Son, I’m gonna put you in a stadium THIS BIG. The crowds EVERY WEEK will be more than what you’d get for one of your fairytale, grannies-and-weans, shut-the-diddy-town-for-the-day cup finals. You’ll be properly famous. The papers – the small funnies – will want to know whose shirts you wear. You’ll be able to afford a fancy car and a West End pad or somewhere rustic and gated. It will be intense and brilliant. Big European nights will take your breath away. Your Scotland appearances will shoot up. Just sign here and tell everyone “I’ve always wanted to play for Celtic/Rangers.” Only maybe don’t furtively scatter the ashes of your grandfather in the centre-circle like you’re one of the tunnelling POWs in The Great Escape because Derek Riordan pulled a stunt like that and his move to the Old Firm didn’t really work out.
OK, so this is not what Ronny Deila said to Gary Mackay-Steven and it is not what all the many Big Two managers before him said to all the many players who shone brightest in the provinces and then decided there was nothing else for it: they might as well head over to Glasgow. And, all right, few of the signings, new colours dangled above their heads, venture the line about Celtic/Rangers being their first true love any more because it just makes fans groan, like kissing the badge.
But it’s easy to be cynical about this transfer and even easier to be disappointed by it. Not because I don’t wish Mackay-Steven well because I do. All the luck in the world. I hope he gets even better, finds new dimensions, takes that scorching pace and adds to it, takes his one cap and adds to it (and that will happen now he’s at the Old Firm; it always does).
No, I think it’s fine to say Celtic are a bigger club and business is business but that doesn’t mean we can’t mourn his departure from the vibrant team Jackie McNamara is building, all the more so if you’re a United supporter. Mackay-Steven, playing with verve for United and not Celtic, has helped make this season halfway interesting. Now we have the prospect of GMS playing for Celtic but maybe not every week any more while United are rendered weaker. If Deila were to return to Tannadice in this window for Stuart Armstrong, then nip up to Aberdeen for Peter Pawlett and Ryan Jack, a strong case could be made for shutting the season down early. Then we could all fly off to Gran Canaria.
Of course Celtic – and Rangers when they were mighty – have no interest in being part of a vague democracy, run with rules such as: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s flying winger.” Nor are they obliged to be part of one. They must look after themselves and their supremacy. But signings like this do weaken Celtic’s right to moan about the lack of competition in the Scottish game.
United fans will have wished Mackay-Steven, who was always going at some point, had chosen almost anywhere else. The last thing they’ll want to see is their former favourite ripping them up on his return to Tannadice. You might think the player, given the opportunity to move, wouldn’t necessarily want to continue visiting the same grounds, playing the same teams, checking his ratings in the same papers, forgetting to watch the same Sportscene on Sunday night. But some aren’t so fussy.
Mackay-Steven’s options seemed limited, at least in this window. Sheffield United, who made a number of bids, are League One, a division below Sheffield Wednesday, where Stevie May went. I’m sure GMS would have hoped for Championship interest at least, if not the Premier League where his old team-mate Andy Robertson plays. New venues, new opponents, a whole new scene – it amazes me that more Scottish players don’t choose this when offered.
Another ex-Tangerine, Ryan Gauld, was even bolder in moving to Sporting Lisbon. However Gauld fares in Portugal he’s bound to learn more than he would – no offence – continuing to tangle with Jim Goodwin four times a season. Regarding GMS, there’s a perception he doesn’t score enough, but he’s been banging them in just recently. He’s a bonnie talent – at 24 a bit older than Gauld and Robertson but not in any danger of being left on the shelf – and it’s difficult to think there wouldn’t have been more offers for him as his contract wound down. Then again, maybe Celtic suited him just fine.
He obviously suits Celtic just fine. Despite the size and reach of the Old Firm, far too few footballers ever come through from their academies, so they allow other clubs to nurture and develop, or in the case of older players, find those able to do well in the Scottish game – then they cherry-pick. It’s not illegal, you can’t stop it and, obviously, some guys go on to have great careers.
But a lot don’t. They don’t end up playing very much. Quick conclusions are drawn. They can’t handle the pressure, the expectation, the hoary, old, cloudy, leaking goldfish-bowl. I’m suspicious of this. They’d handled fine the pressure of turning up at Celtic Park or Ibrox as the sacrificial opposition – indeed the goals they scored against the Old Firm had made the signings almost inevitable.
If a player gets a game then he’s happy. Very few are any good at sitting on the bench, rarely allowed a sniff.
You’d think the Old Firm would have worked this out by now. After all, they’ve been making these kind of signings for long enough. You’d think too the Old Firm would have developed a foolproof way of managing squads and protecting against disappointment, so no one sulks or comfort-eats the wrong things. After all, players are investments, ones the Old Firm wanted to make, presumably as active participants.
Best-case scenario: Mackay-Steven, the Hooped Arab, doesn’t ease off or get distracted for his last months on Tayside and helps United beat his new employers to win a cup. Celtic, who should have the good grace to allow him to play against them, would have to be impressed.