Andrew Smith: Celtic don’t have strength to fight adversity

Celtic manager Ronny Deila. A man under pressure. Picture: SNS
Celtic manager Ronny Deila. A man under pressure. Picture: SNS
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ESCAPOLOGY and excavation have become the watchwords for Ronny Deila. An accumulation of aberrations has left him with faint chance of avoiding being buried as Celtic manager. And the soil is showering him because when his team find themselves in a hole, they only seem to keep digging.

Celtic championship-winning sides of the past have always shared a defining characteristic: a fighting spirit that made even seemingly desperate predicaments appear retrievable. The capacity for comebacks is embedded in the club’s mythology. The current side, in contrast, takes promising positions and turns them sour. Deila’s Celtic appear done for the moment they suffer serious setbacks.

There is a weakness, a meekness, about Celtic this season. It meant precious few would think it was anything but game over when they were left with a two-goal deficit to wipe out at Aberdeen in the league on Wednesday, and in the League Cup semi-final against Ross County last Sunday. As was the case when they went to pieces after merely falling behind at home to Motherwell in late December. Chillingly for Deila, his players appear firmly among the non-believers in such situations. Which can explain the failure to prevail against Malmo when pursuing a place in Champions League group stages, and the inability to produce victories from leads earned against Ajax, twice, and Fenerbahce that finished them in the Europa League.

The – surely – gimme of a Scottish Cup fifth round tie against Lowland League side East Kilbride FC at the Excelsior Stadium this afternoon will allow Deila a scintilla of respite. Meanwhile, the Premiership could still form the bedrock of a league and cup double. Despite much excitable natter in the wake of the loss to Derek McInnes’ men, Celtic remain strong favourites for a title race in which they hold a three-point advantage.

Yet, the manifest flaws in Deila’s side would have been enough to see him struggling to see out the season were it not for the fact that fizzing football tends to presage mental strength going AWOL – which even the reduction to ten men against County at Hampden a week ago did not disguise as hopes of a treble disintegrated. Celtic have enjoyed whirlwind early passages of play in practically all the games that have subsequently seen them blown off course. Deila’s team have something, then; but just not enough. They lack personality, and lack character. A reason why, in a clear betrayal of what has been considered the Celtic way, they appear much more likely to leak late goals than score them in a torrent of defiance.

Even Deila himself is forced to acknowledge his team’s brutal shortcomings in this area. “Reacting and changing the course of a game when things go against us is something we can improve on,” he said. “But that’s about having leaders. That’s why we brought in Erik [Sviatchenko] and Kazim [Kazim-Richard] – and we have Broonie [Scott Brown] as well. You see the difference he made against Ross County.

“These type of players are so important to us in terms of organisation in games. We’ve started matches very well but we have to deal with setbacks within them better than we have done. That comes down to experience. But it’s also something I have to address better. I have to be even more organised for when those situations come around. I agree this is something we can do better.”

When he was appointed in the summer of 2014, one of the attractions of Deila was that he could develop players in both mind and body. At the club’s Lennoxtown complex, there are various backroom members who could assist the senior squad, with Jim McGuinness employed as a performance consultant, and Deila having brought thought-field therapist Metta Rosseland over from Norway.

“The players don’t talk to Jim or Metta. Jim is more involved with the young players and Metta is not with the players. I’m the psychologist for this team. I’ve worked with Metta for many years and she helps me and my staff. But I don’t get her to talk to the players. That’s not her task. The players can speak to me, John Collins, John Kennedy, the physical or medical staff. We have a lot of people here. Psychology is about motivation and reflection. It’s about learning from your mistakes. I start the process but the players have to do it. You don’t learn anything without experiences. You can read a book about journalism but you have to actually be a journalist to understand what it’s like. I can’t tell players what it’s like to play in front of 20,000 people. They have to experience it themselves.”

It was put to Deila the other day that having life experience of the obligation on Celtic to win every game, and win it well, can be lost on foreign players. The suggestion brought a furious reaction from the Norwegian, who perhaps wrongly read it as an attempt to have a dig at him not getting it. Most of 20-odd players signed by the club in his era – many with no more than a nod of approval from him, no doubt – have been ill-fitting foreigners, but on Wednesday Celtic started with seven Scottish players. Backbone, as Deila raged, isn’t naturally stiffer within these borders.

“Do people think there are more winners in Scotland than abroad? This is an opinion I’ve noticed some people have. There are winners outside of Scotland, too. People who have done things. These players know what it is all about. They are here to win. Nobody comes to Celtic without being someone who wants to win. I can find Scottish players who don’t have these qualities. You have Broony and KT [Kieran Tierney] but everyone is different. It’s the same with the foreign players. Stefan Johansen is an aggressive character but others are more calm. James Forrest is different to Scott Brown. So I don’t need to tell the players how to win. They know how important it is.

“Foreign players need love. Everyone should try to move to another country and see how hard it is. You go there alone, you’re young and the environment is tough. How can you give your best? The players have to feel loved and trusted and then you get the best out of them. If not then you send them away and they will become big stars at other clubs. A lot of that is because of personality. You find the crazy guys and winners abroad, or in Glasgow, Manchester etc. It’s hard to say. It’s just something someone has. Roy Keane wasn’t from Manchester but he had that character at United. That’s the heart you need.”

Uncharitably, some might say that it is needed on the park and trackside at Celtic.