PO Box 306, Glasgow, G21 2AE, Scotland
lots of positives from september... will we still be smiling this time next month
While much has been made in the media this season about a resurgent Hearts and we've had Rangers lurching from diddies to world beaters then back again almost on a weekly basis, Celtic under Gordon Strachan have quietly been going about the business of turning round a car wreck of a start to the current campaign.
Such was the fragility of the Hoops side in those early weeks that it was difficult to picture anything back in August other than a succession of crises, gleefully stoked by a smirking Laptop Loyal. Yet here we are in mid October, having played and lost one of our away games at Mordor, six points clear of TFOD, a recent record of fifteen points won without dropping any and with a chance to beat Hearts and go to the top of the league.
After the debacle that was Bratislava, who'da thunk of it?
It would appear also that not only is Gordon Strachan affecting some improvement on the playing side of things (admittedly it couldn't have got much worse) his philosophy of how the game should be played is meeting with the approval of a growing number of fans who want to see the game played 'the Celtic way'.
The four SPL games played in September saw 10 goals scored for the loss of only one and culminated in what Strachan said was the best performance so far this season against Livingston at Almondvale. Even in the two previous matches, against Hibs and Inverness, plenty of chances were being created, so it wasn't a surprise when the overdue tanking finally arrived, even if the opposition was, to put it mildly, moderate.
The 5:0 away win was achieved without the services of Lennon, Thompson, Agathe or Hartson (the latter two came on as subs when the game was already out of sight) and has given us plenty of food for thought with regard to the future of some of the players who have performed such sterling service for us over the last few years but who could be looking ahead to squad player status. The problem for the manager - if that's the correct way to put it - is that the players he has drafted in to replace the aforementioned have been playing well enough to merit a starting place. Maloney and Beattie, in particular, are virtually unrecognisable from the peripheral figures they were last season. Surely they have both done enough to merit an extended run in the first team?
Apart from anything else, the style off play Strachan seems to be advocating would appear to favour players who are pacey and who can operate at a high tempo (at which point you should feel free to kick off your own John Hartson debate). If there is still a shade of doubt it's possibly in the midfield area where Strachan's quartet might be lacking some steel. It's great to see them playing good football, but there will be games when the sleeves have to be rolled up and as yet we've not really seen that put to any sort of meaningful test.
While it has taken one or two of them a wee while to settle in, another plus point so far is that the manager's signings, especially Nakamura and Zurawski, are beginning to live up to expectations. Boruc, if he puts pen to paper within the next few weeks, has the potential to become an absolute cult hero.
It remains to be seen whether Du Wei and Virgo can consolidate Strachan's reputation as a coach with an eye for a player and whether, indeed, they'll be supplemented with a few more recruits in January of a similar calibre.
It is also encouraging that while WGS is laying great emphasis on playing a passing game, listening to his after-match comments - even after the Livingston game - he is also aware that the team needs to improve defensively. The Sieve has been much maligned following their opening days disasters, not least in this blatt, but to be fair to them they've only conceded 5 goals in the league since Motherwell; two of them were penalties while three were conceded during the game at Ibrox when we only had ten men.
At the AGM the manager was complimented by a speaker from the audience on his dedication to a rigorous training regime and his willingness to travel the country most nights of the week in the line of duty. He replied that there weren't too many players at the moment improving their golf handicap. It's no coincidence that recent improvements in playing standards on the pitch have gone alongside this more continental approach to training. It might not be popular with some of the players, but it goes down well with this particular supporter/ shareholder/ wages payer.
After the game at Almondvale, Mo Camara told reporters that he's training twice a day and has never worked harder. In addition the defenders apparently stay behind twice a week for extra work on their positioning and tactics. Good.
It's on the training ground that the foundations for success are laid.
Not only that, but the announcement at the beginning of October that the scouting system is to undergo an overhaul is a sure sign that there is a degree of strategic planning to go along with the short-term desire to win the league this season.
It is progress and that is what we all want to see. Strachan is in the process of building a squad where no one is guaranteed a starting place if a better option is available and one which can adapt tactically to situations on the field as they arise. At last there appears to be a plan B.
It's early days for this team, of course, but it is certainly beginning to look promising. The proof of how much progress we have made will come sooner, rather than later, with the Hearts game looming on the horizon and two matches against Rangers coming up in November. The hacks will already be sharpening their crayons to plunge one or other of Strachan or McLeish into a crisis, depending on results. Yet the Hearts game will only be one more step in the evolution of Strachan's side. No matter which way it goes we must try to be as patient as we can. It's May when the silverware is handed out, and that's when a final judgement can be passed on how WGS has done. If he can help maintain current form through the next six weeks then he'll be giving us a pleasant enough Christmas this year.