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Celtic have been in a state of flux since the season began.  Between the overhaul of the playing squad and various behind the scenes changes, the first few months of Ange Postecoglou’s reign have been anything but smooth.  Now though, it seems a corner may have been turned.  Away wins against Aberdeen and Motherwell have put to bed, for the moment, the teams away woes.  For the first time this season the manager has had an, almost, full squad to call on. This combined with a comfortable Europa League victory against last seasons foes, the Hungarian champions, Ferencvaros has given the confidence around Celtic Park a welcome boost.

League business resumed with a dominant, if not free scoring, victory over a stubborn St Johnstone side to keep Celtic in touch of the current league leaders.  It is so important that this run of results and performances continues, but the teams next opponents will present another challenge that Ange and his men need to overcome. A midweek clash with Hibernian may not seem the most daunting fixture to face while on this run, but there is an interesting wrinkle to the game; It has been eight years since Celtic beat their green and white counterparts on the road.  The last time a Celtic team beat Hibs at Easter Road was in January 2014.

https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/25798579

(The line up here is interesting!)

To be clear, that timeline takes into account the three years that Hibs were in the lower division, however to go seven fixtures against their Edinburgh rivals presents something of a hoodoo that Postecoglou men must overcome.

Games against Hibernian are always a tough affair, but there is more than just a sense of competition when the teams meet.  Celtic and Hibs have a shared background, a linked history that includes iconic players and charitable beginnings.

Formed in 1875 Hibernian football club, named after the Roman name for Ireland and representing the immigrant Irish community of Edinburgh, played a number of matches across Scotland with the purpose of raising money for those in need. One such game took place in September 1885.  A select team of Hibs players would take on a team playing under the banner of ‘Glasgow Hibs’, the proceeds of which would go to the poor children living in the East End of Glasgow.  One of the most prominent men involved in raising said funds was Brother Walfrid.

As most, if not all Celtic fans will know, on 6 November 1887, Walfrid would use the example of Hibs, who had been doing similar charity work for the Irish communities in Edinburgh in the years previous and form a club to help the poor children of Glasgow.  The major difference was the name, Celtic, which he wanted to use to represent both the Scottish and Irish roots of the people they would help.

The noble charity work and popularity amongst the locals set Celtic apart from most other institutions, but there was also an opportunity to commercialise this rise in profile.  Enter John Glass.  In the 1880’s football was, for the most part, an amateur venture amongst players.  However, in England, there was a move toward the professionalism of the game.  Mr Glass knew that Scotland would follow suit and, unbeknownst to the club committee, or Wilfrid himself, Glass began offering cash inducements to several of Hibs best players.  The likes of Willie Groves, James McLaren, Paddy Gallagher, Mick McKeown, John Coleman and Mick Dunbar would become Celtic players at the expense of the team from Leith.

Hibernian losing their best players to Celtic was incredibly damaging for the club at the time.  Their success dwindled and they struggled to return to the pinnacle of the Scottish game for many years.  Of course, in later years, many Hibs players have made the jump to Celtic. The modern game means this has become the norm for clubs outside of the ‘Big Two’ of Glasgow. John Collins, Leigh Griffiths, Anthony Stokes, Gary Caldwell and the most obvious example of all, legendary club captain, Scott Brown have all had great success when they made the switch from the green and white of Hibs to the famous Hoops of Celtic.

When the teams meet it is good to look back on the linked history and remember where both clubs come from.  The Irish heritage, green and white strips and charitable origins have defined both clubs for years and, while Hibs have moved away from the ‘Irishness’ of their history in recent years, the cultural impact both clubs have represented in Scotland cannot be underestimated.

When the talk of a ‘rebuild’ at Celtic started to surface, against the backdrop of a shambolic season, many believed that meant players.  Get the ones who don’t want to be there out.  Get new ‘better’ players in.  Simple as that? Well, not quite.  As the summer began and Celtic found themselves without a manager and several first team players, they also had a new CEO. A man who promised to ‘modernise’ the club and provide a platform for success for years to come. Every fan around the world who loves the legendary hoops agreed, although most wondered what that actually meant. For the club to rebuild it also has to fundamentally change how it went about its business both on the park and off. A complete structural overhaul on the back of a player exodus was needed. 72 days into this ‘project’ the new CEO, who promised a bold new direction, was gone.  Perhaps the ‘rebuild’ isn’t quite as simple as some expected.

Now Celtic find themselves toiling in the domestic league and struggling in Europe.  The manager, as of the writing, still hasn’t got his ‘own’ people in.  There is no head of recruitment, no one to oversee the academy, a temporary CEO who has had very little engagement with the fanbase. Celtic need a new direction. As a club they need to change how they operate.  We can only guess as to what the ‘modernisation’ of the club may have meant.  A few jealous glances across Europe will show clubs much smaller in historical stature than Celtic, taking more and more ambitious strides, while the Glasgow giants sit still.  The most common denominator of these clubs is the position of ‘Sporting Director’.  Sometimes known as ‘Director of Football’ or ‘Technical Director’ the position essentially comes down to the same things; Long term success and modernisation of football clubs.  Where have we heard that before?

Traditionally speaking a manager would have the final say in all footballing matters.  While the sport has evolved and changed, so too has this attitude.  With a (for the purposes of the article) Director of Football, or DoF, in place duties are split. The manager sometimes becomes known as the first team coach and he is responsible for training and picking the team. The DoF oversees the rest of the footballing side, identifying transfer targets, future squad planning. In terms of hierarchy within a club, the sporting director sits between the head coach and the chairman.  This helps the coach focus purely on the eleven players picked every week.  Given how intense and complicated Postecoglou style of play is, the more time concentrating on the players the better.  Also having someone in complete charge of the other footballing departments, such as transfers, means the search for players, department heads, academy players and boardroom relationships are all given more time.

Celtic need a long term vision, a style of play and a pathway system between the youth and first team that ensures they are producing players suited specifically to their style.  This also allows for continuity should a manager leave the club.  New managers will often bring in new staff and new players to fit their football philosophy. This is great short term, but when they leave, such as when Brendon Rodgers took most of his entourage with him to the EPL, this can lead to a squad overhaul that could have significant financial, and structural ramifications.  Fans of the Hoops can attest to that now.  If Ange Postecoglou had walked into a club ran this smoothly, with a list of players suited to a style of play he would have been hired to coach, alongside an established scouting system, state of the art conditioning and fitness coaches and youngsters ready to break through, it would have Celtic in a much stronger position.

Even if this all happened and Ange still failed to hit the heights required, instead of starting the ‘rebuild’ from scratch, the club would have the infrastructure to cope. A long-term philosophy established regardless of who is the manager, something that can be solved by hiring a sporting director with a clear on and off-pitch strategy, is an essential for a club like Celtic to move forward.

A Dof can recruit a pathway manager who will lead the academy players into the first team. A DoF can make sure, from the kids up, that a certain brand of football will be on display.  A DoF will recruit the best scouts and department heads who report to him, all of which will benefit whoever is coaching the first team players.  There are many advantages to this type of footballing structures barely touched upon in this brief, somewhat hopeful, rambling.  One needs only look around Europe as clubs like RB Salzburg pass Celtic by.  The ‘Rebuild’ was never going to be simple, but it must be brave and modern.  Otherwise Celtic will still be standing in the shadows, the roars of past glories merely a whisper in the dark.

As another international break approaches, fans of domestic football can pause for breath.  The great rebuild that Celtic have been going through may only be at the beginning, but for many it has already been a rough journey.  Ange Postecoglou’s arrival was greeted with a mixed reaction. That mix of views, even at this early stage, threatens to divide a support that is still suffering from last seasons shambles displays.  To help understand each viewpoint it’s important to look at the plussed and minuses of the Postecoglou revolution so far.

The Bad

A dreadful run of away results have blighted Postecoglou’s Celtic record until Jota’s late winner against Aberdeen.  Losses against Hearts, Rangers and Livingston have left the would-be title challengers languishing in mid table.  While most fans are willing to give Postecoglou time to turn the clubs fortunes around, even the most patient of souls will be getting anxious looking at the teams current form. Despite the mitigating circumstances around the rebuilding and lack of background support, any Celtic manager with this squad of players must be expected to do better. The visit to Tynecastle may have come while the team was short on players, Ibrox was a much tighter game than the previous seasons fixture, which Celtic lost 4-1, but losing at the Tony Macaroni Arena and dropping points at home to Dundee Utd leave a back taste in the mouths of the Celtic faithful. Fans have shown faith in the method, but that must be rewarded with wins.  Winning the league may be out width the current team this season, but a strong challenge must be mounted.  The supporters need to see progress or the murmurs of discontent will become louder and louder.

One of the biggest selling points when appointing Ange Postecoglou was his promise to bring on the youth at the club.  Building players for the future through the academy and allowing fans to see ‘one of their own’ don the hoops was something to be excited about.  The launch of the ‘B’ team into the lower division may have disjointed efforts to bleed in youngsters but there are many still in the first team squad who haven’t featured much, or at all.  When the manager is facing three fixtures in quick succession, and the players needing a rest, you’d expect the likes of Liam Shaw or Ewan Henderson to feature at some point.  Liam Scales, Dane Murray, Owen Moffat and Osaze Urhoghide are all players who could have expected to feature more than they have.  It raises the question; Are they not good enough or is Postecoglou not as willing to trust youngsters as he claimed?

On the subject of changing things up, the system Postecoglou plays, or ‘Angeball’ as its affectionally called, has become a bone of contention for some.  While fans love to see flair football, they also like to see their teams defend well.  Particularly in Europe, where the standard is generally higher than domestically, ‘Angeball’ has come under the spotlight of criticism.  Seen as naive and, at times ‘Kamikaze’ in its approach, fans have been asking ‘isn’t it time to change’ especially on the back of losing 4-0 at home to German giants Bayer Leverkusen. Ange, however, has stated that he will not deviate from his path.  While that attitude is admirable, many feel a more common sense approach to these games would serve him and the team better. If the players at the club do not have the skill to play that system, then why continue?

The Good

On the flip side of that argument, fans have been enthralled at times with the football on display.  Back to back 6-0 drubbings at home left the supporters and pundits purring.  All out attack, focus on scoring and ‘never stopping’ have created a brand of football that encompasses, in many ways, ‘The Celtic Way’.  While there have been some disappointing results, there was never any doubt that this style of play would take a while to put into play consistently.  Players already at the club would need to improve massively on last seasons fitness, bravery on the ball and inventiveness.  New players at the club would need time to settle into a new city and get to know their teammates.  Rome wasn’t built in a day.  The potential on display, however, has led to an optimism that, when ‘Ange ball’ clicks into full gear, it will brush any opposition aside.  If Celtic fans can remain patient through the rough beginnings, they could see a side that not only gets back to dominating domestically, but swinging ‘punches’ with Europe’s big hitters.

Creating magic on the park isn’t just down to the manager.  When all is said and done, and that whistle blows, only the eleven men on the park really matter.  They are the ones who dictate whether or not the teams wins, draws or losses.  In the transfer window just passed, Celtic saw 15 players leave the club with only 12 brought in.  Whether all of these incoming talents where signed as definite starters and not just ‘projects’ remains to be seen but there are already a few who have made a mark on the Celtic support.  Joe Hart has added security and confidence to a position that was becoming something of a joke amongst fans.  Carter-Vickers looks solid at the centre of defence, with a physicality and ball playing ability Celtic have missed.  Juranovic has shown in flashes he can add an extra attacking threat to the full back areas and last, but not least, has been Kyogo Furahashi. The Japanese international has been excellent so far for the club, his movement, attitude and goals have given the Parkhead faithful a new talisman to adore.  With the improvement in players like Ralston, Rogic and Captain McGregor, Postecoglou has shown that, if he gets another few transfer windows to complete his masterplan, the fans will see some real quality on the park.

Off the park is where Ange Postecoglou has impressed as much as on it.  His natural charisma has shown through in interviews. The way he has dealt with the press, dealing with sniping questions with ease and putting his point clearly across, has led fans to believe he will defend the club against any detractors.  Most of the good will comes from how he dealt with the abhorrent of abuse aimed at Kyogo.  He didn’t dive into cliched responses or rage against a system ingrained in division.  He instead told the media that this wasn’t and education issue but a people issue; just be a good human.  He spoke at how Glasgow’s multiculturalism struck chord with him.  Being an immigrant himself he knew how important diversity was in creating a great city, a value close to the hearts of every Celtic fan who truly knows their clubs history. He wants to play a style that honours the history of Celtic Football Club and all the greats who have gone before, and he never wants Celtic to be underdogs regardless of opponent.  These may be romantic beliefs and they may seem unattainable at the moment, but what is Celtic if not a club built on defying the odds and building a legacy.

Like him or not, Brendan Rodgers was a huge success while at Celtic.  One of his key quotes, amongst some particularly cringeworthy ones, was ‘the strength of Celtic is being together and what we have proven this year is the fusion between the players, the management and the supporters- when that is together Celtic are a powerful force.’ This was true at the time.  Now, only a few years later, the clubs ‘Holy Trinity’ is as separate in thought as they’ve ever been.  The trinity in question this time is the board, the fans and the manager.  They may all want success for Celtic, but their ideas of how to get that are very different.

The Board

The replacement of Peter Lawwell as CEO was always going to be in a difficult position.  Not only would they be replacing a largely successful, if unambitious, figurehead who, while divisive, had overseen domestic dominance that will likely never be repeated, they would also oversee the transformation of the clubs internal structure and rebuilding of the playing staff.  When Dom McKay arrived it seemed that they had got their man.  Ambitious, driven and engaging, McKay seemed like the man to take the club into a new era.  72 days later he is gone. All talk of modernisation, fan engagement, European success and long term stability has suddenly stopped.  While there is a temporary CEO in place in the form of Michael Nicholson, there has been radio silence on the matters which initially excited fans.  The Celtic support, who backed the club in a period of both financial and sporting uncertainty, are left to wonder when, or if, a new modern structure will be in place.  At the moment the club has no director of football, head of recruitment, chief scout, pathway manager or even a proper coaching system in place for the first team (Ange, as of writing, still has no official assistant manager).  The board has shown, thus far, that the previous risk averse strategy remains in place and the progressive ideas McKay spoke of look to be in limbo.  It could, of course, be the case they are regrouping and still planning to implement this top level sporting infrastructure but, if not, where does that leave the man McKay unveiled as Celtic manager?  It would seem, on the face of it, that if McKay’s ideas of forward thinking football aligned with Postecoglou’s, and those ideas are on the proverbial ‘back burner’ there is a disconnect between the hierarchy and the man tasked with bringing success back to Paradise.

The Manager

When Ange Postecoglou arrived at Celtic there was a mix of optimism, excitement and curiosity.  He spoke of an attacking style of play that would have fans on their feet.  He spoke of the need for Celtic to challenge at the highest of levels and forget the ‘underdog’ tag that has been labelled at the club whenever they compete against an established name in Europe.  He spoke of the need for players, and fans, to believe in him.  Now that he is a few months into the job and has seen the man who offered him the position leave, the previous optimism and excitement has already started to fade.  Despite all the issues he has faced, like those listed above and the massive squad overhaul, Postecoglou seems determined to stick to his initial promises and his own footballing philosophy.  This has resulted in three domestic losses already and a home draw this past weekend.  He is looking more and more forlorn and his frustrations are becoming more apparent with every interview.  Even at this stage of the season there are questions being asked; Is he the right man for the job after all? Will he have a say in the new structure if there even is one? How long does the circumstances he’s faced excuse a poor run of results? Ange Postecoglou has a record of success at every club he has been in charge of, he has international pedigree and has earned plaudits from some of the biggest names in the game. However, those successes have never came instantly.  At club level it has taken at least one season to get his style, and results, consistently.  With Celtic needing to almost reinvent, and certainly reinvigorate, themselves as a club, the fans are being asked to trust a manager and a board who’s outlooks seems completely at odds.

The Fans

At the beginning of the season Celtic fans showed their desire to back the club they love yet again.  Season ticket sales were expected to take a slump but instead, despite the disastrous campaign last year and the pandemic affecting peoples finances, they sold out in record time.  The fans done their part.  It was Celtics move now.  As listed above, fans were promised change at all levels while playing a brand of football they’d adore and wrenching the title back from their city rivals. So far the new CEO has departed, there has been no internal changes and the team sit mid table.  To say that the fans expectations have not been met is an understatement.  The fury that was on display after Celtic dropped more points against Dundee Utd was to be expected. The desire to give the manager the benefit of the doubt has already dwindled and there is even more resentment to the board as there has ever been.  They wanted modernisation and instant success and now have a board who seem happy to rest on their laurels and a manager who needs at least a season to improve.

When the three most important aspects of a football club, corporate, sporting and supporters, are so unaligned in their needs and wants, something has to give or the division and disconnect will grow.  Either the board changes tact, the manager gets results, or the fans become more patient. If things continue as they are then last season exasperated sighs of ‘It can possibly get any worse’ will seem sadly, ironically, prophetic.  As Brendan Rodgers had said, ‘the strength of Celtic is being together’ and yet, years later, they couldn’t be further apart.

The rebuild of Celtic Football Club had been, for many fans, a long time coming.  Last seasons spectacular collapse on the park was seen by many as the climax to a collection of failures over the years.  On paper, yes, Celtic had been a success.  Capturing a quadruple treble and winning nine league titles in a row is the stuff of footballing dreams. Financially the club was in a very robust state.  For all these successes though there were signs of mismanagement at board level, with fans becoming more concerned about a lack of long term planning, a scattergun approach to transfers and a failure to communicate and engage with the fans.

Celtic’s risk averse strategy had, in the eyes of the fans at least, led to numerous collapses in Europe, with the team repeatedly knocked out at the first stage.  Celtic were the big dogs domestically but in European competition, where the club had once been a mainstay, they were a puppy meekly yelping toward an early and embarrassing exit. This feeling of anger and disappointment toward the board and CEO Peter Lawwell became toxic when, despite being financially far stronger, they allowed their city rivals to not only catch up, but take away the chance to win the fabled ‘ten in a row’. 

As the summer approached, change seemed on the horizon.  Then manager Neil Lennon was gone, followed by Lawwell and a large chunk of the players who had let the fans down so badly.  Not only did the club get a new manager in Ange Postecoglou, who promised attractive football and a fresh new outlook, for some the appointment of a new CEO in Dom McKay was more important.  He represented the change that fans had been calling out for.  Talk of modernisation and a desire to see Celtic compete with the best in the world had fans on board right away.  Now, only a few months later, he has left the club.

After a busy transfer window and promising start under Postecoglou the club seemed in good hands moving forward.  Now the questions will begin anew. Was he forced to leave? Was Dom McKay’s progressive outlook too much for a board set in their ways? Are the ‘personal reasons’ sighted on the clubs official statement accurate?  Given that McKay will have no doubt signed an NDA, then the answers will probably never come out.

It is important, however, to look at the impact he had short term and why his attitude and agenda for the club seemed to strike a chord with the fans and hope that, whoever takes his place, carries on in the same vein.

When Lawwell came into Celtic in 2003 he saw a club that had just reached the UEFA Cup final but who also had one of the highest wage bills in Britain at the time.  They were a highly regarded team with a brilliant manager no doubt, but could Celtic, who were always fighting with one hand tied behind their back due to the financial limitations of playing in Scotland, keep this model of buying experienced players in? The answer, according to Lawwell, was no.  Celtic had to be run as a ‘selling’ club, where young players would be developed and sold for profit.  A strong business model that would ensure long term financial stability while still promoting an attractive and successful product on the park.  13 league titles, 9 Scottish Cups and 7 League Cups later and Lawwell can point to a legacy of success…at least domestically.

Lawwell, according to many, began to get more involved in the footballing side of things, dictating transfers and often waiting until the last minute to sign players the team desperately needed.  This not only led to early exits from Europe and the clubs once great reputation being tarnished, the constant interference saw Brendan Rodgers leave the club at the first opportunity.  Replacing a man like Rodgers with ‘yes man’ Neil Lennon was seen as yet another backwards step for the club under his guidance.

With McKay coming in he had a fresh, and crucially different, perspective.  He had been clear that he wasn’t interested in the footballing side of things and would leave that to those better qualified, like the manager for example.  He vowed to back the new man and allow him the time and freedom to build his own backroom team and restructure the club.

On the clubs structure McKay had promised a ‘modernisation’ in terms how both the corporate and footballing sides of the club would be run moving forward.  He wanted the club to copy the biggest football clubs in the world and make Celtic a force to be reckoned with on the biggest stages, all the while creating a ‘pathway’ for the youth at the club to develop into future stars.

This was music to the fans ears, exactly what they had been crying out for the board to do for so long.  Now that, for whatever reason, McKay has hastily departed, it is essential that whoever replaces him comes in with a similar outlook.  The club must be both ambitious and true to its roots, progress is key in all the areas McKay highlighted, as is his remit of ‘staying out’ of matters on the pitch.  Transfers, the backroom team and coaching structures must be the managers decision, or a director of footballs, for the club to move forward.

The other huge factor than ingratiated McKay with the fans was his desire to engage with a support who had been ignore by the hierarchy for too long.  The communication with the fans, podcasts, charities and media had been better in two months under him than for years under the previous regime.  The fans have always been the lifeblood of Celtic Football Club, he knew it.  Let’s hope the new CEO knows it too.  After being rudderless for so long, club had seemed to be on the right course, and the board must make sure that whoever comes in to lead the institution must have similar qualities to the man who has just left, or the rebuilding of Celtic Football Club may take much longer than expected.