Over two parts our resident Celtic historian, Graeme McKay, delivers the ultimate verdict on Ronny Deila’s Celtic reign. In this edition, he recollects the giddying excitement of his appointment, the optimistic first weeks and how it all came to an abrupt stop against Legia and Maribor.
I was standing in front of a lecture hall full of Germans when Ronny Deila was appointed the 18th manager of Celtic. Thinking back, and not including Brendan Rodgers, mostly because I am a young adult with functioning memory (but also who forgets the second coming?), there are only two Celtic managers that I can remember the exact moment of their appointment. The first was Jo Venglos. A summer day over the Cowan Park, running home to urge Celtic to announce Ruud Gullit, only to find out on Ceefax (seriously) that we had appointed an ‘unknown’.
Perhaps it is the this ‘unknown’ factor that allows the appointment of Celtic managers to stick in my head, but either way, it was the 6th of June, 2014 and I had just given the aforementioned lecture hall full of Germans some group work (they play well with others) so that I could scour the Huddleboard and beyond in search of Deila information.
It didn’t take the internet long to be awash with trite opinion pieces and interviews with ‘ITK’ people. Vidar ‘utility man, i.e. mediocre in more than one position’ Riseth was one of the first to drop pearls of slightly poetic Nordic wisdom when he said: “If they are not playing well, he will tell them why. If they don’t work the way he wants them to, he will sell them. It’s as simple as that.” Wow, this ‘unknown’ sounds pretty impressive, but what will we play like? “His team play a lot like Bayern Munich with the whole team joining the attack. He is the man to build the club’s future,” Mr. Utility concluded.
Vidar was not the only Norwegian getting in on the action as media attention focused on Norway for perhaps the first time ever. Arild Stavrum, the ex-Aberdeen striker with the hair, added that Deila was an “excellent” and “inspired” appointment. But cautioned that he was “a manager who needs to be given time to build a team.” (At this point I looked at a fixtures website and confirmed that it was in fact just over 5 weeks to Celtic’s first Champions League qualifier. I thought of Arild’s remark, but, you know, time is relative.) I finished my Ronny research by looking to see what deep-thinker and visionary, John Hartson, had to say about the appointment: “I don’t know anything about him other than what I’ve looked up on Google.” Man of the people, John, man of the people.
It’s no secret that the club had been downsizing pretty much since mid-way through Martin O’Neill’s tenure at the club. Strachan had worked on a smaller budget, but the club still opted to make a relatively expensive appointment when they went for the attached Tony Mowbray. It was after Mogga’s failed time at the club that the downsizing appeared to be in overdrive.
Instead of looking for a suitable replacement, Celtic promoted Neil Lennon from within and moved on from there. By the time Lennon had left he had won three back-to-back titles and looked to have hit a glass ceiling in the Champions League. Celtic had punched above their weight before, but were now at the point where suitable replacements were not being found for the players that were leaving for big money, and the club’s European performance went into reverse. Deila was arriving at a winning team, but not a team on the ascendancy.
Because Celtic had been more or less publicly knocked back by both Roy Keane and Henrik Larsson, and Neil Lennon would go on to moronically reveal that Ronny Deila had been originally thought of as replacement for Johann Mjallby, the club went on a PR/charm offensive. “Knowing that he was so highly-rated across Europe, Ronny was one of the first candidates we considered as manager,” enthused Peter Lawwell. “Ronny likes to play attacking, winning football, the Celtic way, something I know our supporters will endorse,” Lawwell added before revealing that Deila was considering “three or four options” for the assistant manager position, a comment that would suggest the Norwegian was having to choose from an already vetted list.
It was a small point, but one that made you think that Ronny was the geeky boy that pulled the hot girl and was going to go along with anything just for the chance of a fondle. It appeared that Celtic were in full control of the situation and were perhaps operating with a pseudo-Director of Football, something which would again be question when the transfer dealings began.
Upon further research Ronny Deila did appear to have some credentials for the position. ‘Super Ronny’, as he is known in Norway, took over perennial losers Strømsgodset in 2008 and won them their first Norwegian Cup in almost 20 years and only their fitfth in their history. Two years later they were runners-up in the league before improving on that in the following season to win the Norwegian Premier League for only the second time ever.
Deila described his style of play as very similar to Dortmund and spoke of his admiration for their manager: “I like Jurgen Klopp. But I’m Ronny Deila. I like how he gets close to players, makes them feel loved. But I’m me. I hope somebody will say some day: ‘he looks like Ronny Deila.’” Celtic were getting a “special, special man” according to his former assistant, a “living legend” according to the Strømsgodset supporters club and an “insanely good” manager according to Kjetil Rekdal. Not only that, his teams played like both Dortmund AND Munich!!! What a time to be alive!
What made Ronny’s achievements all the more impressive was that he had done all of it on a budget a tenth the size of Rosenborg’s and by mostly developing young players and misfits, and blending them with aged journeymen. These were all qualities that no doubt attracted Celtic, who perhaps thought they could be the Strømsgodset of the Champions League. Celtic’s ‘moneyball’ signing policy was in full flow and Deila seemed like the right coach to develop the rough gems that John Park would unearth.
The philosophy is fairly sound, as long as the person in charge of the signings is in tune with what the coach wants. There would be no point, for example, signing a lightweight and limited centre forward like, oh I don’t know, Stefan Scepovic, when the young coach you have brought it requires his striker to be a focal point that can protect the ball and bring others into play. I mean that would be madness.
As you can perhaps tell, I was sympathetic towards Ronny Deila and my little footballing hipster heart was all a flutter as I read more about him. If you listened to the History Bhoys Abroad podcast, you will know that I was not the biggest fan of Neil Lennon. In comparison, Deila seemed like a thoughtful football manager that would be able to use psychology to ensure superb man management, while also tactically astute enough to see that there was more to football than the 4-4-2 Neil Lennon had pummelled a dead horse with for seasons after the rest of world football had moved on.
Deila was much more exciting to me than the likes of Roy Keane and the usual suspects that are trotted out anytime an appointment is imminent at Parkhead (someone please give Owen Coyle a job now….) Expectations were only tempered somewhat by an unusually insightful remark from Tom English. Referencing Strømsgodset, English wrote: “No wonder they loved him. He made them relevant. He made them champions. But Celtic are already champions and these players are largely Lennon’s players, strong-minded and possibly resistant to change, as winning dressing-rooms can be at times.”
“It is a magnificent honour to be named the new manager of Celtic […] I want to deliver the best attacking, exciting and entertaining football we can play.” Oh Ronny, stop. You are make me giddy all over again. Managerial appointments are rife with promises and so far in this episode the Celtic fans had been made many, some by people not in the position to make them and some by people with the best of intentions. In reality Deila had very little time to get his message across to the players and his methods acknowledged by a squad that were perhaps still pining for Lennon. Celtic faced a trip to Iceland in five weeks and Ronny plus his pre-packaged backroom staff of John Collins and John Kennedy had to spring into action on both the training ground and in the search for new signings.
The first signing of Deila’s tenure happened on the 3rd of July and was our current number 1, Craig Gordon. The slightly bizarre aspect of this transfer is that it was set up before Ronny was brought in as the manager. It could be argued that Gordon was a relatively risk free capture; Celtic already had Forster, Gordon did not come with a transfer cost and after two years out of the game his wage demands would not be too high. However, it was a clear sign that recruitment decisions were not going to be left in the hands of our manager/first team coach. This, of course, is how clubs all around the continent work, but for a team in the UK in 2014 it was still seen as an anomaly.
Every year we are fed image after image of the wheeler dealer manager on deadline day and our assumption is that the person picking the team and the tactics would need to be the one bringing in the players. It appeared like Celtic had moved towards a Director of Football model, but without at any point articulating that change. If not the manager (because we didn’t have one at that point), who was making the recruitment decisions? Speculating based upon recent events at Celtic Park, I’d imagine John Park identified and pushed through the signings of many players from the Neil Lennon era to the end of the Ronny Deila one.
Deila’s first competitive match was against KR Reykjavik in the Second Qualifying Round of the UEFA Champions League. The match was played in Iceland on the 15th of July and Celtic lined up with Forster, Lustig, Izaguirre, Ambrose, van Dijk, Mulgrew, Johansen, McGregor, Commons, Griffiths and Stokes. The game was a bit of a non-event which Celtic dominated, hit the woodwork a couple of times, but only got the breakthrough in the 84th minute. KR’s pitch was horrendous and the ground looked like a junior park, but Celtic got the required result and were set up to finish off the tie a week later at Murrayfield (Celtic Park had been used for the Commonwealth games and was in the process of being pimped by the Glasgow City Council).
In the Edinburgh sunshine Teemu Pukki was, eh, masterful, as he bagged a double. Van Dijk scored the other two and Celtic were through to take on Legia Warsaw in the next round. “The second half was a bit sloppy […] we should have been keeping up the tempo so we could win [by] more […] we need to work in training to get the tempo even better.” This was exciting. We had just won 4-0 in a European tie and Deila was talking about upping the temp. The supporters left Edinburgh with dreams of gegenpress and rock n’ roll football.
The beginning of the SPFL season was still over two weeks away as Celtic touched down in Poland to take on Legia, a team that had won the Ekstraklasa by an impressive 10 points the season before, had Henning Berg in charge and a collection of decent Polish internationalists in their ranks. Jo Inge Berget had been added to the squad in the meantime and was in an attacking four alongside Commons, McGregor and Pukki. In my memory, this game was slightly odd. Celtic went 1-0 up within 8 minutes through McGregor and were looking quite comfortable. Even when Legia scored twice it felt like Celtic were still the better team. That was, of course, before Efe Ambrose got sent off and the team fell apart. It was interesting to see how little fight or heart the players had. They looked fine when things were okay, but as soon as they came up against the slightest of hardship they appeared to crumble.
It could be argued that this fearful and nervous mindset would be one of the defining characteristics of Deila’s team for the next two seasons. Legia scored two more goals and missed two penalties and at 4-1 Celtic were effectively out of the Champions League. “We lost the ball in the centre of the pitch so many times and the back four didn’t stay together. They were not pushing out together and were staying too wide. Worst of all is the commitment. We needed much more energy in the game.”
Part of that lack of energy was perhaps Kris Commons. The forward was such an important player for Neil Lennon, but was given a luxurious role in the team, one which Ronny Deila was not planning to replicate. Deila wanted his 4-3-3 to be high octane and energetic and that meant that the six players in front of the defence were always moving, always pressing and always looking to transition quickly. Commons was the kind of player you put in the hole behind the striker and ask him to shoot when he gets the chance. Deila was coming up against a clash of footballing cultures at Celtic and it was going to be interesting to see how it played out.
Deila was to tolerate Commons for just a little bit longer as the forward played his part in Celtic’s magnificent 3-0 victory over Legia in the return home leg. There isn’t much to be said about that triumphant night under the floodlights at Scotland’s home of rugby other than we did it by filing administration, pure, inventive administration. Maribor of Slovenia were next to taken on by our human resources department.
Meanwhile, the league campaign had started and Celtic recorded an impressive 3-0 away win at St Johnstone. Nir Bitton, who had been a bit of a nowhere man under Lennon, was brought in by Deila and joined Stokes and McGregor on the scoresheet. Next up was a home tie against Dundee United in which Celtic scored six, with new loan signing Jason Denayer among the goal scorers.
Momentum was building and when Celtic went 1-0 up against Maribor away from home, fans were beginning to get excited about the season ahead. Maribor, of course, equalised, but Celtic piled pressure on for most of the game, and if it were not for a comedy of errors between Johansen and van Dijk, they would likely have come away with an impressive win from a difficult venue.
There were 6 days until the next tie and a visit to Inverness in the middle. Deila made 11 changes to the team and Caley Thistle won 1-0. Was it good management to try to protect his players? Or was it naïve to halt momentum like that, especially so early in the season? Celtic, of course, lost the home leg of the Maribor tie and were out of the Champions League. “We need players with pace, ambition and who are young,” said Deila.
On the 28th of August, 83 days after his appointment, a UK newspaper ran the headline: ‘How Ronny Deila has already proved he is out of his depth at Celtic.’