CELTIC’S season may be defined by the ten games, potentially, they still have to contest that begin with their assignment in Inverness at lunchtime. However, the first ten games of next season will prove equally significant in shaping perceptions of the club’s current management.
Should a treble be claimed – and John Hughes’ side represent a key obstacle to Celtic’s clean-sweep ambitions owing to the fact the two teams meet in next weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-final and will face each other twice in the Premiership in the coming weeks – Ronny Deila will be lauded to the heavens. Should the Norwegian then fail to guide his club through the Champions League qualifiers he will be lashed in hellish fashion.
No Celtic manager has had back-to-back eliminations from Europe’s top club tournament before reaching the promised land of the group stages. Deila’s excruciating difficulties in the Champions League when newly at the helm will hang over him until there is a wholly different experience to replace that double-dunt of last summer.
Celtic assistant John Collins is well aware of that. For an obvious reason, though, he is not troubled by the thought of suffering the same fate in next season’s qualifiers.
“We’re in a much better place now than we were nine months ago. The players know what we are after,” he said. “They have had nine months and 60 games to get better. Systems have bedded in and players are doing things faster. The proof will come in the qualifiers and we have to produce again. We need to produce at the next stage. Sometimes the teams we play against [in European qualifiers] are ahead of us in their preparations in their leagues. But we know that and we’ll be ready and prepared.”
Deila seems to have been preparing for going into his second campaign as the manager of all-conquering Scottish champions even since the early, awkward months of his tenure. Collins accepted it has been novel to witness a manager make no bones about the need for a “triple” to meet the objectives he has set for himself and his players. “Sometimes you set yourself up but he says it because he believes it. We’re in three tournaments so why wouldn’t he think we should win them?” the Celtic assistant said. “If he does say it, people ask why is he saying it? If he didn’t, people would ask why not?
“You can’t win in that situation. But there’s still a lot of football to go. It’s rare in our culture for a manager to say it like he did, but he said it because he believed it. He said it because we think we have an excellent group of players. We have good players who take everything seriously and have not taken the foot off the gas. We did that in League Cup and Scottish Cup games. That has led us to where we are now.”
Collins remained confident that Celtic could work themselves into the position of possibilities where they now find themselves, even when early results and performances had all manner of doubts being expressed. Deila admitted this week he had doubted he wanted to do the job because, in those early days, all anyone seemed to care about was posting wins any which way. The Celtic manager said Collins, and the rest of the club’s backroom team, had given him all the support he needed to come through testing times. Collins sought to provide comforting words of a straightforward variety.
“I always said to him to be patient as we couldn’t expect miracles. We knew we were doing great work at training and we just had to wait,” said the Celtic assistant, who described his dovetailing with Deila as “seamless from day one” thanks to their shared philosophy. “Rome wasn’t built in a day and it’s true. The secret was not to panic. The players did that and we’ve had some excellent performances.”
Stefan Johansen, made captain for the midweek win over Partick Thistle with Scott Brown suspended, has produced displays that have been a regular source of excellence within the Celtic sides of Deila and Collins. The 24-year-old midfielder is the personification of everything a player in this age should be for former Scotland internationalist Collins, whose fabled holistic approach to maximise talent is clearly followed by Deila.
“He’s a very, very good footballer with an incredible work ethic,” Collins said. “He’s the first that sets up that pressing game at the top of the pitch. He’s now added goals and assists. He gives every single bit of energy in every game from first minute to last. That’s his attitude no matter who we’re playing. Stefan’s got a wonderful approach and it’s infectious with his team-mates. He’s a great example.
“He ticks lots of boxes. Unbelievable work ethic, scores goals, creates goals, wins tackles, has great fitness and quiet lifestyle. He is in a serious relationship with a girlfriend who is here and he trains and goes home to his lovely partner. You put all that together and you have a player that anyone who is watching, or working with, can admire.”
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