CELTIC may be sporting a fresh look next season under their lucrative kit deal with New Balance but it is the same old demands which will define success or failure for those wearing the re-designed green and white hoops.
Even as they savour their latest Scottish title win, confirmed at the weekend with three rounds of fixtures to spare, Celtic are already having to confront the greater challenge which awaits them in little over two months’ time.
Their Champions League qualifying campaign will begin on 14 or 15 July, a series of matches crucial to manager Ronny Deila’s hopes of building significantly on the progress he has overseen in the second half of this season.
Last year’s torrid and unsuccessful bid for Champions League group stage football blotted Deila’s start to life as Celtic manager. Returning to the main stage of European football will be the primary objective of his squad next season.
“You have to plan ahead at this club,” reflected captain Scott Brown at yesterday’s launch of Celtic’s new home kit.
“The manager is already looking at pre-season, what he wants us to do. He will be looking to see what we come back like after the summer.
From my point of view, I’d love Scotland to get to the Euro finals, as well as us getting into the Champions League.Scott Brown
“You can’t just play in the moment at Celtic, you’ve got to look as far ahead as possible and get everything sorted.
“It’s going to be a huge season next year. From my point of view, I’d love Scotland to get to the Euro finals, as well as us getting into the Champions League.
“It will be the biggest push possible from us towards that at the start of the season and hopefully we will be coming back fit, sharp and ready to go from the middle of July.
“I was injured at the start of last season and missed the qualifiers. I’m not one who enjoys watching when I feel as if I should be out there helping.
“I felt for the lads at the start as we had a new manager and we were all adapting to the style. We were even sixth in the Scottish Premiership at one point, but now we’re champions again and flying high, so getting these big Champions League nights back at Celtic Park is a must.
“Everyone thrives on those nights. It’s amazing walking out that tunnel to 60,000 fans and we need to get that back next season.”
Brown’s team-mate Kris Commons has claimed the current Celtic squad is stronger than the one which last reached the last 16 of the Champions League under Neil Lennon two years ago. While the captain does not disagree, he warns that actions will speak louder than words.
“To be fair, there were great players in that team and we have great players now,” added Brown. “It’s always easy to say it’s definitely a better squad but we need to prove it now.
“We need to go into the Champions League and show that we are just as good as we were two or three seasons ago.
“We aren’t missing anything. We are scoring goals, we are working hard. The way the gaffer sets us up, the team and squad are set up perfectly now.
“We brought in two great players in January in Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven, guys with great pace. They have given us a boost. There’s a lot of competition for places now.”
Brown also believes Deila is better equipped for the task ahead after overcoming a less than convincing first few months as Lennon’s successor.
“Everyone loved Lenny and it helped that he loved and knew everything about the club,” added Brown. “When the new manager came in no-one really knew who he was. But slowly everyone started to follow him and you can see now he loves the club.
“When he first came in I was on holiday but he gave me a phone. He was positive right from the start about how we were going to look and play. He wanted to change a few little things here and there, but not going in all gung-ho. It has worked. The lads are all enjoying it now and are following the way he wants to do things.”
The style of football Deila wants from Celtic was typified in their 5-0 win over Dundee last Friday night when Brown scored at the end of a move in which every member of the team touched the ball.
“F*** knows how I managed to control it!” he laughed. “That was the biggest problem with the move but that goal did sum us up. We want to move the ball quickly and make penetrating runs.
“It worked out perfectly. I thought Kris was going to shoot so I was trying to get out of the way, but he slipped me in and my touch was decent for a change and I managed to hit the back of the net. That doesn’t happen a lot these days but it was a great team effort.”