HAD it been predicted in the first few weeks of the season that, come the first weekend in May, Ronny Deila would be back home in Norway, this statement would not have registered too much in the way of surprise.
Well, he could hardly be expected to survive not just one, but two Champions League qualifier eliminations in the same season, could he? A 1-0 loss at Inverness was also hardly helpful, neither was a 1-1 draw at newly-promoted Dundee in which he was forced to replace the atrocious Jo Inge Berget, who’d been recruited on loan from Cardiff City, before half-time. Doesn’t even know a player, some Celtic fans were heard to grumble at the time. It wasn’t looking good, even then.
And then there was that home defeat by Hamilton Accies, the first time in more than 70 years that the side had won at Celtic Park. This was in October. Celtic were lying sixth in the Premiership, six points behind the then leaders, Hamilton. Knocked out of the Champions League qualifiers. Twice. The drubbings by Legia Warsaw were hard to take, but they at least looked something approaching a decent side. But NK Maribor, after being handed a ridiculously fortunate second chance to make the group stages? So yes, Ronny back home at the start of May. Looking for work. He could hardly complain.
Maybe Roy Keane would have been better after all. Maybe they should have pushed the boat out a bit more, made a more convincing play for him rather than seek to take advantage of his reported love for the club, as Keane later complained in his autobiography.
Or maybe it would have been better to have gone the tried-and-tested route and hired Steve Clarke. Or Owen Coyle. Maybe even risked ruining Henrik Larsson’s reputation by sticking him in the dug-out. But Deila? Well, he was clearly out of his depth. What’s he up to now anyway back in Norway? Attending the confirmation of his twin daughters? It’s good that he’s got more time now to spend time with his family. That was another reason why it was never likely to work. Them over there, him over here. A recipe for unhappiness.
Of course, this isn’t the case at all.While Ronny was indeed in Norway this weekend, while he was attending his twin daughters’ confirmation, where he heard confirmation of Celtic’s title victory, it was a fleeting visit. He is very much still over here, and featured as one of the nominees for manager of the year at last night’s PFA Scotland awards dinner in Glasgow.
This is evidence that he has, in fact, turned it round since those bleak days earlier in the season, when he recently admitted he contemplated walking away.
While some Celtic fans may have embarked on revisionist exercises claiming they were supportive of him all along, many were indeed questioning Deila’s abilities, and had reason to do so. They were wondering if chief executive Peter Lawwell had made a costly error in choosing someone initially earmarked to come and work with Neil Lennon, before Lennon’s resignation a year ago this month.
Deila has won them over, hence the “Ronny Roars” routine that has become a feature of victories, and which he performed once more after Friday night’s 5-0 victory over Dundee before hot-footing it to Drammen. He travelled safe in the knowledge that things were under control on the title front, that even had Aberdeen managed to gain the victory they needed on Saturday against Dundee United, Celtic could still wrap up the championship at Pittodrie this weekend. But a 1-0 win for United means Deila could toast a success with his friends and family in Norway on Saturday night, perhaps while even blasting out a chorus or two of Delilah, as we know he is wont to do.
It has been a job well done, in the end. While Aberdeen’s title push was extended longer than anyone cared predict, Celtic have the chance to pull 14 points clear of the Pittodrie side on Sunday. While not the 29-point gap of last year, it would still count as a healthy lead over second place. Although Celtic assistant manager John Collins, in a radio interview yesterday, gently scolded Kris Commons for his “title race, what title race?” comments of last week, the Parkhead side have over recent weeks given the impression of knowing it was all in hand.
Is it an achievement to truly celebrate? Does Deila deserve credit? He overcame a sticky start and managed to implement a pleasingly watchable system. He has won players round after reported early suspicion. Although failing to land a treble he was perhaps guilty of placing too much emphasis on, Celtic’s League Cup win means there is more than just a championship for Deila to savour, which had been the minimum requirement in his maiden season.
Of late, there has been no Charlie Mulgrew due to injury, no Mikael Lustig. Adam Matthew has been absent for a long spell as well. Deila has bought well while dispensing with most of the players Celtic fans will have wanted to see dispensed.
The mid-season addition of Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong means there is less pressure on identifying signings during the summer, although some will be needed, specifically in the defensive area, given the impending departure of Jason Denayer and speculation surrounding Virgil van Dijk’s future.
Deila has helped revitalise those such as Nir Bitton, who has been like a new signing since his re-emergence, and Stefan Johansen. They were, of course, already at the club when the manager arrived but few reckoned either, never mind both, would become such integral parts of a championship season. He has teased 19 goals out of Leigh Griffiths after initially questioning his lifestyle habits.
No-one is saying Deila has already proved himself beyond doubt. He will have to do more than simply repeat this season’s success during the next campaign. But, as Scotland manager Gordon Strachan mused last week, Deila has done what he was hired to do. Possibly no more, certainly no less.