Friday 17 November 2017

Parkhead becoming an Irish halfway house

THESE are turbulent times for Scottish football with the paucity of quality north of the border evidenced by Celtic's pursuit, in Old Firm week, of two thirtysomethings who most recently plied their trade in the MLS.

Tomorrow's clash with Rangers will be as significant as ever in determining the destination of the title but Neil Lennon has spent this week mulling over the signatures of the once-great Freddie Ljungberg -- latterly with Chicago Fire -- and Toronto FC's Dwayne De Rosario, a 32-year-old Canadian international midfielder.

It is hardly a ringing endorsement of the players at his disposal but then, the Scottish game has deteriorated so much in recent years that Lennon is obviously confident that, after signing last Thursday, Ljungberg can make an impact despite being well past his best.

Certainly, it's a far cry from when Celtic lured Ljungberg's Swedish team-mate Henrik Larsson in his pomp, a player who had to move to Barcelona and influence a Champions League success before his quality was really recognised.

Wearing the famous hoops doesn't seem to carry the same currency any more. Bringing it closer to home, it has done little for Anthony Stokes and Daryl Murphy, the Irish frontmen in situ at Parkhead.

Both have been recruited by Lennon, who has taken a Football Manager-style scattergun approach to recruitment. Stokes -- hugely impressive in his stint at Hibernian -- has underwhelmed since his August move, and although he has scored eight goals, the 9-0 drubbing of a hapless Aberdeen certainly helped.

Murphy, who spent the second half of last season on loan with Ipswich, has also failed to hit the high notes. Indeed, the duo have been overshadowed by the exploits of Kilmarnock's Conor Sammon and Inverness Caledonian Thistle's Adam Rooney, who feature higher up the scoring charts behind Rangers' Kenny Miller.

Giovanni Trapattoni has taken little notice, however. His view of the Scottish game appears to be a negative one. Stokes was prolific last term but it didn't improve his standing, although Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli have publicly expressed concerns about his perceived selfishness on the park.

More pertinently, perhaps, Liam Miller has disappeared from the international scene since his move to Hibernian, even though he is a regular there as opposed to an English Premier League reserve team player.

Scottish football is struggling to make an argument for itself at the moment, though. After suffering a player drain in the last number of seasons, primarily arising from financial difficulties brought about by the collapse of Setanta, there have been calls for a root and branch review of the game.

European results have plummeted, and an earlier start to the season and a longer winter break were changes proposed by ex-First Minister Henry McLeish, who was commissioned to devise a state of the nation report. He was highly critical of SFA structures in his findings, and made other proposals related to the size of the top division.

Unfortunately though, as fans of the League of Ireland can testify to, there's a sense of shuffling the deck when it comes to these reviews when it doesn't solve the basic problem: that the league is unattractive to the majority of players with options on the table.

Undeniably, a spell with Celtic is still tempting for Irish players. Robbie Keane proved that by opting for Celtic last January but, as much as he enjoyed the adulation and the generous defences, he admitted that the standard of pitches and ancillary facilities was well below what he was used to.

Loan moves to Glasgow for Aston Villa exiles Richard Dunne and Stephen Ireland remain a possibility in this transfer window; as much as they might consider a temporary switch, it is considered unlikely that either would throw in their lot on a regular basis.

Instead, it is a home for Stokes and Murphy, a pair who failed to make the grade with Steve Bruce at Sunderland.

The presence of the ridiculously talented Paddy McCourt and his fellow ex-Derry City man Niall McGinn offers an extra Irish interest -- although both are Northern Irish internationals -- and there is a belief that Dubliner Richie Towell can break through down the line.

The reality, however, is that the honour of representing Celtic is possibly more attainable now than at any point in recent memory. Tomorrow's game retains a massive sense of occasion and tradition yet, in football terms, it has lost its significance.

Paradise has become a halfway house.

Rangers v Celtic

Live, Sky Sports 4, tomorrow, 12.45

Irish Independent

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