As Ronny Deila slides towards the exit at Celtic Park his sense of humour isn’t in danger of leaving him. The Norwegian was asked the other day where he would rank himself among the fellow countrymen to have managed clubs within these isles.
“I have been the best so far,” he said with a chuckle, before quickly adding, “that’s not so hard”. Not so hard indeed, with the UK stints endured by Egil Olsen, Stale Solbakken, Henning Berg and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Wimbledon, Wolves, Blackburn Rovers and Cardiff City, respectively, all measurable in months.
Deila doesn’t discount the fact that the nature of the messenger may have proved an obstacle to the message he has sought to impart since his surprise move from Stromsgodset in the summer of 2014. A barrier he couldn’t surmount.
“You don’t get an A+ [when you are unknown]. It’s always harder to achieve something when people don’t know what you have done before. If [Jose] Mourinho came in and said the same things that I did then it would easier for him as he could just put the Champions League trophy in front of him. So it’s more difficult to come from a more unknown skiing country.
“It’s a very different culture and it’s also a new market of players. You don’t know all the agents. In Scandinavia we know all the players, so we have full control, but in Scotland or England you don’t know the environment that well and it’s new. It’s a new language. When you are in Norway, you can get a stone to jump when you are talking but when you have to look for words it’s difficult, so it’s a lot of things when you are a foreign manager coming in.
“The managers that succeed down in England are Portuguese, French. Why? Because they bring Spanish or Portuguese or French players and they are the best players and they come in here and they have the quality. You can’t bring Scandinavians because they are not good enough, 99 per cent of them. Dick Advocaat came here and had half the Dutch team at Rangers. It’s easier, you know?”
Deila hasn’t worked, but he hasn’t been disastrous. A second title to be banked in the coming weeks will allow him to leave with a three-trophy haul in two years. Domestically, then, his success rate is pretty well akin to any predecessor of the past decade. The absence of Rangers from the top flight has coloured perceptions, inevitably, since any manager Celtic recruited two years ago would have clinched back-to-back titles. Back-to-back Champions League qualifying failures wouldn’t necessarily have been the fate of anyone in charge of the club since 2014, though, and neither would marked regression in a second season with a bloated, lop-sided squad wherein the chemistry just hasn’t been right.
Indeed, within the club, the loss of Virgil van Dijk is considered to have destroyed harmonies both on and off the pitch, with the Dutchman previously having proved a positive focal point for the overseas group within the playing pool.
“It’s about creating something,” said Deila. “I don’t feel we’ve created what we could’ve done. At the same time the pressure’s building and it’s getting harder to get what you want. It’s fun when the team’s playing well all the time and improving consistently. But when you’re not getting that, it’s not fun to play.
“I’ve been here two years now. We were on a great run last year, we didn’t lose a game almost after Christmas and went into Europe very strong. But the bad performance in Malmo [in August] changed things. After that Virgil wanted to go, we’d already lost Jason Denayer, and things became very difficult. Over the last six months I haven’t seen the big improvement in things and when the pressure’s growing as it is now then it is tough to continue.”
In the past six months, Deila has had scant contributions from a midfield trio of Scott Brown, Stefan Johansen and Nir Bitton, whose energy and form in the second half of last season made Celtic seem a team of genuine promise. Yet, the Norwegian shoulders the blame for the weariness that has set in, reading their fatigue as a psychological response to the constant focus on his position. Deila is like the PR man recognising he has to depart the scene because he has become the story instead of merely shaping it.
It is difficult to assess how history will view him, but this season Celtic will be remembered as having a glut of players that failed to perform to their potential. As regard having too many on the football payroll – 18 midfielders, no less – he acknowledges he could have handled the situation “a lot better”. His reputation as a coach who develops players and teams to produce an exciting, thrusting brand of attacking football has been seriously dented in recent times.
“It’s not about the players, there’s a lot of quality in this side and a lot of players have improved a lot under me. Some players haven’t improved so much and that could be their fault and it could be my fault but in the overall view it’s my responsibility as a leader and as a head of everything.”
Well, not quite head of everything. The level of control exerted on all matters at the club by chief executive Peter Lawwell has come under scrutiny following a second less-than-glorious managerial appointment in the past seven years. Yet, the fact that Deila has been able to recruit his own physiotherapy team, maintains he had the final say on all 22 signings of his tenure and stated the notion that assistant John Collins was foisted on him was “wrong” hardly suggests Lawwell was pulling on the Norwegian’s strings.
Deila is hopeful his legacy will be that the good practices he believes he has introduced at Lennoxtown will be maintained. Moreover, his relationship with Collins, one of the few Scottish coaches working in the country with genuine top level experience, has taught him that he is a man whose attributes should be respected.
Deila’s respect for Lawwell also knows no bounds, as might be expected given the chief executive elevated him to a post of a stature the Norwegian might never hold again. The coach presents Lawwell as the savour of Celtic across his 13 years at the club.
“I’ve had a fantastic relationship with Peter. He’s a tough leader. He’s very experienced and fair. When he came in here the club was broke [with debts of £22m]. That’s important to remember, with a big, big financial problem. Now he’s on big boards like the European Club Association because he’s done a fantastic job. [with nine titles and seven Champions League group stages in 13 years]. He gets offers from other big clubs because they know what he can do. What he has meant for the club is huge in my opinion and, of course, you can’t use money you don’t have.
“Peter is learning all the time as well, you know. Consistency is unbelievably important and he has been successful all the time so I don’t understand the problem. We’ve had trouble getting into the Champions League for the last two years but, again, that can turn around and there’s no reason why we can’t beat a Karagandy or a Malmo or a Legia Warsawa or whatever. We’re more than big enough to do that.”
No doubt. And the fact that the odds didn’t play in Deila’s favour against Malmo is why he has become another Norwegian manager in Britain that has gone off piste.