Treble chance has gone but next season awaits, Stefan Johansen tells Moira Gordon
THERE isn’t any lingering hopes of a treble to celebrate this season but there is a burgeoning optimism for the new campaign.
Stefan Johansen still has a run of games to get through before his summer break but already the Celtic playmaker is setting targets for next season, encouraged by what he sees on the training ground and the pitch and driven by the disappointments of damaging defeats. The latest of those came last weekend, when the dreams of a domestic treble took a tanking at the hands of Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
“I think it shows how difficult it is to win the treble and why not many teams have done it. You need to be there every day, and even then, like in this game, things like a refereeing decision can go either way.
“But if you take the league, in the end we have had a great season, the team has developed really well and the [Europa League] games against Inter showed we are at a new level now from where we were when we played Legia [in the Champions League qualifiers]. Things are looking great for next season.”
The first full season in Scottish football has been a successful one for the Norwegian, who was signed by former Celtic manager Neil Lennon from current boss Ronny Deila’s former club Stromsgodset, and had six months to settle in before Deila followed him and helped elevate his game to an even higher standard.
Those improvements have earned him a spot in the PFA Scotland Players’ Player of the Year four-man shortlist and shortened the odds on him lifting the award. It has also spawned talk of a contract extension, with his countryman planning a long-term development programme at Parkhead and keen to hold on to the talented 24-year-old.
“When I first came I was more a holding midfielder but this year I’ve been in the attacking role. The good thing about [Deila] is that he sees the opportunity and he trusts you to play there. He helps you to develop into the position. We watch videos and he helps you find the small details that make you better.
“He’s always looking for the tempo in the game, the one and two touch play. When you are going to use more touches it has to be at the right time. That’s one thing I’ve been working on and my stats show I’ve been getting better. It’s not only the gaffer but John Collins helps me a lot and John Kennedy and it’s important because this is my first season where I’ve played so many games. I feel like I’ve improved this season but I have a lot more to do.”
With national appearances, European competitions as well as the extended run in all three domestic competitions, the demands have been high. By the time he switches off for the summer after duties for club and then country have been seen to, he will have played around 65 games, a lot more than the 35-40 he is used to. The semi-final defeat means the club campaign will end sooner than he hoped but it is only after home games against Sweden – a June 7 friendly – and a qualifier against Azerbaijan on June 12 that he can relax. Albeit just a little.
He has already set his sights on the new term and wants to hit the ground running.
“We have learned from earlier this season because the games against Maribor and Legia are not the level we want to be. We weren’t ready at that time but we need to learn and, you know, you call it a holiday but it’s just preparation.
“Although you get away with the family, you have to be prepared to come back and do the job that needs to be done. There is the qualification starting earlier so we need to be fit and come back ready to play games.
“It has been a good first season but we need to go on from there, develop more. We want to play in the Champions League next season. It’s a big thing for Celtic and that’s where all the players want to play.”
Satisfying the winning desire cultivated throughout a long and successful history is not easy at Celtic but it is something that should be embraced by everyone who pulls on the green and white hoops, according to Johansen.
There has been criticism of the openness with which manager Deila and his players talked about wanting to win the treble. But the midfielder sees no reason to be coy.
“If you ask the supporters they will always ask for the treble. This is the pressure that comes with playing for Celtic. You need to learn winning straight way. I came in the January and to lose is not even in the club’s DNA. You just feel you need to win everything – in the cup, in Europe, in the league, the supporters and the players are so used to winning. So it’s difficult to go out there and say we don’t think we’re going to do it when we really think we will.
“That’s what the fans want to achieve and so do the players. We had a really good chance to do it this season and the gaffer came in and was honest about that. He’s always an honest guy, he always will be, he speaks straight from his heart about what he wants.”
In the man who he has helped cultivate since their days together at Stromsgodset, Deila has a kindred spirit and fellow leader.
“I think I have always been that type of player. I hate to lose. We have a lot of leaders. I think that is one of the main reasons we are a good team,” Johansen added, suggesting that the likes of Craig Gordon and Scott Brown were unfortunate not to have made the player of the year shortlist along with him and Virgil Van Djik. “And we are just getting better and better.”