THERE is a bogus cause and effect at play when judging the efforts of Ronny Deila that could come into sharp focus at Hampden this afternoon. The contention runs that Rangers’ attempts to recover in their post-liquidation, lower league era, has made the domestic clean sweep much easier for Celtic. Consequently, the treble is a must win for the club’s manager in the event of the pursuit of a Champions League place ending in failure – as is the case this season.
Yet, the match-up of the Scottish champions and Ross County today in the League Cup semi-final presents precisely the sort of challenge that has been thwarting Celtic’s attempts to snare all Scotland’s domestic honours across an 11-week period for the majority of the past decade. The league is a given for Celtic without the Rangers of old but League Cups and Scottish Cups never were long before the Ibrox club went bust.
Consider this. Gordon Strachan, pictured, who won three titles in the four years that he stewarded Celtic from the summer of 2005, is the only league winning manager in the club’s history to have a 100 per cent success record against Rangers in cups. By the logic now being applied to Deila, three trebles should then have come Strachan’s way. In reality, one League Cup and one Scottish Cup – in different seasons naturally – is a fairly modest haul when his team were top of the league pile. Clyde, Falkirk and Hearts brought Celtic’s downfall in cup competitions across his first three seasons. His successor Neil Lennon fared even worse, despite another three in a row. In those title winning years, one Scottish Cup was bagged as Celtic slipped up to Morton, St Mirren, Kilmarnock, Hearts, and Aberdeen in the knock-out tournaments.
Yet Deila has to live with the perception that the season will be considered a sacking offence by some if County happen to win this afternoon. Going to Pittodrie on Wednesday and effectively sealing the championship by opening a nine-point gap would provide no short-term cover for the flak that would come his way if exiting the second-string cup competition.
However, Deila believes he would be able to carry the Celtic support even if he doesn’t get to lift three different pieces of silverware aloft this season.
“These things are so hyped,” he said. “Yes, some people think like that [the season is a failure without the treble] but the average Celtic supporter will see what we have done and evaluate it. They will see it is not always black and white. Sometimes it can be grey. But it will be more white if we win everything.
“But it’s small details. It depends how we do things. I believe we can do the magic thing. I believe we can really perform and try to win everything. But it’s very tough and been done very few times.”
Only three times by Celtic, but in recent seasons they have not come closer to matching the haul of Martin O’Neill’s side in 2001 than in Deila’s first season.
Courtesy of the League Cup success, their treble pursuit remained alive until the closing weeks of the season, before it was extinguished in the Scottish Cup semi-final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle. An encounter Celtic supporters do not rue for the inability to hold on to a lead or prevent the Highlanders scoring three times but for an inarguable handball penalty referee Steven McLean missed when they were 1-0 up.
“Losing the semi-final against Inverness does drive you on,” Deila said. “It’s something that you want to make good again but you will always have moments like that in a football career, as a player and as a manager.
“While we have bad breaks like that, sometimes we will also have good luck and it can often come down to small details. The hard thing about the cup is that so many things can happen in a one-off game that you could never predict, like a red card or a decision that goes against you. That’s what makes the cup so interesting and sometimes so very hard to experience.
“But we were close last year and this year we have opportunities again to experience winning trophies and play in big games – starting with this game.”
It is curious that the tie against Jim McIntyre’s men is so much bigger for Deila’s prospects than the visit to their closest league rivals Aberdeen. Victory in midweek for Derek McInnes’s men, unbeaten in ten games, would put them within three points of the Premiership leaders. Yet, there is no one who seriously believes the Pittodrie club – operating with around a sixth of the Glasgow club’s budget – are in a position to prevent Celtic winning a fifth straight title. Deila, though, does believe Aberdeen are nudging closer.
“They have taken another step,” he said. “They have been able to work in peace for a long, long time. They don’t play in Europe so they can train every week and build a system. They have the same squad, nobody has left and they have added players. They have always improved. Then it’s going to be tough. Aberdeen is a good football team. They have some young players but many of them are aged 25 to 30 and in the best years of their careers. I’ve been impressed with what they are doing but I am not surprised.
“[But] of course there is more pressure on them than on us. But, having said that, we will be looking forward to that game. We want to go out and show that we are the best team in Scotland. If we win that isn’t the league finished but it would be very tough for them.”