Posts Tagged ‘Glasgow’


It is a year since I left Cologne after a long weekend spent, in the main, testing kolsch and integrating into the city and culture with my fellow travellers. A city which has never left me since, and for which my psyche harks at me to return at my earliest convenience. In the month’s leading up to that trip, we took the obvious choice of adopting FC Koln and keeping abreast of their present status – unfortunately, our trip was arranged the week following the final game of season 2010/11 and the Billy Goats had safely navigated their way to tenth place aided by the 30-goal haul of Milivoje Novakovic and Lukas Podolski.

A year on, black smoke engulfs the stands and the air of the North Rhine-Westphalia – through the smog “Poldi” attempts a somber farewell to the fans who have never doubted his love and endeavours during his two spells, while we await the white puff which will signal a new dawn.
The Billy Goats are so readily open house for negative press – some of which is brought upon itself – but it seems too easy to stand from afar and take pot shots at the wounded animal. In an attempt to readdress the balance, here is the remnants of the season from the heart of the club – the fans, the loyal inhabitants of the RheinEnergie stadion and the cities brauhaus’.

At times, they admit the responsibility of being a supporter, more akin to a soldier being drafted for war rather than a fruitful experience.  Stormy Cologne – storms in the sky, in the stand and within the squad and boardroom. The atmosphere seemed toxic during some games. A number of fans grew restless and rebelled early on – fighting, behaving unlike followers of the club at away games and attacking opposition buses. What were they trying to achieve or furthermore, prove? They preempted the decline and reacted with an unnatural and uncharacteristic showing of hatred – they were not taking the “decline” well – Andy (45) noted the behaviour as outrageous. Köln need a fresh injection of life and spirit – they are forever being publicly dragged through the mud, the tyre tracks leave behind a debris of self-destruction and bad blood sifting through the very core. “Oda” – the fan who was the inspiration behind the story – doesn’t care about returning straight back to the top league if it’s not going to be progressive for the long-term ambition of the club.
Early November & in a break from my domestic blogging duties from the East End of Glasgow – the strong reverberations of departure surrounding the prodigal son of a German city not long visited, captures my immediate attentions. I dissect the players’ past, present & future and focus on the impact in Cologne and further afield, should this talk become a reality. To my amazement, the article is received well in many corners, including in Germany, where natives, fluent in both their own and English tongue, thankfully and graciously took the time to engage and review. Oda, became a regular crux during the season and her friends, now included, give their version of an eventful and eventually, exasperating campaign.
21.11.2011 Currently with sixteen points from a possible thirty-six – Köln are performing admirably if not inspirationally, as Jörn (41) reflects on a team spirit visible then, but totally defunct in 2012. The club is due to play at home to Mainz – when all other games have kicked off in the afternoon, I check the updates and am dumbstruck to find the match was postponed. The referee, Babak Rafatti, was found in his hotel room prior to the match, alive but in a desperate state due to an earlier suicide attempt. Even though it was such a heartbreaking and horrendous event, it seemed almost coincidental that it would happen to this team – Oda noted Rafatti is one of the more constant and favoured referees of the Köln faithful after the dust had settled.

Earlier that week, club legend and former West German international, Wolfgang Overath, bewildered the FC Faithful by standing down as club president along with his two vice-chairs. Not only was the scenario described to me as “haywire” – in the aftermath of the board meeting in which Overath had resigned, he described the “close working relationship” of Volker Finke & head coach Stale Solbakken, and his prediction of “future successes with this partnership.” At the time it didn’t add up, and reading the reflections of the fans, many of whom brandished the Norwegian as “stupid”, & “stubborn”, it seems to add weight to the rumours of internal disruptions which were crippling the infrastructure. Next up, Derby time against Gladbach!
25.11.2011 The fans are in mood for revenge – previous meetings do not bode well, and Köln are looking for retribution for last season’s 4-0 & 5-1 nightmares. But there is a strong sense of confidence and excitement in the Cathedral city air – despite the off-field disruptions, the Billy Goats must be due some good luck on it.
25.11.2011 (A few hours later) “Oh my f***ing goodness!” I received this e-mail halfway through watching a film starring Gina Carrano & Michael Fassbender in which the tagline read “They left her no choice” – much akin to what Oda was doing as she watched on in the stands. The title of the film has already been utilised in this article to describe the club’s season – its hard to disagree. The rest of the week was spent licking wounds – old ones not yet healed, but brutally opened again and doused in acidity as Monchengladbach inflicted their rivals to three of their best with little or no resistance.
She later describes “Micha” the goalkeeper, as again, “the poorest Bugger on the pitch” – I take this as double-edged, as he not only deals with the heavy burden when picking the ball from the net on many occasions, but also of playing behind a desperate defence, light on protection for their number one. The keeper himself comes out publicly, in hope of a reaction, to condemn the side and insist they have “no balls for the fight!” – it seems to have an adverse reaction.
From this period on there is a worrying lack of communication, with a heavy calendar in December before the winter break, it seems the virus working its way through the team has hit Oda. She doesn’t have the fight or reserves to maintain an outlook for outsiders never mind her own. The team itself musters up a recovery of sorts fearing an all out backlash from the fans with two score draws sandwiched between an impressive and out of character four nil resounding win at home to Freiburg – although few & far between, for a side with the history and reputation of FC, victories like these against teams newer to this environment should have been a necessity.
One last tie on the 16th of December & it was a seasonal gift come prematurely for Bayern Munich – who also received the crown of winter champion. Even with an early red card for Franck Ribery reducing Der FCB to ten, FC Köln refused to spoil their hosts finery and left the Allianz virtually untouched, keeping their paws away from the silver and leaving their advisories to sign off with a resounding three nil victory. The game never seemed in doubt & the psychological and physical edge an extra pair of legs gives a side seemed lost on a disjointed Köln side. Their fans left in small numbers, deflated and with no sense of pride left for their team. Things would need to change in the rueckrunde, attitudes especially had to be looked at, and the lacklustre performances had to be addressed.
This was the turning point for the article, if there was no further communication between now and the end of the campaign, this would be nothing more than an outsiders perspective on the season. I sent an e-mail with just under a week until the Bundesliga was underway again asking for the fans expectations for the remaining matches. Thankfully a response was forthcoming – the fans are now excited despite the start of the slump in form recently and hopeful of acquiring a mid-table berth come May. The faithful were also looking to next season, the development and introduction of a youthful set-up would be key to the long-term goals of the club. In May, the outlook although bleaker was of a similar belief – the short-term future of the team would be bedding in younger players with the drive and sheer determination to resurrect FC, also to fill in the positional gaps left through the departures of more senior and experienced players.


The narrow loss away to Wolfsburg barely seemed to register as the rumours surrounding the cities’ most famous son resurfaced again – this time from a far more unlikely source than previous stories had emerged. The frictions which remained between Russia & Poland – with Podolski being of Polish decent himself – seemed to suggest a move to the former USSR and the emerging oil wealth country, was a remote one. Poldi stayed in the news that week but unfortunately, Köln’s wall was now ready to crumble.

Despite opening the scoring for the team at the RheinEnergie stadion, the clubs number ten fought through the pain barrier for the majority of the Schalke match which neither aided the side in the short or long-term. The ’04 eased their way into the game & eventually ran out comfortable winners by four goals to one. The ramifications of this match shook the clubs foundations to breaking point as news of Podolski’s injury reverberated around the city – a month without their talisman beckoned.

Oda tried to remain positive, hopeful that the German internationals absence would be an opportunity for others to stake their claim for a start and for the rest of the team to begin taking more responsibility. Andy was fully aware and worried about the lack of responsible aptitude which was displayed throughout the campaign, with none of the players accepting their tasks – which was borne of a culture throughout the team where no punishments were forthcoming no matter the crime.
Again an away win against a truly desperate Kaiserslautern side did little to convince fans or onlookers of Köln’s resolve or ambition to remain in the top-tier. Oda admitted the three points were an almighty struggle to obtain, but she was still hopeful the team were willing to fight – perhaps the confidence which a win brings would carry some momentum.
18.2.2012 Fingers, toes and whatever else can be crossed, are, in the hope of back to back wins for the first time since late September as the Billy Goats travel to Nurnberg. In the cities’ squares, brahaus’ and beer gardens there is a sense of joviality as the carnival is in full swing. The previous evening, pictures circulated with Poldi and Köln native Michael Schumacher enjoying themselves with what seemed like, no troubles in the world. Under the surface, for many like them the festivities added only as a temporary distraction from what was becoming a fairly tumultuous period. On the bench for the Lautern tie was Jong Tae-Se – a Korean forward from Bochum – ,who was brought in not by the coach, but general manager Finke without even a consultation with the man seemingly in charge of footballing affairs. Georg (41 ) summed up Solbakken as a stubborn man, who acted like a child when he did not get his way – the manner in which this transaction was carried out would do little to suppress this.

In retrospect Oda and the gang were confident going into this match, the two one defeat although not entirely surprising, dampened the carnival atmosphere in the city. A group of the players perhaps also still in a state of bemusement, choose to unwind at a nightclub at the tail end of the weekends celebrations. The trouble which flared at this juncture was one brought on by underlying tensions not just with the players but the fans as well. At any other time this may have blown over harmlessly, the professionals would have acted in a manner which was apposite – the intoxicated supporter eventually seeing sense through a peacekeeping associate. As Andy (45 ) pointed out – the attitude which ran through the side was one of nonchalant disregard for the consequences – this was now becoming an off-field issue as well as a footballing one.
25.2.2012 The outlook of the regular FC fan for matches was now of the negative variety – there was no hope, no rituals or prayers which could turn things round. Positive thoughts & energies can breed positivity – the flip side, well, that doesn’t instill much confidence let’s say. The e-mail is titled – “In my head – defeated again” as Oda prepared to head to the stands for conscription No 12.
26.2.2012 Another defeat – truly devastated is all that is mustered, further review would only bring to the surface any rage or heartbreak which was locked away. The unrelenting ties which bind you to your football club are as strong as the padlocks which adorn the cities’ main bridge over the Rhein. The only three certain truths in life are your mother, father and football team Frank points out, no matter how bad they feel – they will live or die by their side, the red and white will always run through them.
1.3.2012 One of the first notable anxieties facing a fan worried about the drop, is despairingly waiting and hoping on other results going your way. It is already red alert in Köln before the one all draw in Hoffenheim, as Freiburg and Hertha Berlin record wins and with their extra two points, move FC closer to the lower seats. The subject line prior to the match was amended from “defeat” to “win” and despite the results elsewhere, the avoidance of a loss was good for morale within the fans, if not the team itself.
10.3.2012 The energy coming from the latest mail obviously reverberated to the pitch – the excitement hard to contain, perhaps nerves also played a part in the jovial pre-match notes. Back in front of their own fans, Köln faced their faced real six-pointer of the season against fellow relegation candidates, Hertha Berlin. The one nil victory was succeeded with a quite uncharacteristic outpouring of emotion from Solbakken as he ran onto the pitch, arms raised defiantly, congratulating his players and soaking up the adulation of the vehement support.

What followed that evening was a great surprise to the fans, but perhaps not to the manager as the man who brought him to the club, Volker Finke was sacked as sporting director. At the time I wrote an article in the aftermath of the events which dominated Köln’s weekend, noting the removal of Finke as a message from the board that they had nailed the colours truly to the mast for Germany to see, firmly putting their weight behind the Norwegian boss for the foreseeable future. No love was lost between the two since the normally friendly, calm & collected Stale Solbakken, arrived in the summer – he complained to the board about the amount of influence Finke was trying to have on his decisions, and also his eagerness to openly discuss in-house discussions with the all too involved press hounds. Later on I was commended for my piece with Oda adding about the change in attitude and direction that those recent 90 minutes had positively had on the fate of the club.
17.3.2012 One of the toughest trips of the Bundesliga season came with what would have previously been the not so daunting trip to Hannover 96 – Mirko Slomka and his Reds – up until the end of the campaign, recorded the only unbeaten home record in the German top division. FC kept with their coat tails for the first forty-five but ended up on the end of a four one demolition in the second half. Hopefully the players weren’t beginning to wave the white flag. Next up though, BVB, who were playing like an unstoppable bullet train, only stopping momentarily to discard the remnants of their most recent victim’s – and the next approaching stadium was the RheinEnergie Stadion. Hope you’re sitting comfortably…..

26.3.2012 Oda is living in a nightmare, which is being played out horribly by a cast of amateur actors – the last act was a train wreck, Dortmund weren’t in any mood to stay behind and clear up. They had done irreparable damage. She was lost, and still is, lost for words – a royal horror show, where we know who ends up with the crown and who is living off precious little scraps. Again, frustratingly, Köln make a more than decent showing for the first half – holding the league leaders a goal apiece going into the break. Now is the time for manager’s to make their impact – the half-time team-talk – forcing their displeasures, rules, admiration, crockery, and whatever else on their troops who are soaking up the instructions, gearing up and focusing on the 2nd part of the battle. The rearguard held out for not very long at all, as holes behind the defence were probed and prodded with little resistance as five Borrusia attacks were comfortably converted to leave the home fans dumbfounded and dejected.

In the last six home matchdays, the Billy Goats had went into the break either in an advantageous position or held the other side and only taken four points from a possible eighteen – nowhere near good enough for a side looking to maintain their Bundesliga status. As Andy described the season as a rollercoaster – the unpredictability and ups and downs the fans were even experiencing during matches themselves must have left them feeling like they were going through an emotional wringer.

Things on the home front in Paradise were not making my German friend feel much better – she wishes she had my worries, which were at the time coming to terms with a domestic treble dream ending in a League Cup final defeat to Kilmarnock, and losing out on the chance to clinch the league title on your greatest rivals backyard – not the greatest week in my own 2011-12 diary, but certainly not as desperate as facing possible impending demotion. Next Saturday she now bills as the most important of the whole season – to watch or stay below cover?

31.3.2012 FC Augsburg were not mathematically safe, but they had put themselves on a good footing with a series of impressive outings since their promotion last season. Would the pressure of a surely fired-up and desperate Köln eleven, be a bridge too far for the new recruits of the Bundesliga? Unfortunately for our FC faithful, Augsburg again performed admirably and without fear, winning two one and sending Koln to a third straight defeat. Our group of fans sit in disbelief – as they nurse their Kölsch’s – the thick air of despondency is broken with a rallying call, – “A New Game means New Luck!” – hopefully they were not running on empty.

07.4.2012 The fighting spirit which had been evident in the earlier part of the season, showed some resurgence at home to Werder Bremen. This was one of the things Jörn was proud of then, and a break from the listlessness he had endured in the rueckrunde was a nice change in this one all draw. The business end of the season is not referred to as such for no reason, the players need to roll their sleeves up and buckle down to ensure every blade of grass is disturbed and the paying public are assured the determination they put in is reciprocated.

10.4.2012 Pathetic. Lost for words. Sick. Disgusted. Disarray. Lack of discipline. Do these players want to stay here? Playing the big matches, paid handsomely, and enjoy life? Mainz – the carnival club – make a mockery of their visitors racing into a three goal lead before taking it easy in the second period and inflicting only one more dagger to the heart of this side – then again, perhaps that organ was not beating through the team? The fans have had their share and want out, but there is no early escape clause – we can’t fast forward to the summer and find out the result. As I said to Oda, whatever performances are produced, in these final stages of the season the next four games are vital – and the fans have to stay strong.
15.4.2012 The illness is spreading, we are in a critical state and Borussia Monchengladbach turn up to play, Marco Reus dazzling the tired and weary FC players with some succulent skills. Solbakken is gone – too little, too late? A new coach is brought in, but he is an old head and had been in charge before. I feel like saying that perhaps this decision should have already been taken, or left till the end of May – but what use is this, like teaching a fish how to swim.

21.4.2012 The new man in charge issues a defiant and strong call to arms – the club, the fans and the players need to stick together – a siege mentality has to be implemented. Oda admits her responsibility and heads to her seat for the penultimate home fixture of a tumultuous season. She would rather stay in bed, hear and see nothing. My fingers are crossed – Regards from – in every respect – stormy Cologne….

22.4.12 Home to Stuttgart – the team, the fans fought back positively. Gave place a lift and looked as though performance could kick-start a revival scene – the point was well deserved and the energies from the stands and players were relentless from the first whistle – the excitement is building for the trip to Freiburg with Köln sitting out of the bottom two but in the play-off position. A draw, I feel would be good as SC have a good record in front of their own fans – with Gladbach playing Augsburg, it is not impossible that FC could drag themselves out from the desperate situation they have played themselves into.

28.4.2012 The final whistle has just gone – all I get in my inbox : I AM FED UP! (There were more exclamations than that but it looked untidy.) It was a tough one to take, Podolski dragged his team back into the match in the second half but again, the defence was unable to absorb any penetration and they capitulated again. A win next week and FC avoid immediate relegation and have the saving grace of two matches against the third placed side from Bundesliga.2 who will be foaming at the mouth for the wins. As the carrot dangles for them, Köln have their own next week, at home to the runners-up in the league – FC Bayern Munich. They are due to star in the Champions League final and DFB Pokal showpiece finale after this last league game and have already been resting.some star players. These preparations stand Köln in good stead, but already on numerous occasions this season – the team have been guilty of shooting themselves in the foot.

05.5.2012 Not since matchday three, have Köln been occupying either of the automatic relegation spots – even now, in the thirty-fourth and final week, they are still in sixteenth position and two points ahead of Hertha. It’s them or FC, Kaiserslautern are long gone and awaiting their companion to ease the journey into the tough world of 2.Bundesliga. Wishing the day away, Oda has been contemplating life out of the top-tier all through the night – the many connotations and permutations causing her brain to not even allow the contemplation of sleep. The weather is in the home teams favour, Rain – which will make for an unpredictable surface and hopefully curtail the more gifted Bayern players and assist in evening out the playing field. But could the extra weight drown the already weary souls in white & red who have not at all points looked worthy of wearing the prestigious jersey?

A week later 11.5.2012 “……deeply upset. Devastated.”

As the fans dejectedly sift through the rubble, looking for any hope or salvation, they can be satisfied that they will still be in the stands however long it takes to return to the Bundesliga. Although a banner unveiled at the Bayern Munich game read – “Bye Poldi! We would leave too – if only we could!” – Oda, Jorn, Andy, Georg, Henrik, Frank and the thousands of other fans will all return next season and beyond, and travel to cities that previously they may never have heard of or knew existed. The reconstruction of Koln from board room level all the way through to the pitch, was already underway by the time I had begun this commentary, but hopefully the recovery is tread on a less treacherous path for all involved.


New Striker Pawel Brozek

Celtic completed their transfer dealings with a day to spare as Pawel Brozek joined on loan from Trabzonspor until at least the end of season having already concluded deals for cover in midfield and defence in the Winter window.  Rabiu Ibrahim, a young Nigerian midfielder, has vowed to wow the fans with his flamboyant and skillful game which he models on a hybrid of Zinedine Zidane and David Silva, (a cross between the two would be just fine!) and the view from the manager and my Lennoxtown scout is the boy is something special. Denied any quality game time at PSV, Lennon has taken a worthwhile gamble on the twenty year-old who has received nothing bar glowing reports along the way – and the next few years at Celtic will hopefully be a productive one for player and club.

Rabiu Ibrhahim out to impress

Announced back in November, Mikael Lustig was the first player through the door arriving on a pre-contract from Rosenborg. There is still much debate surrounding this right-sided defender given the abundance of riches at the sides disposal in this department – Adam Matthews & Cha Du-Ri are already vying for the first team position, whilst the experienced Mark Wilson and young development player Andre Blackman also work towards a starting role. A fully fledged Swedish international in his prime playing years will not be arriving at Celtic Park for a place on the bench, however comfortable.

There were three heading the opposite direction with fringe youngsters, Paul Slane, James Keatings and Lewis Toshney going on loan to MK Dons, St Johnstone and Kilmarnock respectively for some valuable first team experience. The one disappointing story of the frantic final days proceedings, was that of Mark Wilson and the breakdown of his move to Leeds United. Disjointed & frustrating are words you would use to sum up the defenders spell at the Hoops since joining in 2006 – long-term injuries and rehabilitation being the route cause. And with additional back-up in Lustig his playing days with the Bhoys may now well be at an end. The opportunity of some game time in the Championship on the road back from his latest knee problem would have been essential if Wilson is to ever play competitive football for a sustained period.

Lustig in the Classic "Signed" Position

The main purpose of this window in my opinion, was for Celtic to maintain their current squad and especially their prized assets such as the striking combination of Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes.  As I mentioned last month in “When The Saints Come Marching In” http://thebhoymcclay.com/2012/01/18/when-the-saints-come-marching-in/ – No good could emerge from Celtic letting their star striker leave at this point in the season, for any amount of money. Polish international striker, Brozek is waiting in the wings for an opportunity but again, how long will it take to get an understanding with another partner? Will he adapt to Scottish football in the short period he has to impress Lennon before he makes a decision on whether to make his stay permanent? Current squad members, who some may have not lost sleep over moving on to pastures new, such as Samaras and Ki – will prove their worth in the coming months also. Both players have individual styles of play with a lot of fans struggling to comprehend what they bring to the team. The Greek is direct and pacey, meaning the team can quickly switch to counter-attack or when struggling to break down a well parked SPL double decker. The Korean Player of the Year on the other hand, is able to command a game with the ball at his feet – his vision to pick a killer pass or dictate the play when under pressure could be vital.

Growing the side from a position of strength is something relatively new to Celtic, there is usually a diminution or two within the playing staff as has been seen in the last few windows. Rangers on the other hand, have adapted a polar opposite and not only let go of their most prized possession in Nikica Jelavic, but allowed another dozen or so players leave on loan or for good – if Celtic to fail to deliver the knockout punch in the coming months, it would have to go down as the most disappointing and unbelievable league campaigns of recent history. It is sport, human nature and one man versus another and of course, anything can happen – but to have such a dominating & dynamic young squad and positive mental edge, the forecast for green and white ribbons to be fluttering in May looks a sure thing.

 

 


Our talisman

We need to tell them quite rightly, where to go with their £6m bid for our top striker.

Southampton’s efforts to unsettle Gary Hooper have so far been rebuffed by both club & striker, with the latter committing at least, his short-term future to the club and possibly beyond. Not only is the Englishman this season’s top scorer, his partnership with Anthony Stokes seems to have matured into a solid mutual understanding and double act which has taken the League by storm with twenty-one goals so far. He is also ahead in their own personal goals head-to-head, which is great for motivation and can only add weight to Celtic’s longing for the Championship.

I do believe in the coming years, our number eighty-eight will move back to England, but at a higher level than where he came from at League One Scunthorpe United. Southampton, come May, could well be offering Hooperman Premier League football in England, albeit with a struggling side, but that would probably come under an aspiration for any footballer born down South and Hooper will be no different.  In his primitive few years in professional football, the Celtic star has accumulated over one hundred goals at only twenty-three and has shown not only a knack for being in the right place at the right time, but an ease and sublimity to his finishing.

Not only this, but how demoralising and disheartening would it be for the team, manager and fans to let their star man go, midway through the season – especially when their only other striking target, Baba Diawara, appears to have agreed terms with Spanish cracks, Sevilla. Trying to find another striker, or trying to incorporate the unconvincing Bangura into a partnership with Stokes for the title run in would be akin to shooting yourself in the foot – and the pain would be far worse if this decision meant finishing runners-up again.


The Only Way is Up for Ledley & The Bhoys

The “Hail” force winds in the East End of Glasgow were enough to knock Rangers from their lofty perch last night as Celtic showed their title credentials in the second Glasgow Derby of the season.

Fans and pundits alike were predicting a revenge mission of some stature for the Bhoys following their four two defeat earlier in the season, but the conditions were not suited for a footballing lesson – first things first, get the three points and regain your position. With at least two further encounters due for 2012, Neil Lennon’s team are now title favourites and this time, you would be deluded for arguing with the bookies odds.

Celtic, the good guys, took the game to their visitors – the evil demons, and were mounting pressure on Allan McGregor’s goal mouth before the first potential talking point of the game. Rangers from nowhere, had the ball over the line – it stopped short of the net thanks to a magnificent scoop from Fraser Forster but Wallace’s’ header should have been the opener – if we went over wronged decisions for Celtic in previous games in this fixture though, a candle and Horlicks would be required for the haul. In the second half even, a flag from the linesman stopped the onside Gary Hooper from adding to the woes of Ally McCoist. The Celtic manager, confident in his number eighty-rights ability called it “one apiece” when talking in the studio post-match about the decision.

The Bhoys in green deservedly swung the encounter in their favour from a majestic Mulgrew cross which met the head of Joseph Ledley ten minutes after the restart. Just as the first half had started, Celtic pinned their rivals on the back foot and kept jabbing away till the knockout blow – the Welsh star meeting the ball with a willing determination that took the festive stuffing out of Rangers. A team including Aluko, Bartley, Bocanegra and Wallace should never have really been heading for the New Year in top spot anyway – a disjointed mis-match lacking any real quality against the thoughtful, battling skills & prowess of Kayal, Forrest, Samaras and Wanyama to name but a few – the Hoops are now a youthful, energetic side with a winning momentum & mentality along with a fiercely strong hunger for success.

The depth of quality and lack of it on the Rangers bench was there for all to see when Sally called for the cavalry – Maurice Edu & David Healy. The latter was fortunate to only see yellow moments later for a scythe on James Forrest which took the young Scot on the knee in full flight and left him on the touchline in agony, a desperate and despicable act from an aged nobody who could only watch as Celtic ran out victors and completed a seventeen point swing in league points in their favour since the fifth day of November – Jelavic deduced from that moment that Rangers were unlikely to be caught, he will be scratching his head at how swiftly and nonchalantly Neil Lennon and his squad have turned the deficit around to be top going into the New Year – the year of the thunder.


Celtic take the lead in Italy

On the week that the fans were silenced, the team fired a shot across the bow to Europe and their many opponents. From the first till the mid fortieth minute or thereabouts, Celtic seemed impenetrable – the pressing, marking and organisation was second to none and who knows what the second half would have held had Celtic kept that deserved lead through Gary Hooper’s opener.

The Italian’s, joint top of Serie A, started with a great rendition of the Parkhead sides usual “rabbit caught in the headlights” impression with the visitors making all the early headway. Georgios Samaras again seemed unplayable in an excellent first half display and before the lethal run and cross for Celtic’s 29th minute goal, the Greek forward had slid an inch perfect ball through for the lone Englishman to poke wide & been wrongly adjudged of a foul on Udinese’s last man after another purposeful run. In this vein of form you suspect Sammy to keep his place up until the Glasgow Derby on the 28th but these games do throw up surprise inclusions and omissions. In the second forty-five with Udinese finding their feet, they also found a way of dealing with Celtic’s number nine – mark tight and stop the runs before he gets in gear, for the most part, their tactic worked and Celtic’s main outlet was distinguished.

The saviour of the second half was undoubtedly the much ridiculed young goalkeeper, Fraser Forster. Some of his game is still very raw and requires some work, but his shot-stopping capabilities are at points world-class and other times breathtaking. With the Hoops defending becoming more ragged and tired, the giant Geordie pulled off a string of superb stops – culminating in a Di Natale double stop with the Italian’s second effort – a bullet header reached by the fingertips of an outstretched colossus returning from the far post, to the applause of his team mates and fans alike. Confidence in a goalkeeper can be vital, especially playing for a big side, and Forster has grown in stature these past weeks when he probably imagined the height of his seasons shot stopping forays was the last-minute penalty stop against Hearts last Saturday – his overwhelming and thunderous reaction to that save remains my screen saver and iconic image of the season so far.

Forster saves the day against Hearts

On the day that the big top finally came down on FC Sions’ court circus appeal to be reinstated, Celtic can come away from this test with more than just learning experience. From the disastrous away night in Switzerland, the Bhoys away form has improved to the point where we are now debating how unlucky we were not to win in Italy – a great reflection on how mentally tough this team and manager can be with a little heart, belief and determination.

I was overjoyed when I heard the decision to initially let the Bhoys into the Europa League proper – standing outside Glasgow Central reading Twitter feeds and news stories after work I took it as my duty to let some of my other friends still in work, hear the news – nonchalant and negative came back the responses, to a man the fear of injury, defeat and embarrassment was a burden to great to bear, this season especially. Two defeats to a top Spanish side with some extremely dangerous household names on their books, is no real embarrassment – Celtic never again played the role of the inexperienced and vulnerable pupil. With gusto and confidence they can go into these festive fixtures at worst still four adrift of their title rivals with the thunderous roars of discontent and disbelief engulfing Ibrox.

Oh and before I forget – F**k the SFA, F**k the SNP and UEFA too!