IN THE final days of 2013, Neil Lennon’s Celtic were in the midst of a 15-game league winning run – underpinned by a record run of clean sheets – as they chased an unbeaten Premiership season, and had recently completed a Champions League group campaign.
Fast forward a year and Celtic are a week on from suffering a third Premiership reverse of the season, having qualified for the last 32 of the Europa League after failing to make the Champions League. Gentle decline might be one way to describe Ronny Deila’s first half-season then. It is not a perception that the Norwegian much cares for. He offers a legitimate defence.
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“You have to look at the fact that I am a manager in his first year at a club, so we can get so much better results,” Deila said. “I hope I’ll be breaking some records of my own with the team after three or four years [as Lennon had]. That’s what we’re aiming for but transition takes time and I’m happy with the way that transition is going. I see progress and the goal is still to get the treble.”
Therein lies the potential game-changer for the current Celtic manager. Apart from his double-Champions League blow-out, Deila’s team have developed a habit of getting results in the games required to further their cup ambitions. A year ago, Lennon’s hopes of capturing an elusive treble had already been dashed as a consequence of a League Cup loss at home to a lowly second-tier Morton. Deila can point to the fact his team have been ruthless in the domestic cup competitions.
Indeed, regardless of how uneven and unconvincing Celtic were in the early months of Deila’s tenure, the campaign could yet prove to glitter as only two others have in the club’s history.
Only Jock Stein and Martin O’Neill have engineered clean sweeps in their debut seasons. Deila knows he could keep the company of club giants. Recent progress, which made for a sequence of eight league wins until the defeat away to Dundee United last Sunday, means the Celtic manager can do what “few others” have done.
Arriving at Celtic as manager – the result of the club being rejected by others – following six years with Strømsgodset was “like going from first grade at school into tenth”, according to Deila. Now, he feels a sense of vindication that his changes to diet and daily routines are beginning to bear fruit, and have brought cohesion in and around the club’s Lennoxtown training complex.
“I asked myself can I handle this? Am I strong enough mentally to handle this? What am I going into? It was a huge step and you have to be very calm and work in the right way and you have the skills to do it. I feel controlled. We are a unit, the staff, the players and the club and we are going in the right direction. I am really enjoying it. I feel like every day we go to work we are going to get better and that is a good feeling. I love it and I can handle it and that is good.”
For his team to get better, Deila pinpoints “more tempo”. He believes they are only “50 per cent to 70 per cent” of where they need to be. He is convinced he too will move closer to his optimum over time and transfer windows, though his early days in Scotland have proved less problematic than his early days in management. “I think this first season at Celtic has been much better than the other job because that was my first time and there were some hard spells there. In the half of the season we were bottom and they offered me a new contract. That was good of them and in the end it was good for them as well. They were patient and believed in me. The situation I came into was very hard because we had to start building a new team. In the end that went very well. All the teams I have trained, it has been good the first year but it has been even better the second and third year. That is what I want to do here as well.”
Having Norwegian wunderkind Martin Ødegaard in his ranks for year two is something Deila refuses to completely close the door on. It seems fanciful the 16-year-old that Deila handed a senior debut almost a year ago would choose Celtic when wanted by such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich. But his mentor role in the past has him still believing there could be a very faint hope that the youngster’s parents might consider Celtic a decent stepping stone before he embarks on a career with one of the game’s superpowers.
“I don’t know what is happening with him but we will see. Maybe it is one in a million It is his choice. He knows me, he knows how I am training the team and how I am working with young players. He knows how I try to develop players, he has seen that. He got his debut from me when he was 15 years old and two months so he knows he would get his chance here if he is good enough, that he would train with and be a part of the first team. I don’t think he would get that at Barcelona. You have to take the right steps. It is not about taking the biggest steps, it is about thinking what is going to make me the best player in ten years’ time.
“That is what his dad is thinking as well so hopefully there is a chance. We will see. I have taken care of Martin in the past. He is a very talented player and has a very good attitude. That is why he is taking steps all the time. To go from Strømsgodset to Barcelona would be, I think, too much. It would be a very big chance to take. Better maybe to take smaller steps and think about playing time. At Barcelona if you are not playing then you don’t train almost, because they have so many games. So it is hard to keep up. I know they know all these things so we will see how they are.”
Making small steps has allowed Deila to stay on course for an intriguing second half of his first season in Scotland.
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