IT is the issue that dare not speak its name for John Collins. Does the Celtic assistant wonder what fate would befall him and manager Ronny Deila were they to be on the receiving end of Scottish Cup catastrophe at Stranraer this afternoon? “Never contemplate it. Never think like that. You can’t think like that,” said Collins.
The reality is that the position of Deila – and therefore coaches Collins, inset below, and John Kennedy – is sufficiently fragile, following European failures and recent faltering form, to leave them unable to survive an almighty cup shock. Collins, even if he couldn’t say so publicly, knows that. This is new territory for a Celtic management team on course to capture their second-successive title, but Collins won’t even go as far as to say that a treble would preserve their employment status and give them a third crack at the Champions League qualifiers. “We want the Treble. Need it? We certainly want it. Time will tell. We nearly did it last year, so we’ll see if we can go one step further this year.
“I think it’s important to remember Celtic brought us in as development coaches, to try and develop young players and that’s what we’re trying to do. I think everybody knows there are bumps along the road, bringing in younger players and trying to build, selling players and rebuilding again.
“So, it takes a bit of patience, calmness. Of course we all want to do well in Europe, and we never did that his season. It wasn’t what was expected. But we’ve got to continue to work hard. The target’s the league and the treble, score more goals, play better football. We’re in the spotlight, if we don’t produce that then people will put us under pressure. But that’s part and parcel of being Celtic manager and coach. We deal with it. We don’t like people not saying nice things, but we’ve got to deal with it.”
Rangers’ demise in 2012 and their need to reform in the fourth tier has upset the eco-balance of the Scottish game. That has placed Deila and his management team in a hellishly awkward situation. Anything less than the Champions League group stages or the domestic clean sweeps condemns them to being adjudged wholly deficient because their financial infrastructure dwarfs all others in the top flight.
Yet, Collins was a Celtic player in the early 1990s when the club came within a whisker of going into administration because they were ordered to pay £100,000 more for Lee Martin than they had budgeted only for a matter of months before Rangers recruited Brian Laudrup for £2.3 million.
That 1993-94 title in the Ibrox club’s nine-in-a-row run is not considered devalued even when they patently had no comparably resourced challenger. Celtic were in the top flight, but might as well have been second tier – as Rangers are now – for all the impact they made on the title race. It might not please members of the Celtic supporting flat earth society who pretend everything is so much better without an Ibrox side in the top tier, but Collins looks forward to being in the same set-up as a Rangers Football Club.
The need to exist on a host of soft loans suggest the Govan team are unlikely to provide any immediate competition for Celtic – who could see their earning boosted by around £10m with games against Rangers, according to chief executive Peter Lawwell – but their mere presence will change the dynamics for the better, according to the Celtic assistant.
“Of course we will, 100 per cent,” Collins said when asked if his team would be given more credit for winning the Premiership with an Ibrox team in it. “Rangers have been our biggest rivals for a hundred years, so it would change everything if Rangers are back in the league. Everyone’s happy when we’re above Rangers, and in the same set-up. Celtic supporters are happy when it’s like that, that’s the reality
“I think Rangers in the league brings more spice, more interest, of course it does. Anybody who says otherwise, I don’t think is in the real world. “This is the second season [I’ve been at Celtic with no Rangers in the same league] so you’re kind of getting used to it now. If and when they do get back then it’s a totally different ball game; every week’s exciting, we’re looking for each other’s results, everyone’s talking about both of us, everyone’s full of energy when Rangers are in the league and you guys are all excited. The fans love Old Firm games, winning Old Firm games.”
Leigh Griffiths, meanwhile, loves every game. The striker has been the one shining success of the Deila-Collins era. With 47 goals in 58 starts and 26 substitute appearances he stands on the threshold of breaking the 50-goal mark in fewer minutes on the pitch than Henrik Larsson, John Hartson, Charlie Nicholas, Gary Hooper or Scott McDonald. His journey from far-from-favoured performer of the Celtic coaching team to predatory prince delights Collins – a man Griffiths said he set out to covert from doubter status
“It needs him to come with us and near enough from day one he’s said I’ll prove you wrong and I’ll prove myself right,” Collins recalled. “That’s a dream scenario for us. A little angry player not happy at being out of the string XI but doing the right thing with his anger. Getting on the training pitch, in the gym and doing his work. He’s a great example for every player.
“Anyone who has been watching Leigh will have seen he’s got terrific movement, he scores goals and I think his workrate is second to none. He’s got better in the air as he’s been working on that aspect. He’s not the biggest so if you’re playing against centre halves and you can head the ball, you can run in behind them, you can take it in front on them or knock it to the side and then put it in the bottom corner, or dribble past them then it’s all there. He’s added different things to his game rather than just someone who shoots from 20 yards. That’s very pleasing.
“He’s got a rapport with the fans and they are giving him energy. There’s nothing better if you’re a striker than if the fans love you. His link-up play has improved too and again we’ve been working on that with a load of exercises in tight situations. Leigh has applied himself superbly over the past 12 months and always gives 10 out of 10 on the training pitch. And now he’s reaping the rewards.
“It’s goalscorers the fans fall in love with, the ones that burst the back of the net. They are the hardest ones to find but we’ve got one in Leigh. He can score with his right foot, left foot and headers, outside the box and in. He can run in behind centre halves, one-on-one with the goalkeepers, pop it to the side, take a touch and hit – that’s what makes him hard to mark and play against. But he’s great to play with if you’re a winger, midfielder or a number 10 as he makes great runs. And defensively, too, he’s our first defender. He’s the first one to start the pressing game off, sprinting towards the full-back or centre half. He’s given us a lot.
“When he walks on the pitch there’s only one thing he wants to do. He wants fed to score goals. If he gets one he doesn’t switch off thinking he’s done his job. He wants more. In the last minute and there’s a penalty he’ll be fighting somebody for the ball. He’s got an appetite for scoring goals. Are you born with that? Some people are born with that feeling where you just love scoring goals. He’s the same in training. The centre halves don’t get a minute’s peace.”
Griffiths’ form is what may give Deila and Collins some respite.