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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Celtic count cost as fans lose faith after humiliation

Neil Lennon can't bear to look as time runs out for Celtic against Ross County in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden Park in 2010. Photo: PA
Neil Lennon can't bear to look as time runs out for Celtic against Ross County in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden Park in 2010. Photo: PA

Roddy Forsyth

MEMO to the Celtic supporter who loudly advised the departing patrons of the Main Stand at Hampden Park that matters could not get any worse for those connected with his club. Oh, yes they can.

Just ask Johan Mjallby, who was on his way home from Saturday's humiliating 2-0 defeat by Ross County when he was brought to a halt by a tyre flatter than the Celtic side he had witnessed being outplayed, outfought and outgunned in the Scottish Cup semi-final.

Ask Neil Lennon, who invited Mjallby to return to Glasgow to assist him in his role of caretaker manager at Parkhead and who saw his own ambition to assume the job on a more permanent basis badly damaged by the events that unfolded at the national stadium.

Ask the players, a couple of whom later encountered disgusted fans whose anger was expressed so forcibly that the square-up threatened to turn ugly.

Ask Robbie Keane, who said last Friday that Scotland's pitches were short on quality and who then had to watch Ross County glide over the svelte Hampden surface while Celtic looked mired in a swamp.


Nor should it take long to confirm why Celtic's accountants have their heads in their hands as they assess the likely returns from the team's four remaining home games in a season as poor as any since the club came close to bankruptcy in 1994.

Even the diehard fans' desire to maintain a defiant posture will be sorely tested by the visit of a Rangers side and support exultant in their acquisition of a second successive championship -- and in the less than alluring slot of a Tuesday evening in May.

The Celtic directors? They have to find some way to persuade 50,000 season-ticket holders -- close to half of whom have deserted Parkhead in dismay at the substandard fare on offer -- to renew their investment.

They will not be helped by the morgue-like atmosphere anticipated at the home games outside of the Old Firm derby, which consist of two visits by Motherwell plus Saturday's lunchtime date with Hibernian, 24 hours before the title party which will probably be staged at Ibrox when Rangers meet Hearts.

The issue has to be addressed immediately. Motherwell's first trip to the east end of Glasgow is tomorrow night and another defeat for Celtic would mean that Rangers could even win the title with a victory at Tannadice the following night -- with the added sting of accomplishing the feat before the Scottish Premier League split, which begins next weekend.

Celtic's board members are on the horns of a dilemma sharper even than the stag's antlers on the Ross County crest. The fans' disillusionment with the fare on offer encompasses two seasons, with only last year's League Cup to show in return for their maintained faith.

Most of them could not wait to see Gordon Strachan make his way through the Parkhead exit doors, despite his delivery of three successive titles.

His detractors among the Celtic support like to cite the poor quality of Rangers during his tenure but this overlooks two crucial factors, the first being that he also steered the team to successive qualifications for the last 16 of the Champions league and the other being the remit to reduce salary costs by 40 per cent.

Tony Mowbray arrived on the wings of the fantasy that football Barcelona-style could be delivered on a Poundstretcher budget.

Preaching that attack was the best form of defence, Mowbray was ultimately undone on a traumatic evening in Paisley by the fact that attack had become his only form of defence.

The destruction of that philosophy was completed by Ross County at Hampden Park where Celtic's loss of soul was exposed utterly. If the fans now vote with their credit cards and decline to respond to the season-ticket offer, how should the Celtic board respond?

As Lennon said in the aftermath of the weekend debacle, there needs to be a clear-out of the inadequate personalities who have either lost their understanding -- or never had any in the first place -- of what is required of a Celtic player.

Lennon himself will be castigated in some quarters for Saturday's team selection, but he understandably chose the players who had won at Hibs six days previously, having apparently grasped that they would have to graft and claw their way through what was left of the season to make amends to their supporters.

The same players evidently supposed Ross County to be too insignificant to be tracked on that particular radar, even when Lennon made tactical changes at Hampden, albeit seemingly on the instructions of Celtic's chief scout, John Park.

The conundrum now facing Celtic is that, even if they acquire a manager with the charisma necessary to animate the fans into putting money up front for next season, there will have to be another rebuilding process -- to be financed by what means?


The cheap option is to stick with Lennon, whose disgust with the current state of affairs was eloquently expressed in his statements after the Hampden fiasco.

Yet with such a blemish now on his CV -- even though he has been thrust into a provisional situation -- the former Celtic captain also represents a substantial gamble, with consequent risk.

Such is the aftermath of Mowbray's decision to institute a wholesale transformation of the dressing-room.

Many of the players he discarded had failed to win the league last season and ended up at Middlesbrough, who are struggling in the Championship.

But who would argue that the likes of Barry Robson or Gary Caldwell would not have animated Celtic into at least the semblance of resistance to first division opponents on Saturday?

In the last analysis, however, there is simply no excuse for the gutless, spineless display by well-paid international players such as was witnessed in Celtic's colours in the semi-final.

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