The 51 years that Paul McStay has been immersed in all things Celtic have ingrained in him that there is a way to win and a way to lose… and that neither has been honoured in the two years Ronny Deila has helmed his club. Not least in the penalty shoot-out Scottish Cup semi-final loss to Rangers at the weekend.
The mark of the man is such that, with the grace and balance he exhibited as a peerless performer for his beloved Celtic across a thrilling 1980s and desperate first half of the 1990s – wherein Celtic became near insolvent and irrelevant – McStay offered a measured assessment of the Norwegian as he launched his biography The Maestro at a Glasgow hotel yesterday.
Yet, although the former club captain admitted it was harsh that Deila’s side could find themselves attracting stick comparable with the era in which he struggled fruitlessly to stop Rangers racking up nine consecutive titles, he also articulated why that might be.
“When we were doing badly in the 1990s it wasn’t down to a lack of endeavour on our part. On Sunday, maybe, there was effort there but not collectively, not as a team. I can understand the supporters’ frustrations and they’ll be disappointed, as I was, not [just] by the fact we lost, but more how the team went about their business. We didn’t achieve what we wanted to in the 1990s but this team, under Ronny, won the league last season and will probably do it again this season.
“So the criticism is sometimes hard to understand but that’s the nature of football. You’re only as good as your last game.”
Deila’s mission statement on taking charge in June 2014 was that his Celtic would be composed of highly tuned athletes playing a high-pressing, high-energy brand of attacking football. There was no evidence of that at Hampden on Sunday, with McStay alarmed at the fitness levels as the encounter wore on.
“It wasn’t there at all on Sunday. That’s why Rangers took control of the game – because Celtic weren’t pressing. That high intensity wasn’t there. The fitness side surprised me. I was thinking, ‘why aren’t they pressing? Are these part of the tactics, are they sitting off?’ But as the game went on I thought a few of the players looked tired. They looked as if they were dying on their feet and that was after 70 minutes. So to do that high-pressure game you’ve got to be fit so that comes down to what players do on the training pitch. In my experience, you train the way you want to play. If you train and play at a high intensity in small games, I’d imagine you take that into the game. Maybe they are fit. But on Sunday it certainly didn’t look like it.”
The semi-final was a game that, for all the slick, cohesive football from Rangers “commended” by McStay, still turned on a wholly deficient Celtic squandering big chances. That fact has the 76-times capped Scotland international wary of reading too much into the outcome at the weekend.
“If that team had been given the opportunity to play Rangers again the next day, I think things would have been a lot different.
“I look at the technical ability there and have no doubt that Celtic have a better squad than Rangers but, on the day, Mark Warburton got his tactics right and Celtic stepped off
“It worked for them in a one-off game but it will be interesting to see how it works out for them next season when they come up against a Celtic team which will pressurise them. It’s not just Celtic either – Aberdeen, Hearts, Inverness and Ross County will also do that to them.”
Celtic will surely be under new management by then, with McStay’s take on that amounting to the club’s hierarchy carrying out a “review” of all aspects of the club’s operation after things, especially in Europe, haven’t “gone the way they wanted” in recent years.
One club tradition that McStay desperately wants to return is an attacking approach that accommodates an actual strike partnership. The 4-2-3-1 formation that is Deila’s orthodoxy precludes the use of more than one centre forward and McStay is unusually forthright in his opinion of that configuration.
“It’s not the Celtic way,” he said. “When I got into the game it was 4-4-2, or 4-3-3 with Davie Provan or wee Joe Miller playing wide. There was always two through the middle and I think that is one of the most exciting things about Celtic over the many years. The dynamic of the two up front, be it Frank McAvennie and Andy Walker, Charlie Nicholas and George McCluskey or Frank McGarvey, people like that. I found that one of the exciting things about playing for Celtic was those partnerships.
“Why Ronny goes with one up front, I am not sure. Maybe that is how the game is progressed and that is what is required.
“But on Sunday if he had played with two up front, or at least two wide men pressing a bit more up the park, then Rangers would not have been as comfortable on the ball. It has worked this year, at least domestically, in that they are top of the league but, as for the entertainment side, do the fans like to see that? Probably not. Part of the [current] disappointment of Celtic fans is that aspect. They have not been as entertaining as Celtic teams of the past.”
McStay felt a pang when Sunday’s game went to penalties, as he says he does every time such a method is used to decide a cup tie after his experience that ensured Celtic were beaten by Raith Rovers in the League Cup final in November 1994, an occasion that found them seeking to put an end to five-and-a-half years without a trophy. Even if he didn’t fail to put away the final penalty, current captain Scott Brown’s inability to convert in the shoot-out could engender certain parallels.
“For Scott, he has led the team very well. He’s going for five in a row – two for Ronny – and for me Scott has led the way. I think he’s a very honest guy and if you asked him how he played on Sunday and how they got on he would answer very truthfully. I found that out after Raith Rovers. Back then we were really in trouble and that would probably have given the whole club a lift. After I missed the penalty – although I’ve been put right a few times by Raith Rovers fans, who say the penalty was saved –because of what was happening, there was a lot of pressure on me and a lot of things said. You have to deal with things and I like to think I dealt with them a reasonable way. We went on to win the Scottish Cup a few months later.”
McStay has been poring over his life and career from afar to produce his tome, with his family having resettled in Sydney, Australia six years ago. He is now involved in a software company which “focuses on start-ups” and means he is “hanging around with these young funky guys who know all about technology.”
“That’s how the book came about,” he added. “It’s about testing the market to see if there’s an appetite. We have experience in the printing and publishing side so why not use that experience? We’ll self-publish and self manage. It’s exclusive to Kickstart. The way they look at it is as a e-commerce. Rather than market the book once it’s published, you do it now. If you want to buy the book you get in now or you might miss the opportunity. You can buy a book for Christmas now!”
By then, Celtic might have a team more recognisable to McStay.
l Paul McStay’s autobiography ‘The Maestro’ is available at www.kickstarter.com/projects/maestrosports/1540733687?token=e20d109d