“At Least Barnes Could Rap” said the banner in the Rangers end at Ibrox after Tony Mowbray’s last Old Firm game. I’m not sure I agree with that. John Barnes didn’t seem much of a rapper.
Herbert Chapman gave us the WM formation, Helenio Herrera invented cataneccio, the Dutch gave us total football. None of these innovations were successful overnight, and perhaps one could argue that Tony Mowbray should have been given time to develop his new 3-1-6 “Cavaliero” formation. Or not, given that he seemed to have lost the plot after the 4-0 pasting by St Mirren – “Maybe it isn’t a league for trying to force the game and be expansive.” He wasn’t clutching at straws, he was grasping at threads.
Back in early February I put forward my view that Mowbray was playing a long-term game and was prepared to sacrifice this season in order to put down foundations for the future. As Paul Le Guen found out on the south side of Glasgow, that only works if people believe in the future you’re building – you can’t afford too many slip-ups, never mind an outright shocker like last Wednesday’s game.
So what was the problem?
Theory number one: the tried and trusted conspiracy. If you’re looking for excuses, then get behind the Celtic board and blame the refs. Crucial decisions are said to have cost Celtic goals, games, and points. While that may be true, all it implies is that Scottish referees make mistakes – and I would dispute several so-called errors that are given as proof, particularly Antoine-Fortune’s “goal,” which was correctly disallowed at Parkhead in January. The Celtic board indicated they were going to complain to the SFA about the standard of refereeing in their games, but as was pointed out by many at the time: champions are good enough to overcome these hurdles. “That’s why we’re champions,” as the song goes.
Theory number two: bad luck. This one has more legs, for sure. Mowbray hasn’t really had much luck all season – injuries to his defenders meant he never established a settled back line, and his strikers in some games were doing everything but stick the ball where it’s supposed to go. Having said that, Mowbray discarded the Caldwell/McManus pairing and didn’t play Scott McDonald nearly as often as he could have when he was by far Celtic’s best goalscorer – certainly all the Rangers fans I know couldn’t understand why he didn’t start the New Year derby. So while maybe you can’t make your own luck, you can certainly destroy it with dodgy decisions.
Theory number three: romance is dead in Scottish football. Who has been successful in recent years? Walter Smith, who perfected defensive “Wattenacio”. Gordon Strachan, whose style of play was disliked by his own fans (and who signed Gary Caldwell). Martin O’Neill, who inherited Henrik Larsson but then surrounded him with bruisers like Bobo Balde and John Hartson. Paul Le Guen came into this environment surrounded by hope, chairman Murray famously promising “a massive moonbeam of success”, but the Frenchman was crushed like a bug. Likewise, Mowbray has always been idealistic. At Hibs he could afford it, to a certain extent – but on promotion to the Premiership his refusal to adapt the West Brom style, while noble, was what ultimately doomed the Baggies to a single season in the top division. Perhaps this should have given pause to the Celtic board, but maybe they wanted too much to believe in their traditional view of the club as custodians of cavalier football – especially after the years of perceived gruel from Strachan.
You’ve probably figured out which theory I subscribe to. And looking back at Mowbray’s reaction to the St Mirren game, it would seem like we are in agreement: “Maybe it is a league for playing defensive, negative football and having quality up front to counter-attack.” Except I don’t agree. Yes, you need a solid base – but that doesn’t mean you play negative football. The best managers figure out how to defend *and* attack – the game involves both.
Looking forward, Celtic have applied a smart short-term fix: Neil Lennon. He is popular with the fans, he was always pragmatic in his play so I’d expect him to bring that to his coaching, and he will definitely instill passion in his players – if not, they won’t last. If he does well, there will be a clamour for him to stay – especially if the season ends with Celtic rescuing a trophy from the Mowbray wreckage. But would that be the right decision? With Mark Hughes putting his name in the frame, perhaps a more interesting option is available – Lennon returning to the coaching staff to serve his time for a few years.
And finally: Mowbray for Ipswich. You heard it here first.