As I sober up from celebrating Celtic’s fourth title win in-a-row I’ll at last comment on my trip to Ibrox Park last weekend.
Now last Saturday was a first. I’ve been to plenty of Celtic-Rangers games but this was my first Rangers-Celtic match. Never before I have felt the impulse to visit Mordor and put my own hard earned money into the pocket of Lord Sauron. But I guess this time around I just had an inkling it’d be worth it. Fortunately fate smiled upon me, fate and the fact Celtic are a considerably better football side than their neighbours from the south of Glasgow.
Anyone who watched the match would argue my above statement is an exaggeration. But anyone who shares my passion for football played properly should agree with me. The ethos which each respective manager employs when setting up their team couldn’t be further apart. Celtic’s intended philosophy is perhaps summed up best by acknowledging theirs, and Scotland’s, last three players of the year; Shaun Maloney, Shunsuke Nakamura and Aiden McGeady. The tactics that have made Celtic champions since 2006 have revolved primarily around intelligent numbers 10s who score goals, make chances and urge Celtic to play the game in an attractive way (I’m well aware none of these players wore the number 10 shirt). It doesn’t always work, but has on enough occasions, to be celebrated by their fellow professionals when the ballot paper drops through the letter box every spring.
Over at Rangers Walter Smith has chosen a different route to success which, up to a point, seemed to be working. Since Smith returned to Ibrox his head-to-head record against Celtic has been good and Rangers even reached the Uefa Cup Final last season. But few purists would accept there is anything to admire in the way he sets out his team. Rangers reduce the game to a physical battle and this ironically is where they came up short last Saturday. Rangers struggled for two reasons; they were missing the key players who contributed to their aggressive style of play and also Celtic have adapted accordingly. It was Daniel Cousin who proved to be Rangers finest thuggish striker within their new system. It was the big African striker who bullied Celtic’s often naive defenders and made Smith’s tactics work. With elbows flying and late jumps Cousin tormented oppositions but his performances earned him as many red cards as goals. Red cards which evidently Smith was willing to tolerate. After Cousin’s finest game in a blue jersey, leading the ‘Gers to a 4-2 victory at Celtic Park in August, he was sold to Hull City. The player wanted to leave Rangers, but they will regret letting him go.
The other missing part in Smith’s cynical jigsaw was midfielder Kevin Thomson. Since arriving from Hibs two years ago Kevin has evolved from an intelligent and mobile midfielder into something quite different. Call him what you like, Thomson is now an old school hatchet-man, a hammer-thrower, a chopper, a psychopath. He flies around the park kicking everything that moves apparently immune from disciplinary action. It seems domestically he’s allowed five fouls per yellow card which means he can clobber eight opposing players before he even has to start worrying about a red. Add to this he’s the most criminal diver in Scottish football. Thomson has become a real figure of contempt for Celtic’s fans, but even then I concede he performs his disagreeable role very well and is missed when he’s not there. Currently out with a long-term injury his absence was there for all to see last weekend.
Now anyone who watched Celtic beat Rangers 1-0 on Saturday is wondering what the hell I’m on about just now. I’ve claimed Celtic try and play pretty football whilst Rangers’ manager embraces ideas from the Big Book of Soccer Tactics published 1972. The match at the weekend was little more than an arduous scrap which the Celts claimed by the odd goal. Well Rangers started this fight, but it’s Celtic who are going to end it. Back in mid-nineties the late Celtic manager Tommy Burns would repeatedly line-up his side against Smith’s Rangers, intending to play them at football and then lose. It was frustrating. Gordon Strachan isn’t repeating that mistake — he’s adapted Celtic’s squad so that when others want to reduce a game to brawl Celtic are the side who will win it.
It’s interesting when contrasting the players in the opposing midfields. Rangers have the swaggering over-weight presence of Charlie Adams on the left of midfield. A player with a talented left-peg but the aura of guy who thinks he’s “made it” because he plays for Rangers. The reality check for this young man will come when Rangers imminently release him and he tumbles down the football ladder. Celtic’s Barry Robson is essentially Charlie Adam plus ten years. Robson was let go by Rangers and he did indeed fall down the football ladder, at one point plying his trade for Forfar, but Celtic’s fiery red-head had the drive to get back to the top. He’s too slow and this is exposed when Celtic play in Europe — but there is no player in football who I’d rather have going into a 50-50 challenge for my side. Maybe in a decade Charlie Adam will return to the top of Scottish football having turned his career around a la Robson. I wouldn’t bet on it though.
Paul Hartley’s late flourishing career is not unlike Robson’s. Odd that one of Hartley’s contemporaries from youth football lines up against him for Rangers, Barry Ferguson. Ferguson has had an entire career protected by the Scottish media from any criticism. But now his best days are behind him. Hartley had to earn his right to sit at this table having previously grafted away at Hamilton, Morton and Raith amongst many others. Perhaps Barry Ferguson has become blasé about playing at the level and his drive has diminished. This certainly can’t be said about Robson and Hartley who seem to play with chips-on-their-shoulders. They may not have spent their whole careers as a champion — but they certainly want to end it as one. Neither of these two hot-heads would be in my own Celtic starting eleven, but if Rangers are going to reduce these games to scraps then I’m more than happy for Gordon Strachan to send out our own hatchet-men and let them show our neighbours how it’s done.
Hopefully this weekend at home to Dundee United the Celts will return to being a football side. With Nakamura, Mizuno, McGeady, Brown and Crosas at our disposal we have the potential for a very clever and mobile midfield. But if opposing sides are going to try and ruin the game as a spectacle it’s good to know we can resort to plan B and give our rivals a bloody nose. Please excuse the racist quote but Sean Connery’s character says in The Untouchables; “Isn’t that just like a wop? Brings a knife to a gun fight”. Well Rangers better employ harder personel if they think they’re going to win any physical battles. Walter Smith better think of something cleverer than flying elbows and late tackles — because two can play that game.
But I’m happy. Celtic will be champions again this year and hopefully use the first half of 2009 to mould an even stronger side for next season. For the time being I’ll celebrate Celtic’s success — we earned it. Even if by doing so we’ve had to go against our own principles, at least we’ve got principles.