Celtic’s horror show in Sweden last night is a reality check not only for the Parkhead club, but for Scottish football in general.
Malmo are by no means top class European competition but the failure to beat them over two legs says much more about Celtic’s status on the European stage.
Through the ranting and raving by Chris Sutton he did manage to make one sensible point which is that Celtic are a Europa League side, despite aspirations for the highest pinnacle of the Champions League.
Sutton’s punditry was comedy gold. At one point post-match he looked and sounded like a man desperately in need of sedation. Who knows? Maybe someone texted him his trigger word: DUNFERMLINE.
Joking aside, Celtic were poor. Defending at the set pieces which cost them the goals was inept. Van Dijk looked like a man wondering what to pack for his big move away rather than a committed player fighting to get his team in the CL group stage.
The defeat – ironically for the second year in a row to a team which only a few years ago Celtic fans mocked Rangers for succumbing to – consigns Celtic to the second string of European competition. This means a gruelling set of extra games that might allow the likes of Aberdeen and Hearts a chance to dream of winning the Premiership.
Although to some that might still be a laughable concept, the failure to reach the Champions League will no doubt open up speculation over the future of Celtic boss Ronnie Deila. While his passion for success cannot be doubted, his ability to deliver the coveted CL group stage is now in question.
Of course, Celtic could resign themselves to being a Europa League side and retool accordingly. Again, that means downsizing markedly and actually makes economic sense. Why gamble big when there is a high risk of failure?
This kind of thinking is clearly reflected in the more modest transfer dealings Celtic have engaged in recently.
The problem is that many Celtic fans share Chris Sutton’s idea of Celtic as a big European club. The reality is they are not. Not even close.
Across the city, Rangers fans are having to face the reality of their own club’s limitations in an age of austerity for the Old Firm. Starved of the megamillions enjoyed by EPL clubs, Rangers and Celtic are being forced to downsize and build rather than buy their way to success.
As I have said many times before, the Old Firm must be reignited as a working cartel to bring impetus, energy and much-needed funds to the game in Scotland. By that I mean the Old Firm themselves. However, the real issue facing both Glasgow clubs is that, in their desire to manage expectation levels from their fans, both resort to hype and media manipulation. This gives a skewed picture of how both clubs are faring. Negative stories or thoughts are pounced upon and branded heresy.
The fact is that Rangers and Celtic are no longer the giants they once were in a football context. They are not feared by the big guns (or some small guns!) because they are no longer big guns themselves. Neither can compete fiscally with even the smaller EPL outfits and they are paupers in comparison. Even worse – the gap is widening every year.
My own thoughts are that a British League and Cup competition paid for by big bucks from the likes of Sky or BT could be the answer to this problem, not only for the Old Firm but also for the likes of Hibs, Aberdeen and Hearts. Right now, the English teams don’t need it but the English Premiership is showing signs of becoming stale, unpredictable and even boring. The fact that English sides are not dominating the Champions League is proof that the EPL is hyped. It could be argued that the ten top players in Europe all ply their trade outside the EPL.
Whatever the solution, it is incumbent upon the two Glasgow giants to find it and also to change their ways and adopt a refreshingly honest approach to public and media relations. Most fans are capable of handling the truth.
Perhaps lessons could be learned from Scotland boss Gordon Strachan. With arguably the poorest pool of talent in history, he has managed to get the Scotland team punching way above its weight without any hype – just the opposite, in fact.
Sensible Celtic fans will be disappointed with last night’s result but realistic enough to know that their team are not Champions League material at this moment in time. Those who think Celtic are a European giant are living in cloud cuckoo land.
There is one cold, hard fact both Rangers and Celtic must face up to. If they cannot accept that they are no longer the big beasts they once were, economic realities will catch up with them in a brutal way. This is already happening anyway. Unflinching honesty about how things are is the path onwards and upwards. Hype and media manipulation is suicide.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with aspiring to hit the dizzy heights once more. That very much should be the long term goal for both Old Firm clubs. But the road to this starts with an honest acceptance of how things are.
Football is an unpredictable matter, which makes it so amazing. Who would have thought that in a short space of time Mark Warburton could fill Ibrox for home games? The problem is that this fuels supporters’ expectations and we have already heard Rangers fans talking about going through the season unbeaten. Sunday’s slog against a stodgy Hibernian has tampered such feverish notions and rightly so.
Warburton has shown enough already to get the Ibrox legions excited. And Ronnie Deila has hardly been a flop, although he is yet to deliver on the CL requirement. Both managers look more than capable of bringing success to their clubs. However, they should not be hindered by fans’ inflated expectations or hampered by their respective boards’ desire to appease those fans.
Chris Sutton seemed upset that Celtic have – according to him – the staus of a Champions League side but the budget of a Europa League one. This is where unrealistic expectations must give way to reality. It makes no sense for Celtic – or Rangers once they are in the position – to break the bank just to get to the group stages. With no guarantee.
The bottom line is living in the past and former glories is an unhealthy approach for our two biggest teams in Scotland. Accepting where we are and building from there is necessary.
Somebody tell Chris, please. Just don’t use the “D” word…