Mid-season major surgery could backfire on Tony Mowbray

A BANNER displayed at Celtic Park before kick-off on Wednesday night carried the assertion that 'The PLC board don't give a damn'. It was a sign that growing frustration among the club's supporters is not solely directed at those on the pitch or in the technical area.

• Tony Mowbray watches his side fall ten points behind Rangers after losing to Hibernian. Picture: SNS

Celtic chairman John Reid and chief executive Peter Lawwell most certainly do give a damn as the team being refurbished by Tony Mowbray slips dangerously off the pace in the SPL title race. The manager they recruited at no little expense last summer has been given their full backing in his policy of radically overhauling the squad he inherited from Gordon Strachan.

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When the transfer window slams shut at midnight on Monday, the full extent of Mowbray's frantic January wheeling and dealing will be apparent. Yet already there are strong indications that performing such major surgery midway through a campaign could backfire badly on Celtic.

Rangers' current ten-point lead at the top of the SPL, the reigning champions having played a game more than Mowbray's men, is not insurmountable. But any recovery will be dependent on Celtic finding a level of consistency which has so far been way beyond them under Mowbray, one which may be even more difficult to achieve with the lack of continuity in playing staff the manager has invoked.

For Reid, Lawwell and their fellow directors, the dilemma is clear. How long can they back Mowbray's judgement in the transfer market before short-term damage outweighs potential long-term gains as he pursues his vision of football Utopia?

For while Celtic remain as financially sound as any major club in Britain, there will again be a heavy price to pay if they fail to regain the SPL crown. Scotland's crumbling Uefa co-efficient ranking means this season's champions will probably be the last for many years to go directly into the group stage of the Champions League and rake in the 10million bounty that guarantees.

So far, Mowbray's numbers are falling well short of what his club expect. Statistics can be interpreted in many ways, of course. One back-page headline yesterday proclaimed the 2-1 home defeat by Hibernian on Wednesday as confirming Mowbray as a worse Celtic manager than even John Barnes.

That will be viewed as mischievous by Celtic, but while the sheer disarray of the calamitous Barnes episode is unlikely to ever be matched, there are certainly some uncomfortable echoes of it at the moment for the club's supporters.

So far, Celtic have won just seven of their 17 home games in all competitions under Mowbray, a sequence which has had a noticeable impact on attendance figures at Parkhead which are no longer reliably provided by the club. Celtic have dropped ten points in their last six SPL games, while Mowbray suffered his tenth defeat in just his 34th game in charge on Wednesday night.

For the sake of comparison, Barnes lost eight of his 29 games at the helm, while Strachan negotiated his way through 87 matches before he experienced his tenth loss as Celtic manager.

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Mowbray will be dismissive of such observations, maintaining his mantra that the performance levels of his team remain more relevant at the moment than their results. He insisted again in the aftermath of Wednesday night's loss that Celtic are on the brink of meeting his aspirations for them.

"I understand the negativity of sections of the press," said Mowbray, "but the reason I can be positive is that I see it with my own eyes. I see the team that is on the pitch and I see the team that will be on the pitch. And I don't think it is that far away. I am not interested in the negativity side of it. I'm trying to put a team together that will consistently win football matches and I'm sure we will get there."

While the assimilation process for January recruits Ki Sung Yueng, Jos Hooiveld, Morten Rasmussen and Thomas Rogne continues, Mowbray believes the imminent return to action of midfield pair Scott Brown and Landry Nguemo will make his side far less vulnerable to the kind of setbacks they have suffered in recent weeks.

Brown is back in training following ankle surgery, while Nguemo is scheduled to return following Cameroon's elimination from the Africa Cup of Nations. "The team that was out on the pitch (against Hibs] was not the team which we will have out there when everyone is fit and available," added Mowbray. "Do teams look at us just now and take heart from the fact there is no Scott Brown or Landry Nguemo in there? I think so."

Starting with tomorrow's short trip to face Hamilton Accies at New Douglas Park, Celtic have three successive away fixtures in the space of eight days which they must win if Mowbray is to avoid the current drama becoming a full blown crisis. They take on Kilmarnock at Rugby Park on Tuesday night, their game in hand in the SPL, before a Scottish Cup fifth-round assignment at Dunfermline on 7 February.

That tie against First Division opponents comes just one day before the anniversary of Celtic's shock Scottish Cup loss against Inverness Caledonian Thistle back in 2000 which spelled the end for John Barnes and saw 3million wiped off the value of the club's share price overnight. Mowbray cannot afford a similar fate if he is to retain the faith of those in the Celtic Park boardroom.