A look back to Madrid..and a look forward to Govan

Friday 16th September 2011


Even the most optimistic Celtic fan would not have been surprised when the Hoops went down 0-2 to Atletico Madrid over in Spain. After all, this is a side whose owners have spent serious money in an attempt to gain one of the three Champions League berths specially reserved for the teams of La Liga. When you consider that Barcelona and Real Madrid usually pick up two of those, then that just leaves one for the others and those in charge of Atletico Madrid are desperate to get that slot.

There is a saying that apparently was first attributed to the great West Indian batsman, Brian Lara –‘form is temporary, class is permanent’. In the two league matches they have already played, Atletico lost one and drew the other but this is a classy side in transition and it will be interesting to see how much they have improved by the time they come to Celtic Park later in the autumn.
The result did not do anything for Celtic’s disappointing European record away from home but every fan can take some satisfaction from our team’s display. They kept plugging away, gave their opponents some moments of doubt and refused to buckle. Frankly, that’s all we can ask of any group of players.
It can often be exciting, thrilling, engrossing, entertaining or  spell-binding; sometimes, it can be disappointing, exasperating, worrying and anti-climactic; just occasionally it can be harshly competitive and over-physical, the atmosphere surrounding it a disgrace to the name of sport!
Yes, you will have realised from the description what is coming up this weekend – an Old Firm contest, this one at Ibrox. The first clash of the season between the two big rivals in Scottish football has traditionally been a crucial contest. In the days from 1946/47 to around 1976, when the League Cup sectional ties started off the season, a win in this fixture – when the pair were drawn in the same section – could help knock the other out of the competition.
Nowadays, when the first clash is in the league, the winners get off to a flier and the losers go back to the drawing board, the happy fans of the successful side also getting a few weeks of bragging rights.
The last few years have been one of the most fascinating in Old Firm history. While Celtic have been busy stabilising their finances, those of Rangers have been the subject of some discussion, both under their previous owner and the current one. Their main bankers put a representative on the Board just to keep an eye on things, there have been stories that this one or that one was going to make a bid for the club and there were repeated leaks about dissension among the Board members. And while all this hoo-ha was going on behind the scenes, with the fans worried about the future, the players went on to win three consecutive SPL titles!
Both managers involved on Sunday are under some pressure. Neil Lennon knows that he is expected to win the league this season and with his side a point behind Rangers after six matches, he cannot afford to drop any further back.
As a new boss at Ibrox, Ally McCoist might have expected a little slack in the judgements as he puts his ideas into operation. Those poor European results, though, have already had the alarm bells ringing. New owner Craig White had an interview in the Mail this week in which he very pointedly stated that Malmo ( who put Rangers out of the Champions League) had a total wage bill of £5 million, significantly less than Rangers and that ‘one of our players gets more than the £1.5 million wage bill’ of their Europa League conquerors Maribor. ‘Disgruntled’ is the word that springs to mind!
However, when the players run out on to the pitch on Sunday, all that will be forgotten. Probably, Celtic has the better squad but you can rely on Rangers to rise to the challenge. This will be a highly competitive encounter and in this respect, they have crucial players in McGregor, McCulloch, Davis and Jelavic (if fit). Like most matches, the contest will be won or lost in midfield. On Sunday, this area will be like Sauchiehall Street on a busy shopping day as ten players compete for space and supremacy.
In these matches last season, apart from the League Cup final, Celtic looked pretty comfortable and must quickly adopt a similar regime on Sunday. If they do that, then the campaign can get off to an excellent start. I just hope that in the papers before the game, I do not read one of those articles where a Celtic player tells us how they are the better side, the fitter team, the younger team etc….you know the rest. We can do without all that.
These matches are special occasions, which attract the attention of the football world. And if that is not enough to make a Celtic player relish the occasion, they should just consider the uniqueness of warming up before the match with all that martial music ringing in their ears. You normally have to attend the Last Night of the Proms to hear all that!

Jim Craig


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