For most fans in world football, deciding whether your club has had a good, bad or indifferent season is a pretty straightforward process.
For example, consider the teams led by the twin colossi of modern football management, Pep Guardiola and Darren Dods. You hardly need me to tell you that Pep’s Man City lads – almost guaranteed winners of the English Premier League with three months to spare – are doing no bad this year. And an army of scientists and mathematicians isn’t required to figure out that Daz’s Brechin City – without a win in 24 league fixtures to date and 25 points from safety at the bottom of the Scottish Championship – are having a bit of a shanner.
Of course, there will always be grey areas, variables and subjects of debate, and if your team is sat mid-table in whichever league they compete in, that complicates things slightly. Yet it still boils down to one fairly basic calculation: look at your club’s history, look how they fared last season, look who they bought and sold last summer, decide what it’s fair to expect, and then judge whether they’ve lived up to those expectations.
Try and apply that simple formula to Celtic’s 2017-18 campaign, however, and the chances are you’ll find yourself still awake at 3am the next morning, scribbling down complicated equations and pinning newspaper back pages to your bedroom wall like an unhinged conspiracy theorist.
From a distance, everything looks pretty peachy. Brendan Rodgers’ side already have one trophy to their name, secured way back in November when Motherwell were bested in the League Cup final at Hampden. With a comfortable(ish) nine-point advantage at the top of the Scottish Premiership and an eminently winnable Scottish Cup quarter-final against Morton to be played a week on Saturday, there’s a decent chance that domestic honours number two and three will be cosying up to the League Cup in the Celtic Park trophy room come May, meaning back-to-back trebles for Glesga’s green and white – an achievement completely unprecedented in the history of the Scottish game. And that’s before we even mention Europe. Celtic are involved in post-Christmas continental competition for only the third time in the last ten seasons, and if they can complete the job against Zenit St Petersburg in the Europa League tomorrow night – following last week’s superb 1-0 first-leg win – they’ll be in the last 16 of a UEFA tournament for the first time since 2013.
And yet, if you were to brief a complete newcomer to Scottish football on all of these facts, then treat them to a whistle-stop tour of the nation’s sport sections, phone-ins and forums (quite a cruel thing to inflict on the poor sod, admittedly), they would come away feeling very confused indeed, with phrases like ‘going through the motions’, ‘piss-poor defending’ and ‘tinpot transfer policy’ ringing in their ears.
I’ll stop you there, just in case you’re beginning to wonder if this is a polemic against the MSM for persecution of CFC. There’s an explanation for the shade thrown on Celtic in recent weeks. And, yes, part of the explanation is that we’re a small, parochial country with far too much time on our hands to analyse every football issue to the Nth degree, especially where our two biggest clubs are concerned. Not since Jamaica had a bobsled team has a nation been so obsessed with a sport they’re not actually very good at.
It’s also because the goalposts have shifted post-2012. Back in the day, any season where Celtic finished above Rangers was a good season, barring those rare campaigns when the likes of Dundee United or Aberdeen got their hands on the league title. If there’s been a serious side to the ‘Banter Years’, that six-year spell of everyone ending themselves at the absolute blazing inferno of bantz going on over at Ibrox, it’s that hoovering up a mountain of domestic trophies has stopped being all that impressive an achievement for Celtic, meaning more scrutiny than ever being piled onto the Parkhead club’s style of play, transfer strategy and European results. Hence why rockin’ Ronny Deila managed to win back-to-back Premiership titles and still be widely regarded as one of the worst managers ever to sport a four-leaf clover on his trackie top.
Nonetheless, there are legitimate questions to be asked of Rodgers, his players, and perhaps, the Celtic board. Expecting the Hoops to survive another full season unbeaten was probably unreasonable, so the league defeats to Hearts and Kilmarnock – outfits that have improved exponentially since mid-season managerial changes – aren’t really the problem. Arguably the seven draws to date aren’t the issue either, as most of them could probably have been avoided if Rodgers had rested just three or four of his best players, not six or seven like he so often has immediately before or after European engagements.
It’s more a question of general performance levels. By my reckoning, Celtic have only played at or near their full potential on six occasions this season: 5-0 at home to Astana in August, 3-0 away to Anderlecht in September, 3-0 home and away to Aberdeen in the league, 3-1 at home to Hearts in January, and last week against Zenit. On many other occasions they’ve appeared listless, uninspired and defensively vulnerable. Rodgers’ side almost seem like a contestant in a bodybuilding competition who can only be bothered posing and pulling his muscles taut when the spotlight’s shone on him, slouching and letting his beer belly spill over his shorts when the pressure’s off. And no-one personifies that Jekyll and Hyde vibe better than summer arrival Olivier Ntcham, who looks like a sure thing to follow Victor Wanyama and Virgil van Dijk to the Premier League top six on his good days, but on his bad ones appears to have just got back from four days in the Slam Tent at T in the Park.
Of the 28 players at Rodgers’ disposal only outstanding home-grown duo James Forrest and Callum McGregor can really claim to have stepped up their performances from last season. Many others have merely stood still – hardly a disgrace given the high levels maintained throughout 2016-17. But some, such as Jozo Simunovic, Stuart Armstrong, Patrick Roberts, Tom Rogic and Moussa Dembele, have clearly regressed, due to various factors ranging from niggling injuries to contract disputes and the distracting effect of transfer speculation.
Which brings us on to another pressing issue. Younger readers of this article probably won’t be able to remember a time when people weren’t complaining about Celtic not spending enough on signings – I know I can’t – and the current era, for all its record-breaking, silverware-laden splendour, is no different.
There was an expectation that Rodgers’ appointment would prompt the board to smash through their £6m record transfer fee, but 21 months on from the Northern Irishman’s arrival the £4.5m spent on Ntcham remains as high as they’ve went, and the only signings that’ve really got the fans hyped enough to rush out and buy printed shirts/make funny gestures behind the heads of Sky Sports News reporters are loan deals for Patrick Roberts and Charly Musonda. There’s a belief in some quarters that Rodgers’ Celtic have thrived in spite and not because of their transfer activity, a theory arguably borne out by the fact only three Rodgers signings regularly start when everyone’s fit – Ntcham, Dembele and Scott Sinclair. If Rodgers himself shares the public disgruntlement at the lack of cash splashed though, then he’s a better method actor than Daniel Day-Lewis, judging by his exultant reaction to the low-key, low-cost deadline day captures of Jack Hendry and Scott Bain.
“Today I have to say a big thank you to Dermot (Desmond), Peter (Lawwell) and the board at Celtic. January was going to be an important month for us and everything I asked for I was able to get. In terms of experience, quality and players we think we can develop, they delivered everything I wanted so it’s a great credit to them and our recruitment team.”
Ultimately the pitch, as it always does, will provide the answers. Three days after Zenit there’s a tricky-looking visit to Aberdeen on league business, followed by a home game against Dundee, the aforementioned Scottish Cup quarter against Morton, and an Ibrox derby day against a Rangers side looking stronger than they ever have since their 2016 promotion, particularly going forward. The oft scoffed-at claim that ‘the Rainjurs are coming’ for once has a vague air of credibility to it, but the high tightrope nature of the fixture is such that, having won last season’s derbies by an aggregate score of 16-4, any kind of defeat would count as an embarrassment for Celtic.
If, however, they can achieve positive results in all of the games during this hectic period, the prospect of another spectacularly successful season will grow tantalisingly close for Celtic, and all of the concerns I’ve outlined here will seem like nothing more than neurotic nitpicking. We shall see…