EVEN after almost five decades of inhaling the vapours of Scottish football – from the life-enhancing to the toxic – it is comforting to be reminded that certain phenomena remain as constant as the tides.
In the wake of Celtic’s pulsating, impossibly dramatic victory over Shakhter Karagandy on Wednesday, for example, came evidence of the imperishable relevance of the long-established truism that sore losers are matched only by sour winners.
An early encounter with this curiosity arrived at the end of the 1970 Scottish Cup final, when Eddie Turnbull, manager of the Aberdeen side who had just registered a famous victory over Jock Stein’s Celtic, emerged from the Hampden dressing-room and strode towards the assembled press pack.
First in line was the late Hugh Taylor, the universally liked (indeed, even loved) chief football writer of the Daily Record. “Congratulations, Eddie, well done,” said Hugh. “Aye, you bastards,” sneered Turnbull. “You all tipped Celtic, you thought they were certainties, you gave us no chance.”
Perhaps Ned at that stage hadn’t realised that Stein’s team had just clinched their fifth successive championship, had won three of the previous five Scottish Cups, every Scottish League Cup since 1965, the European Cup in 1967, and had, only ten days before, beaten the supposedly invincible Leeds United at Elland Road and were, therefore, halfway to their second European Cup final.
Here was the kind of seemingly unequal struggle which encouraged Damon Runyon to observe that “the race doesn’t always go to the swiftest or the fight to the strongest, but that’s the way to bet”. In truth, it would have taken the unshakably devoted fan, the hunch player, or the deliberately cantankerous to have made the red shirts their selection that day.
The Celtic manager, Neil Lennon, and several of his players appear, like Turnbull, to have spent a disproportionate amount of time and words on trashing the many people – but, most emphatically, the media – who had allegedly dismissed the Scottish champions’ prospects of overcoming the 2-0 deficit they faced after the first leg of their tie with Shakhter.
There seems little doubt that Lennon’s rather animated musings after his team’s 3-0 victory would be significantly affected by the tensions of the night, the conflicting emotions of apprehension and relief almost certainly contributing to a temporary loss of rationale in a man who, contrary to the misguided and mostly ill-informed opinion of his habitual detractors, is normally smart to a remarkable degree.
If Lennon and his players had seriously examined the media build-up, they would have had great difficulty in finding anyone (apart from “fans” on hotlines and forums) who actually gave Celtic no chance.
This column a week ago expressed uncertainty over the likelihood of success or failure on the basis of the number of mediocre players at Lennon’s command. But the lack of conviction one way or the other coincided precisely with the bookmakers’ odds of evens about Celtic qualifying.
Lennon supported his prosecution of the media with the slightly ridiculous claim that his team had not had “a bad night” in Astana, but had simply “not taken their chances”. Failure to convert opportunities is part of the failure “package”, like a golfer brilliant from tee to green who continues to make bogey by three-putting. In any case, Lennon seemed to dismantle his own case by omitting the liability that is Emilio Izaguirre and the inexperienced Steven Mouyokolo, selling the unconvincing Kelvin Wilson, and re-introducing Adam Matthews and Efe Ambrose to a completely re-hashed back four, as well as recalling Anthony Stokes to attack. Anyone who was not stripped of his faculty for rational assessment by the feverishness of the occasion would recognise that an overall 3-2 defeat of opponents as poor as the visitors from central Asia is hardly 1967 revisited. Overcoming difficult circumstances (of their own making) may have been highly commendable, but it fell a long way short of a reason to crow.
Betting allegations suggest poor judgment
In any ratings of football’s most formidable players, Hypocrisy would never have fewer than ten stars. One of the game’s most consistent performers was at his most dazzling this week, with the revelation of the astronomical gambling debts incurred by Gordon Taylor, the garrulous and frequently sanctimonious chief executive of England’s Professional Footballers Association.
Taylor, whose pronouncements on and denouncement of the questionable practices of his own members tend to be as long-winded and monotonous as the average Oscar acceptance speech, suddenly metamorphosed into a clam on the subject of his own recklessness. To anyone familiar with what passes for the mores of gambling, perhaps the most unacceptable aspect of Taylor’s alleged actions is that, when placing his wagers, he not only failed to pay on, but, ultimately, refused to pay up.
It is hardly surprising that claims of £100,000 he is said to owe one firm and £29,000 to another should be leaked to the national press.
The headlines arriving just a week after Rangers midfielder Ian Black was charged with gambling indiscretions by the SFA, details of Taylor’s alleged excesses merely confirm that the two men appear to share a number of characteristics, not least of which is an uncommon surplus of sawdust between the ears. The short route to being unmasked as an illicit (allegedly Black) or irresponsible (Taylor) gambler is to place the bets personally and on account, rather than cash. Paper trails (or, in the modern world of online trading, electronic fingerprints) invariably lead to discovery. But, surely most embarrassingly of all, Taylor may be another player or former player whose unsound judgment of the game is betrayed by financial calamity. Anyone who could lose £15,000 in a single investment by having it on the present, distinctly moderate England team to beat Switzerland at least can’t be accused of insider dealing.