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Interview: Celtic have presented him as a Messiah, but Tony Mowbray's first job is to perform defensive changes, not miracles

TONY MOWBRAY was being unveiled as the new Celtic manager. He was proud and determined, same as he ever was. To his right was Peter Lawwell, to his left, John Reid.

The chairman and chief executive looked like kittens who'd found the cream. Listening to them, you could be forgiven for thinking of Mowbray's arrival at Parkhead as the second coming of Brother Walfrid, what with his "dignity" and his "quiet fortitude" and his "strength in adversity" and his innate understanding of Celtic fans and the "Celtic way".

The doctrine spread around the room. Celtic weren't just presenting a football manager, they were introducing a great redeemer, a guy the fans could relate to after the unease of the Gordon Strachan years. Just to prove it, there were supporters present. One or two stood up and pledged their loyalty. Just to reinforce it, Lawwell and Reid kept referring to Mowbray's uncompromising commitment to playing entertaining, supporter-friendly football.

At the same as these happy scenes were playing out at Celtic a group of fans from the Midlands were logging on to the internet. On the guestbook of WestBrom.com they painted an entirely different image of Mowbray from the one portrayed in Glasgow.

Once in thrall to the man and his philosophy of the game, a section of the West Brom support now let him have it with both barrels. They felt let down. Not all, but the vast majority. They'd backed him every step of the way, had applauded him when the team had got relegated last month, had turned up on the final day wearing Mowbray masks in thanks for the quality he'd brought to the place. No kick and rush like Stoke City, no long throws in the gameplan and no clunking ogres in the starting line-up. Mowbray's team played football – and they loved him for it.

He'd said at the end of the season that all the players thinking of moving on should stay loyal to the club and help it back into the Premiership. But then he jumped ship almost immediately. The lure he felt for Celtic was dismissed by indignant Baggies. Some harsh words were used, Judas among them.

There was a poll. Did he betray the fans? Just over 74 per cent voted yes. They scoffed at the sentiments expressed at his unveiling in Glasgow. Integrity? One West Brom fan stuck an image on the web of Mowbray's face superimposed on Pinocchio's body. That's what they thought of Tony Mowbray's integrity.

Back in Glasgow the Celtic fans wouldn't have bothered much about the ire of West Brom people. Sour grapes, they'd have said. Mowbray was entitled to better himself. It's what most managers would have done in his circumstances. What they may have been interested in, though, was the adulation bestowed on him at The Hawthorns previously. His team finished bottom of the Premier League. They won eight games out of 38 and conceded 67 goals yet he got a standing ovation at season's end.

Hartlepool, 19th in League One, had knocked them out of the League Cup, Burnley from the Championship had beaten them comfortably in the FA Cup. But still Mowbray cast a spell over the West Brom fans. These people could only see the good in him all season long. Hypnosis of that order was an impressive feat.

And for his next trick...

"I've had all the accusations put at me, 'He's naive' and all that sort of stuff"

THE LEAGUE table never lies. West Brom at the bottom scored more goals last season than Wigan who finished 11th. The difference is that Wigan could defend. Funny, isn't it? You'd have thought that the defence would be the main area of strength for a manager who used to be a centre-half, but that's never been the case. Why? Because Mowbray almost imagined himself as something other than a stopper.

Until he was in his mid-teens he played in the heart of the midfield. "I was the linchpin," he said a year ago. "I was getting the ball and spraying it about, beating people, making things happen." His sheer size saw him shunted into defence. He felt his talent got suppressed. Throughout his playing days he felt like a frustrated playmaker. As a manager he's been true to the younger, carefree version of himself rather than the hard-nosed professional he was to become.

Hence, attack rules defence.

"Last season if you were to sit at the City of Manchester stadium or Villa Park or White Hart Lane or Goodison Park and watched West Brom play, that's why the team got the reaction it did at the end of the season. Those were games we could have won. For me it was almost criminal that the team got relegated. They were right up there with one of the most attractive forward-thinking and watchable teams in the Premiership last year. But it's a cruel world."

Especially in Scotland. There is a view among the Celtic fans that the reason they lost the championship last season was not because they didn't score enough goals – though that undoubtedly was a factor. Some Celtic people will tell you that the real problem, the absolute killer, was down the other end, where they conceded too many. It's why Stephen McManus's popularity has plummeted. Too many cheap goals given away.

How's Mowbray's philosophy going to square with the work that needs done at the back at Parkhead? He says he's not naive, that he understands the balancing act that needs to be done between entertaining football and winning football. Not naive, then. But is he as streetwise as he needs to be?

"If we get beat in a pretty dour game, I know I'm open (to criticism] and I'll take it on the chin. You (the media] are not there to make my life easier. You've got to report on the result and what you see. I'll get a feeling pretty quickly for the Scottish game; if it's a results-driven industry or whether you in the press genuinely see past the result to see what the result should have been or could have been. Lots of factors in football, eh? Your centre forward misses three sitters, the referee has a poor day when he makes lots of bad decisions, the manager makes some crap substitutions, whatever it is."

That's a West Brom mindset. He admits that. Mitigating factors are OK if you're a relegation struggler playing against a Champions League giant. It's fine to look for what might-have-beens if you're the manager of West Brom and you've just lost narrowly to Liverpool. That's acceptable. But it's not acceptable at Celtic. If his team loses 1-0 to Motherwell it's not OK no matter how bad the ref was or how bad the weather or horrible the playing surface. He wonders if the press will be able to see past a poor result and look beyond the bottom line. The question he should be asking is, will the Celtic fans be able to?

"I've got no problem in working with loads of money or no money. It doesn't matter to me as long as there's transparency"

YOU CAN see why Mowbray impressed Dermot Desmond, Lawwell and Reid. The human qualities are striking. The football man is a work in progress but he's exciting. West Brom fans don't doubt for a second that he could be a great manager and you can see that in him. The man has presence. He is eloquent. You can imagine him being inspirational in the dressing-room, rousing players with his words as much as his tactics.

Something else will have thrilled his new bosses. His attitude to money is not what you would expect from a manager in a new job. He doesn't mind if there's no money just as long as Lawwell and chums are straight with him. It's a unique take on things. Gobsmacking in a sense.

"It doesn't matter to me as long as there's transparency about where we are. If you need to generate your own funds and sell a player, those are decisions that managers make. You might have to sell a star player to bring in three players that you think can benefit the team. That's what managers do. They make big decisions at crucial times."

The name Artur Boruc springs to mind, but Mowbray's not biting. He's made no decisions yet.

"You can buy really top quality but as I used to say at Hibernian you can also find diamonds amongst pebbles on the beach. You've got to find these little gems that nobody knows about yet. That's what talent identification is. You find a talented footballer. You have to wait for him a little bit but you fit him into your team and he flourishes because his qualities are helped by the qualities of other players.

"So Scott Brown's running ability might light up this little clever passer who can see Scott running and just drop it in his path every time because he's got great weight of feet. And all of a sudden everybody says, 'Wow, what a passer!', but really it's Scott's run allied to the passer's ability to put it on a sixpence that make the genius of the team. If you've just got a load of athletes in there, nobody's picking the passes out, everybody's running around at 100mph and nobody's managing to slow it down."

Diamonds among pebbles on the beach. It's a line that must have had Desmond, Lawwell and Reid salivating. Automatically they're thinking Henrik Larsson. They're thinking future global phenomenon snapped up for a million quid by Celtic's hawk-eyed manager. They're also thinking about Mowbray's impressive track record in nurturing young players. At Hibs he brought through a cluster of them; Brown, Gary Caldwell, Kevin Thomson, Steven Whittaker, Steven Fletcher, Derek Riordan, Garry O'Connor, David Murphy, Ivan Sproule.

Hell of a team on their day, Hibs. Got some terrific results against the Old Firm in 2005 and 2006. Played some sensational stuff. Didn't win anything, mind you. Not under Mowbray. More food for thought there, perhaps. Why was it that John Collins won a trophy with that Hibs team and not Mowbray, the man who built it?

"I don't know what the total football budget is at the moment," says the manager, returning to the present day. "My questions to Peter Lawwell haven't been, 'What are the top earners, what are the salary levels?' I don't know and to be honest they'll be what they're gonna be. I know now that Celtic and Rangers have the ability to attract better players than the rest of the league. In Europe you could throw 100m at it and not be as competitive as Chelsea and Man Utd and AC Milan. So is it (the budget] relevant? I don't think so. In my mind I've got to create a team that, regardless of how much money it cost, is still very, very competitive and when you watch them out on the pitch you can sense that the opposition are a bit afraid when we've got the ball. And you can do that.

"We took Graeme Dorrans to West Brom (from Livingston] for 100 grand and yet there he is playing central midfield in the Premier League because his talent got him in the team in front of a boy who cost four million. And the boy who cost me four million, Borja Valero, is by far the best technician at the club and yet the qualities that Dorrans has brought for 100 grand required that he played. So you don't have to spend multi millions to get the best players."

Music to the ear of his new employers, no doubt. It's a hell of a mission statement.

For the new manager there is no time to waste. He has a quick-fire –and utterly bonkers – trip to Australia to get ready for and then in late July Celtic are competing with Barcelona, Spurs and Al Ahly of Egypt in the Wembley Cup followed quickly by Champions League qualifiers.

"Trying to win with style is the ultimate," he says. "I understand that if you don't win but there's style, you get criticised. As Gordon maybe found if you do win and there's not as much style as the supporters want you get criticised also. The ultimate is to win with style and everybody's happy."

 
 
 

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