Tony Mowbray's risky exit strategy

TONY MOWBRAY doesn't strike you as the second coming of Amarillo Slim, the famous American poker player, but the Celtic manager appears to be in the mood to gamble right now. You might say there is a touch of Slim's air of abandon about Parkhead.

How many players is he intending to let go before the January transfer window is shut? Three or four or more? Gary Caldwell, Barry Robson and Willo Flood seem set for Middlesbrough. Scott McDonald might follow them. Or he might go to Wigan. Chances are he will go somewhere, because he's not getting the love from Mowbray the way he got it from Gordon Strachan. He says he wants to stay, but Mowbray is happy to see him go, at the right price. Selling your most reliable striker when you trail your rivals by seven points and ten goals is the kind of punt that even Amarillo would gasp at it.

Especially since his marquee signing, Marc-Antoine Fortune, has been a flop in his first six months as a Celtic player. Three SPL goals and two in a dead rubber in the Europa League is no kind of return for a guy who cost the guts of 4 million. Mowbray's judgment in the transfer market, therefore, has to have an asterisk beside it until his purchases click on a consistent basis. None of them has so far. All have potential, but none has had the immediate impact you'd expect from players that cost seven figures. After all, McDonald, at less than a quarter of the cost, had 17 goals in the bag by this stage of his first season under the former Celtic manager. He didn't have the injuries that Fortune has had, it's true, but still the gap between their tallies is yawning.

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And Caldwell. Say what you like about him, but he knows what winning the SPL is all about. He understands the pressure of the run-in, the scorching heat that burns the back of the neck every time you walk out for a game you absolutely must win. So does Robson. Strachan has one word to describe these fellas. "Men". Robson, of course, was instrumental in bringing Strachan his third title. You'd include McDonald in that camp also. He has only one league medal, but it was achieved, in part, because of his 25 league goals.

We all remember that 2007-08 season. Celtic seemingly dead and buried with seven games to play. They needed to win all seven – and did. McDonald scored five goals in those games. Robson drilled in a match-winning penalty in a life-saving victory over Rangers. Stephen McManus – remember him? – scored in two of the seven matches. McManus and Caldwell kept clean sheets in the last two games – at home to Hibs and away to Dundee United. They stood up to the plate.

None of them has the same presence now. Maybe that's their fault. Or maybe it's the manager's. How many of his team have improved under his stewardship? It's a question worth asking. Aiden McGeady, Georgios Samaras, less than a handful in total, for sure. Most have gone backwards. Why is that? Mowbray was supposed to be a players' manager, an inspirational figure, unlike Strachan who was seen as a bit of a bully. Again you ask, who to blame for the slide in standards, player or manager?

McDonald, Caldwell, Robson, McManus – some, if not all, of those guys look to be on the way out now. That's a whole lot of championship-winning experience Mowbray is prepared to part with in the pursuit of a new team built more in his image. It's what he feels he needs to do because, for Mowbray, things are getting pretty stark.

Not for ten years have Celtic been behind Rangers at this point of the SPL season. Until now, that is. Not for ten years have they conceded more league goals than they have so far in this championship and only once in the last decade have they scored less than their current total. In so many categories of performance they are diminished. Celtic people talk about the dog days of Strachan's final campaign at Parkhead. Well, here's some perspective. At this point last year – 18 games into the championship – Strachan's side were four points clear of Rangers. They had 44 points then; Mowbray's men have 37 points now.

As yet, he hasn't shown he possesses the most valuable commodity in management, the one thing that Walter Smith has had on his side more often than not. Namely, luck. Two Old Firm games and one point; a poor return given the chances his team created in those games. Decisions went against him; a legitimate penalty (or penalties) not given, a good goal not awarded, a red card not shown to Kyle Lafferty. Mowbray is not a fortunate manager. You can't be successful without getting the breaks in the big games.

Mowbray will bring in new blood this month, a period that could well define him as a manager in the short to medium-term. Ki Sung Yeung, the 20-year-old South Korean prodigy, has been signed for about 2m. As a former Asian young player of the year, he's got pedigree as a playmaker. With 17 caps already to his name, he'll surely be ready to go straight into the Celtic midfield. But can he settle quickly? Can he hit the ground running in this title race? It's a big, big ask for a 20-year-old. If he manages it, he's some player.

At the back, the latest central defender to interest Mowbray is Jos Hooiveld, a Dutchman playing for AIK Stockholm. Preston's Sean St Ledger is another on the short-list. But there are others.

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The January window will have the same significant impact on the outcome of this championship as it did on the last one. Twelve months ago, Celtic didn't invest and they got done for it in the end. This month they're in buying and selling mode and it will be fascinating to see what moves Mowbray makes. He can sign as many decent players as he likes but does he have it in him to make them better? The evidence of his first six months tell us he's struggling. The next five months will tell us much more.