Monday 18 December 2017

Time to forget paradise and get back to reality

James Lawton

James Lawton

It is complicated no doubt, both emotionally and practically, but you have to wonder if there has ever been a more compelling case for sadly turning the page on the meaning of Celtic football club.

The question has to be put to so many Irish fans, for so many of whom the club still carries a weight beyond all possibilities of future achievement, and at least two significant football men, Robbie Keane and Neil Lennon.

Keane has to ask himself how quickly he needs to exit a scene in which even striking individual achievement will plainly do little for his standing, at the age of 29, in more serious areas of the game -- not least at the upwardly mobile Tottenham, whose decision to send him on loan to Glasgow may have been preferable to exile on the bench at White Hart Lane but said little for his future under Harry Redknapp.

Lennon, though still fighting to keep the temporary manager's role which was made so precarious by the catastrophe against Ross County, may also have to ask not what he can do for Celtic but what possible benefit he can gain from continuing a plainly uphill battle.

The point is that the fight is not so much against the normal challenges of the game, but the expectations created by a dogged, tribal myth.

This myth says that Celtic remain a club just one messiah-manager short of proper redemption. It is a proposition that some time ago lurched into the realm of fantasy, one that reached a bizarre level when Keane arrived at Celtic Park talking in the usual exaggerated tones about the traditions of Celtic and a still viable belief in a successful future and being welcomed as a man who might just put a little flesh on the bones of such optimism.

His namesake Roy mouthed similar platitudes in his brief visit to Parkhead, then quickly acknowledged the gap between those fond hopes and a much harsher reality.

In the wake of his Scottish Player of the Month award, and impressive goals tally of 12 in 13 games, Robbie was also confronting the underside of that disintegrating myth.

"Personal accolades are always good but if you're not doing well it means nothing," said Keane. "I obviously wanted to come here and win something but it wasn't to be. I'm sure there will be changes in the summer. At the end of the day, I'm playing for a wonderful club -- and I've always wanted to do so since I was a kid."

A poignant reflection, no doubt, and one that would have run far deeper surely if Keane had been around to see the Celtic of Jock Stein, the one raised in a 20-mile radius of Glasgow and which had the force to sweep its way to the European Cup with that glorious victory over the Internazionale of Helenio Herrera.

It was a triumph that spoke not only of superbly organised, aggressive football but also belief in a certain way of playing, a boldness and a spirit which shone like a bright beacon for all of the European game.

There was nothing mythological, of course, about Stein's achievements and those who believe in poetic justice may still feel that his eventual treatment by the club, when he was offered in a role in their fund-raising operation, may have made them captives to the worst possible fate.

What do Celtic now mean as they struggle to raise their heads over the relentless slide into mediocrity that is surely the strongest, most painful perception to be drawn from the decline in which the club, since the most recent high-water mark of Martin O'Neill's work, have been merely a conspicuous part?

They mean, above all, a failure to meet some of the highest, albeit unrealistic, expectations that are still fostered by many who have missed the fact that the football world has changed so profoundly.

Back in the 1990s, Canadian businessman Fergus McCann braved initial displeasure to put the club on a proper foundation. He came in as an unloved speculator, and made a cool £30m profit -- "I'll stay not a day longer than five years," he declared -- and left as something of a visionary in 1999.

What he couldn't do, after giving fans the chance of a cut-price majority share investment, was shape a future that would be any kinder to the deluded belief that Celtic would now always struggle to inhabit anything more than the remnants of their past.

After the romantic, and perhaps inevitable failures of the raw John Barnes and the fanciful Tony Mowbray, Lennon at least seems in tune with the practicalities, and more reasonable expectations, at Celtic Park.

His report of a conversation with chief shareholder Dermot Desmond after the meltdown against Ross County certainly appeared to be grounded in something more than wishful thinking.

"It's absolutely fair to say Dermot wasn't happy, but he's pragmatic enough," said Lennon. "He wasn't hyperventilating. It means that I have to try to get some positive results between now and the end of the season. Do I still back myself for the job? Yeah, and I want it even more after the Ross County result."


The hard word in Glasgow is that the debacle almost certainly delivered Lennon a fatal blow. However well the tough Northern Irishman understands Celtic's current situation, he is also enough of a football man, and veteran of the Glasgow tribal wars, to be aware of the tainting effect of such a result and that it would inevitably have helped the possible candidacies of such as Paul Lambert, Willie McStay and Mark Hughes.

However, there is a case for a competitive character like Lennon, who knows the difference between what can be achieved and what properly belongs in that mythological department, being given the job of working in an environment he knows so well.

For Keane the imperative would seem to be obvious. He needs to get back to the real world of football, not the one that lingers in his head from so many years ago.

The same is surely also true for all those fans who carry the same emotional attachments, who still see Celtic for what they were, in another time, another world.

Irish Independent

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