Former Celtic midfielder Paul Hartley tells Andrew Smith that Victor Wanyama got the best out of Scott Brown
IT is standard to state that Victor Wanyama, in proving equally adept at centre-back as in central midfield, essentially brings two players to the Celtic team. Paul Hartley would agree with that, in a different form. He believes the Kenyan has been crucial to the club’s drive towards a first title in four years through being responsible for two players flourishing – with the key one captain Scott Brown.
Hartley has been voted Irn Bru manager of the month for March for his efforts in nudging Alloa Athletic closer to the Third Division championship in his first season trackside.
His last title was earned as a player with Celtic in 2008. Ultimately, the cornerstone of that success was the central midfield partnership he established with Barry Robson during the run-in, at first because of a suspension to Scott Brown. It allowed Gordon Strachan’s men to claim seven straight wins and capitalise on Rangers’ faltering amid the fixture-cramming made unavoidable by their Uefa Cup Final run.
Brown was kept out of the side by the manner in which Hartley and Robson gelled. The Alloa manager pinpoints Wanyama’s presence as the reason why the Scottish internationalist has been returned to the rampaging figure of his Hibs days that led Celtic to part with £4.4 million for him in 2007.
“Having Wanyama there has given Broony a licence to go and attack,” Hartley says. “Over the last few seasons he has either had that sitting role or been played on the right-hand side. He has been a big player for Celtic this year. His ankle had been giving him problems for a couple of years but he seems to be over that now and looks fitter and stronger. Sometimes you are restricted by injury and he was.
“I think the Brown and Wanyama pairing works as Barry and I did. I know we kept Broony out for those last games [of 2007-2008] but there was stuff going on at that time and Celtic had paid a big fee. I think you are seeing the best of him now. He has been a good captain, his discipline has settled down and everything about his game is good.”
Not that Wanyama, who arrived in a £925,000 deal from Belgian club Germinal Beershot in July, has been the silent partner. “I’ve been very impressed with him and the fact he’s still only 20 yet can play both that holding role or at centre-half,” Hartley says. “He is strong, technically very good, passes it well. His goal against Hearts, in December, showed that he can strike a ball too. It’s not easy for a foreign player or a young player to come in and settle straight away, especially with the amount of pressure that is on you at Parkhead every week.
“I came in mid-season. It was the January transfer window of 2007 and it did take me about six months. It’s not easy. You immediately recognise that you are at a big club and the pressure is on you to perform straight away. If you don’t then you are soon told. He has settled straight away and been very effective.”
To a remarkable extent. For Wanyama has proved a central performer in the team’s run of 17 consecutive top flight league wins. Across Scottish football’s entire post-war era that total is second only to the 25-game record set by Martin O’Neill’s side in 2003-04.
“I never went on a run like that,” Hartley says. “We had good runs [12 the best] but never anything as good as that. Winning seven or eight games is hard enough, to win 17 is not easy. Everybody is out to beat you every week and the pressure mounts up with every win.’
Pressure, whether applied by his job or a number of haters in Scotland who would harass and threaten him, is never off Neil Lennon. The title will be life-affirming for the Irishman, with Hartley knowing his post is life-hampering.
“I’m pleased for Neil,” he says. “It can’t be easy being the Celtic manager. It’s hard to keep a low profile at a club like that because the scrutiny is on you 24/7 and anything that you do wrong is analysed and everybody talks about it. Former players, everybody.
“It’s like you can’t have a life and the bottom line is you’ve got to win games. The turning point for him probably was the Kilmarnock game in October. They were 3-0 down at half-time and it looked like it could have been the end for him. But he was strong and hung in there.”