Former New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once observed that “baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.” His maths might have left something to be desired but the sentiment was clear enough, and Celtic’s players have certainly had to draw upon their collective reserves of mental as well as physical strength in recent months in order to accomplish the unlikely and the unprecedented.
A total of 183 competitive games over the past three seasons has taken its toll on the playing staff (and, no doubt, on supporters’ wallets). The result, unsurprisingly, has been an injury list necessitating the use of no fewer than 35 players over the course of this term and a collective staleness that is, I think, easy to forgive but which has made a number of games very hard to watch.
And, of course, that’s not the half of it.
We had the departure of Moussa Dembélé just as the transfer window portcullis fell, Boyata-gate, Leigh Griffiths’ well documented mental health problems, and then in February our manager bolted for the bright lights of the East Midlands. He’d achieved everything he could “up here”, apparently.
Set in context, the achievement of a Treble Treble is nothing short of extraordinary. Yet praise for the current group of players and manager has usually been qualified, and their achievements have been utterly dismissed by some. Even Philippe Auclair, the normally measured British football correspondent of France Football magazine, put the boot in, describing the title as “worthless” and comparing Celtic’s dominance of Scottish football on and off the field not with, say, Juventus in Italy but with APOEL Nicosia of Cyprus.
Try telling that to the ten thousand or so congregated in and around the Gallowgate and High Street on Saturday evening. I’ve never seen anything like it in Glasgow. “It must’ve been like this when we won the European Cup” suggested a friend. I remained in that area of the city until the wee small hours. The good natured, carnival-like atmosphere throughout the night was remarkable as Celtic fans mixed happily with rugby crowds returning from the Pro 14 Final at Paradise. Not even the queues outside every Irish boozer in the Merchant City and the wholly half-hearted (and unsuccessful) attempts of Strathclyde Police to clear a path for the bus-load of heroes en route from Mount Florida dampened spirits. Instead, fifty-two years on to the very day, we all partied like it was 25th May 1967.
I was in Butlers Bar, not far from Hampden, when news arrived that Neil Lennon had been offered the manager’s job on a permanent basis. The reaction of those around me was muted – most just shrugged their shoulders. Peter Lawwell suggested that no one else had been interviewed for the job: “We had approaches from many representatives …. how credible it was, you never really know … we put them in a file, just left it and kept our word to Neil, really.” He hinted, also, that Lenny will be backed in the transfer market, citing his “fantastic eye for a player.”
I am surprised that Celtic didn’t explore other possibilities, if that is indeed the case, but my overriding reaction to Lenny’s appointment was one of relief. Relief that, with less than six weeks to go until our first Champions League qualifier, no outsiders will come in and drive the proverbial coach and horses through all that has been achieved. The lyrics of Don’t Cry for me Argentina crossed my mind as I made my way from Butlers to the Gallowgate: “They are illusions, they’re not the solutions they promised to be, the answer was here all the time.”
The players need rest (it looks like some of them, after answering Scotland’s call, will only get ten days) and the squad needs a bit of a makeover. Lenny has a head start in understanding and addressing all of that. Partly for the reasons outlined above, I don’t believe that any of the sexy names, whether they were interviewed or not, wanted to come to Scotland. Of the realistic candidates, I believe that our current manager is the best available. He has done all that was asked of him in very trying circumstances. The “Ten” is everything and he is a safe pair of hands.