Juventus, Liverpool, Manchester United and AC Milan were defeated.

For this is a match - that you sense - has already been decided in the pocket. Whereas Pep Guardiola has been able to spend over £100m this summer, on top of the £719.1m outlay from the club that was sandwiched in between Sheik Mansour's takeover in September 2008 and Pep's arrival in May - Celtic have spent just £6m approximately on five players, Cristian Gamboa, Dorus de Vries, Scott Sinclair, Kolo Toure and Moussa Dembele.

For one club, everything is geared around finding the right balance in team. For the other, it appears to be about balancing the books, about finding value in a young Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper, Fraser Forster, Kelvin Wilson, Virgil van Dijk (all of whom were bought for a combined total of £7.9m and then sold for £42m).

Was this why Neil Lennon decided to leave in May 2014, having seen Wilson, Hooper, Wanyama as well as Joe Ledley - heroes on the night Barcelona were beaten 2-1 at Celtic Park - sold over the course of the previous 12 months? Did he feel those sales and that policy severely diminished the chances of more glory nights?

You sense he did.

And you sense the gap between clubs like Celtic and clubs like Manchester City is wider than it ever was. And all the while you yearn for those sepia-tinted days when you could watch a Scottish club with inherent Irish roots beat the best from Italy and beyond.

And yes I know that times change.

But not always for the better.

Irish Independent

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