DIET is key for Ronny Deila as he seeks to shed body fat and speed up his players for a tilt at the Champions League
SOME of the steps on the path to enlightenment Ronny Deila is mapping out for his Celtic squad were this week explained by the club’s would-be guru, and one of his disciples, Mikael Lustig.
We learned that fizzy drinks have been banned from the club’s training complex and that there have been significant changes to the menus for breakfast and lunch – with the latter now a mandatory meal. Reducing body fat has become a key component of a fitness regime wherein the club’s nutritionist, Pam Paul, is no longer a peripheral figure.
Deila’s holistic approach to playing and personal development places as much store on mind as body. It is his mission to make those in his charge “conscious of everything they do, both on and off the field”, to give them the knowledge to make the right choices, and, in part through widespread use of video analysis, eventually have self-improvement wired to their main frame.
It all sounds wonderful. Yet, and this says much about the west of Scotland’s traditional aversion to good diet, two words kept coming to mind in digesting Deila’s cultural revolution: Monster Munch.
These offending crisps were said to symbolise the resistance and insurmountable barriers that the doomed Paul le Guen faced in attempting to change the eating habits of his Rangers players eight years ago. Then the supremely fit Frenchman was mocked for supposedly scolding Kris Boyd for his fondness of said crisps. Much more recently, Paolo di Canio was ridiculed for removing tomato sauce from the lunch tables at the Sunderland training ground. In both short-lived management periods, seemingly perfectly reasonably attention to detail over diet was pooh-poohed as some sort of food zealotry entirely out of kilter with British football.
Deila, who maintains his “group have been fantastic” in accepting the new regime – and, if anything, have been “over-working” and “over-thinking” in their desire to embrace change – has no fears about meeting the same fate as Le Guen and Di Canio.
“For players to meet the demands at this club, which is reaching the Champions League and performing in the Champions League, I am asking: do you want it or not? If players are not fit, the easiest element, and if I get sacked for that [making them fit], that is not my problem, it is the club’s problem. I know the club is with me, I know the players are with me.
“The lunches we have are unbelievable, and if you don’t like the food you have a big problem. It is not me saying ‘this is not on’, it is the work Pam is doing. You have to educate and in the right way. I don’t say to them ‘you have to do it’. I can say ‘you have to drop your body fat and if you need help with that, talk to Pam’.
“You talk to me about Champions League? OK, then we have to look like a Champions League team. We have to train like a Champions League team. And that means going at 100 per cent every day. We have to be fit. We look at the body fat. If you weigh two or three kilos too much? I want a quick team and you can’t be quick if you weigh too much. You need quick players in Europe. Look at [Cristiano] Ronaldo and [Gareth] Bale. That’s the standard we’re talking about.
“After that it’s about communication with the players. It’s important after games that they get feedback on what they do, what they can improve. And then we start to process it so we can be better as a unit and also as individuals. It’s new for them.”
You have to question our understanding of football when the notion of eating, living and breathing as a professional seems somewhat alien. If the Commonwealth Games surely demonstrated anything, it is that the sacrifices and dedication of so many Scottish sports people are a world apart from the couple-of-hours a days attitude that persists within the domain of the national sport. Our footballers don’t seem to see themselves as genuine athletes, and, what do you know, often then aren’t very athletic. Indeed, in my 25 years covering the game, the only Scottish player I have witnessed at close quarters who is absolute in his pursuit of physical excellence as a round-the-clock vocation is John Collins, who is now at the right-hand of Deila as his assistant.
Yet Collins has been dismissed as a fitness ‘freak’, and, in some ways, the player revolt at Hibernian to which chairman Rod Petrie was willing to give credence, had shades of the fate that befell Le Guen and Di Canio. However, the British game might be changing. Everton’s Roberto Martinez has been scoffed at by no-one for sending his players apps that contain analysis of their performances, and stating that he will fine any player that he can prove has not had eight hours sleep.
In Deila suggesting that the “processes” he is seeking to put in place are new to the Celtic players, meanwhile, you can read implicit criticism of the Neil Lennon regime. Even if the Norwegian goes out of his way to avoid creating that impression. “It’s different styles,” he says. “If you are a leader, you have to lead as what kind of person you are. There are things you can adapt, but I have to be me. Neil is Neil and had fantastic success. And what they did was good because they had success. I do it differently in some things, because, if not, I’m not me.”
Yet, let’s be frank here, Lennon, for all his wealth of compelling attributes, was hardly known for his monastic lifestyle. Imposing a strict health regime on others might have felt awkward for him. Indeed, Deila does acknowledge that, though “Pam has been here for three years, I maybe take in more than before”. The nutritionist accompanied the team on pre-season as part of a burgeoning support staff. In terms of eating at certain times, Deila demands more than before too.
“You know, I can’t understand that they [the players] don’t have to eat lunch here because when you train, everybody knows that you have to get something in to recover. If you go straight home, or to a cafe in the city, it is too late. So for me, it is to be a professional. Also it is a social thing, to eat together. Then you have the different view that when you have too many hours here, you get tired of it. You have to prepare for a game. It is so hard to break this in the right way.”
Lustig breaks it down into nationalistic tendencies. “How we can be better when we’re not playing, what we’re going to eat and so on, is more of a Scandinavian thing. We have to be professional outside of the pitch. Things have changed here, the way we eat.
“To be fair it was Coke and Irn Bru for lunch for some lads. But it’s a different culture between Scandinavia and here in the UK. Here, you can eat pancake for breakfast or toast. We never do that in Scandinavia, it’s more healthy food. We eat fruit, porridge something like that for breakfast. Energy drinks and so on to drink.”
Yet, there are always exceptions. A Celtic nutritionist once had an unhappy experience on the club’s team bus when returning from a game during the Martin O’Neill era. Ticking off a player for eating crisps, the nutritionist received a mouthful of expletives. The player in question was Henrik Larsson. A remarkable physical specimen, the striker put that down to genetics. The physio and medical department at Celtic would certainly state he wasn’t enhanced by what he ingested – Larsson was even partial to the odd cigarette on special occasions.
Deila knows he must not come across as either pious or a preacher in setting out to improve the lifestyles of players not endowed with Larsson’s natural gifts. Yet improve they must.
“I don’t give a shit if they do mistakes, tomorrow, next weekend or the weekend after that and we lose, but if you are the same player in the autumn you were in the spring, then you have a problem and I have a problem. You have to learn from your mistakes. Learn from the good things because players who don’t want to get better are nothing to do with Celtic.
“Everybody has to want to get better because this is a so huge club, so important. So I have to learn a lot, I have new experiences all the time, and have to adapt to them and take them into me. Tactics, the decisions of the team, how I prepare the training, how I get energy into the players and motivate them... there are 1000 questions I have to ask myself all the time and then I need time to get away and reflect. That’s the culture I want. I want my staff to take their own decisions and think, ‘what is best for the player’. If a player needs to be stronger and he doesn’t get it, it’s not only the player’s problem. It’s also the staff, because why else are they here? They have to take responsibility for their tasks.”
Taking responsibility for your own actions isn’t a very Scottish football thing. Deila will stand or fall on whether he can instil that among his players and staff at Lennoxtown.