Over two parts our resident Celtic historian, Graeme McKay, delivers the ultimate verdict on Ronny Deila’s Celtic reign. In the previous edition, he recollected the giddying excitement of his appointment, the optimistic first weeks and how it all came to an abrupt stop against Legia and Maribor. In part 2 he picks up at the aftermath of the first crushed Champions League dream.
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.’
Deila was off to a troubled start as Celtic manager: he had collected six points from a possible nine, with the only defeat coming at the notoriously difficult venue of Inverness and had fluffed two chances at gaining access to the land of milkmen and honeybooboo that is the Champions League. But was it really so strange?
Legia Warsaw were two-in-a-row Polish champions and their coach Henning Berg would eventually lead them to their 3rd (and his 2nd) consecutive title. They had consistency of player, coach and tactic. Their starting XI was made up of eight full internationalists and had a real core of Polish players, all of which were representing their country. They were, however, 62 places below Celtic in the UEFA club rankings of 2014, but when you consider that Legia made this year’s Champions League and finished 3rd in their group after a credible draw with Real Madrid and a sound victory over Sporting, then it could be argued that we played them at the beginning of a fairly major upswing.
NK Maribor were a few places above Legia in the European rankings for that year, but were nowhere near the quality of the Polish outfit. They did, however, have a similar consistency to Legia in that they were coming off the back of consecutive titles and with the same head coach in place. Both teams were on a surer footing than Celtic and I think it can be seen from this season that even with someone has talented as Brendan Rodgers in charge, the early CL qualifiers are absolute minefields. Would Brendan Rodgers’ team have qualified if Legia Warsaw had been lying in wait at the last hurdle instead of Hapoel Beer Sheva?
I imagine I am coming across as a bit of a Ronny apologist, but that is most definitely not my intention. He certainly had his faults, but I think a lot about him made it easy for certain fans and people in the media to attack him. I know someone that referred to him as ‘the PE teacher’ and he was continually lambasted for his use of phrases like ‘small details’. And, of course, he was not a Celtic man and was not from a fashionable footballing country. Truth be told, he was a pretty easy target. But I am not sure that the early months really merited the viciousness of attack that came his way.
Transition between managers is always a tricky thing, but naturally some are easier than others. Martin O’Neill left Celtic with a fairly physical team and playing a standard 4-4-2. Gordon Strachan had to address an ageing squad while also chopping the budget, but there was still a decent core there and there was unlikely to be too much of a culture shock. Even then his early plans were curtailed by that result in Bratislava.
Tony Mowbray inherited a decent Celtic squad, for the kind of budget the board was spending at the time. Again, systems and culture wouldn’t change too much and he was expected to either finish slightly above or slightly below a financially questionable Rangers team. Neil Lennon picked up the pieces post-Paisley and began to build upon a core that was left behind by Mowbray, adding players to fill gaps, but generally his remit was to motivate a lacklustre squad of players.
Despite relatively little change in tactical systems from Martin O’Neill to Neil Lennon, none of these managers managed to navigate Celtic to the appropriate European competition within their first seasons. Strachan faced the Artmedia debacle, Mowbray was schooled home and away by Arsenal and Lennon had us put out the CL by Braga and the EL by FC Utrecht. Deila’s capitulation in Europe was embarrassing, but unfortunately was to be expected.
The biggest difference between Deila’s first few months and those of the managers mentioned above was an attempted change in tactics. In 2014, most football teams in the world had dropped the 4-4-2 and those that still played it played a version far removed from the two wingers/two strikers that most Scottish football fans knew. Under Deila, Strømsgodset were known to play a dynamic 4-3-3 with three central midfielders in the mould of Stefan Johansen. Their main striker was always someone with a physical presence, for example, the almost two metre tall Hungarian hipster fashionista Peter Kovacs. If Kovacs wasn’t playing, his replacement was likely to be a 6ft tall unit in the shape of an Ola Kamara or Adama Diomande (both now forging reasonable careers in USA and England respectively).
Deila wanted energy in midfield and physical strength as a focal point upfront. He liked his wide forwards to be hard working, classical wingers: small, quick and with a good delivery. The midfield hunted in packs, won the ball back and had the ability to either hit the powerful striker or spread wide to the fast wingers. Deila had had great success with this and understandably wanted to build a Celtic team using that blueprint. It was now down to the Celtic board to back him.
Celtic only made one permanent signing in Deila’s first transfer window and that was Stefan Scepovic from Sporting Gijon on the 1st of September, 2014. Before that, Deila was equipped with four loan signings: Jo Inge Berget, Aleksander Tonev, Jason Denayer and Mubarek Wakaso. John Guidetti also joined on loan several days after Scepovic arrived. If Deila was looking for presence upfront, then Guidetti was to be his man.
On paper, it looked like Tonev and Wakaso would be the kind of speedy wingers that would go well in the team, but a stunning strike from the latter aside, both were mediocre at best (and not just at Celtic). Berget seemed like a Deila signing, mostly because he had played under the manager before, but was barely seen in the Celtic side. Perhaps the idea of using Berget as the battering ram centre forward he was in Norway was overtaken when John Guidetti came in. Incidentally, in the 18 months between leaving Norway for Cardiff City and departing Celtic, Jo Inge Berget only managed to take part in seven club games, with injuries playing no role in that.
The summer transfer window was extremely disappointing and, it could be argued, didn’t allow Deila to fully implement the system he wanted.
The first half of Deila’s first season continued in the fairly drab way that it began. Results were mostly positive, but rarely convincing. August finished with a 1-1 draw at Dundee and September saw a 1-1 draw at home to Motherwell, followed by a 1-0 defeat at home to Hamilton. There were decent results as well, of course, Dundee Utd and Partick were both hit for 6, but most of the time the games were tight. November saw Celtic win 1-0, 2-1 and 2-1, draw 1-1 and lose 3-1. December began with 3 back-to-back SPFL wins with only 1 goal conceded, but ended with a very disapoointing post- Christmas experience; a 2-1 away defeat to Dundee United and a 0-0 at home to Ross County (possibly the worst game of football I have witnessed).
Celtic had stumbled through the first half of the season. They never got momentum and never looked convincing. Bizarrely, however, they did manage to progress through their Europa League despite only picking up two wins (1-0 at home to Zagreb and 2-1 at home to Astra). From a completely clinical point of view, it was the beginning of 2015 and Celtic were still fighting on four fronts and with the winter transfer window slamming open had the possibility to strengthen. Things weren’t too bad.
2015 started brightly for Deila as Celtic won every game in January, keeping a clean sheet in each. Denayer and van Dijk were proving to be a solid partnership and Gordon had performed immensely in the first few months of his Celtic career. February would see Celtic drawn against Rangers in the League Cup semi-final and Inter in the last 32 of the Europa League. In a month of 28 days, where Celtic played 7 games, they only lost 1 and that was in the dying minutes of the game at the San Siro.
Celtic were in the final of the League Cup, had progressed in the Scottish cup and were moving further towards four in a row. They had also shown up well against Inter and the additions of Armstrong and Mackay-Steven looked to be shrewd business. The humdrum of the first half of the season was making way for genuine excitement at the possibilities of this young Celtic team.
Only one more game was lost in the final three months of the league season (inexplicably at home to St Johnstone) and fans were treated to the amusement of 4 games against Dundee Utd in 13 days, including the League Cup final wherein Deila lifted his first trophy in Scotland. The season was set to end on the high of a magnificent treble, but a horrific refereeing decision in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup against Inverness meant that Deila was denied.
Celtic had won a double, something which Lennon had only achieved once in his tenure, and it was the most successful debut season a manager had had at Celtic since Martin O’Neill. Celtic still looked a bit fragile, but the second half of the season had convinced a large portion of the fans that Deila would work. Unfortunately, there was also a portion of the support that would never get behind him and believed that he should have been sacked after Legia.
As football fans we remember our lives based on what was happening with the club we love at a specific time. I remember it being the 25th of August, 2015 and I was flying to San Francisco for a holiday. My flight apparently had wifi, but that was a goddam lie. I spent the whole flight looking at my phone, hoping that Turkish Airlines or God would provide me with some bars. It was not to be. I landed at San Francisco airport and tried to connect to the internet as I went through customs. Eventually, after 15 solid minutes of aiming my phone at the sky, I was able to get connected to Live Score. Malmo had pumped us 2-0. Malmo. We were out of the Champions League again. There had been zero progress, nothing. We were where we were last year. It was fucking sickening.
Celtic had finished off the 2014/15 season on a high and the assumption was that Deila, a real training ground manager, would have an intense pre-season in mind for the players. He would get to work with them closely without the distraction of games every few days and would further enforce the improvement we had seen in the latter half of the season before. He appeared to have worked wonders with Nir Bitton and it was assumed that he would turn his hand to the rest of the squad. He would improve players just as he did in Norway.
We had a midfield three of Brown, Johansen and Bitton and they were all firing. Denayer had gone back to his parent club, but we had brought in Boyata and he could partner van Dijk. There was consistency. The kind of consistency that Legia and Maribor had had the season before. And there were a few reinforcements. Slight additions to the squad that would supplement what we already had. Young prospect Saidy Janko was brought in from Man Utd and Logan Bailly came in to challenge Gordon for the number 1 spot. Nadir Ciftci came from Dundee Utd and Scott Allan was brought in from Hibs. By the beginning of the Champions League qualifying we had kept all our main players and shed only deadwood like Pukki and Matthews. On paper, we were stronger.
As the season before had gathered momentum and Deila’s Celtic team had looked to take shape, belief in the manager had grown exponentially. There was a video doing the rounds of Deila giving a lecture about management and people were watching the video, with the form of Spring 2015 in mind, and digging out their Zadok the Priest ringtones.
And it all started so well. There was a Stjarnan waiting in the first round. We went to meet them and blow their minds with a 6-1 aggregate defeat. Qarabag of Azerbaijan were the tricky opponents awaiting in the next round. They had spent money and had a very solid looking team, including a smattering of Brazilians. They had also drawn with the likes of St Etienne and Inter and had beaten Dnipro in the Europa League the season before. They were no mugs and they were far away and playing on a plastic pitch. It was daunting. But a good 1-0 win at Celtic Park was followed up by an impressive and mature 0-0 second leg and Celtic had perhaps achieved their best European result under Deila.
Progression was a sure thing when Celtic went 2-0 up at home to Malmo in the space of 10 minutes. And despite the fact that the Swedes pulled one back through Jo Inge Berget, Griffiths was on hand to complete his brace and send us into the latter stages of the game 3-1 up and comfortable. But like Brattbakk before him, Berget would come back to haunt us on the European stage by scoring an undeserved 95th minute tap in. Celtic were down. 6 days later they were out.
By this time Celtic had played five league games and were unbeaten. Griffiths and Rogic had started the season well, but Johansen and Mackay-Steven were beginning to lose form. Van Dijk stayed until CL football wasn’t possible and then moved to Southampton. Celtic made roughly 15 million pounds from the sale of van Dijk, Matthews and Pukki, but the vast sums of CL money were denied and Deila was given less than half of that to reinvest. Tyler Blackett came in on loan around about deadline day and Ryan Christie and Jozo Simunovic both came on board. A month later Carlton Cole would be added to the mix. It continued to be underwhelming.
Celtic’s first slip up in the league came with a 2-1 defeat at Aberdeen. Before Christmas they had dropped another 9 points in the league, including an awful 2-1 home defeat to Motherwell. In the Europa League they were drawn with Ajax, Fenerbahce and Molde. Most definitely a consolation prize, but we all hoped for the chance for some European jaunts and perhaps action after Christmas. It was not to be, however. The European campaign was one of the most turgid of recent memory and included an Efe Ambrose inspired capitulation at home to Fenerbahce, home and away humblings by Molde, and a home defeat to Ajax. The only positives to come from the campaign were the social media knife fight with the Turkish fans and the immergence of (shalalalalala) Kieran Tierney.
A couple of good additions joined in the winter transfer window, namely Erik Sviatchenko and Patrick Roberts. This was balanced out somewhat with the bizarre signing of Colin Kazim-Richards. Celtic’s Jekyll and Hyde transfer policy was matched by their schizophrenic form on the pitch. The second half of the season saw really decent wins like 4-1 at Tannadice and 8-1 at home to Hamilton, but these were often followed by jarring draws or defeats, including another 2-1 loss in Aberdeen and home draws with Dundee and Ross County.
The momentum that was built at the end of the previous season had come to nothing and it could be argued fairly convincingly that progress had stalled all together. Were Celtic a better team at the end of the 15/16 campaign than they were at the end of the 14/15 one? I don’t think they were. Deila had had two seasons to embed his ideas, but it didn’t seem to be getting across to the players. There didn’t seem to be any development. We were still a soft touch and teams were coming to Celtic Park knowing that if they defended fairly well, we would not have the nuance to open them up.
The domestic cup competitions provided hammer blows against Ronny Deila. In the League Cup semi-final, the game that had provided a great sense of togetherness the season before when beating Rangers, Celtic were embarrassed 3-1 by Ross County. Celtic were 1-0 up and cruising before Efe Ambrose lost the plot and got sent off. The Scottish Cup semi-final was the final straw for the board as Rangers won on penalties following a meek performance from Celtic. Three days later it was announced that Ronny Deila would be stepping down as manager. He had gone from a double and European football post-Christmas in his first season to a single trophy and Europa League embarrassment in his second.
Ronny Deila had a clear vision for how he expected his Strømsgodset team to play. It was clinical, it was dynamic and it was hard working. He wanted his Celtic team to be similar. However, it could be argued that he was never given the right tools. If you consider the signings brought in to the club during his time in charge, then you can come to either one of two conclusions: Deila liked to spend money on random players and then not play them OR Deila was not making the signings. He didn’t want Tonev and Wakaso. Who would? Tonev had been linked with Celtic before Deila took charge. He was a John Park man. Did he spend the highest Scottish transfer fee in 2014/15 on Stefan Scepovic and then just decide not to play him?
When Celtic signed Stuart Armstrong, Deila was quoted as saying he was like Thomas Müller. Had Deila seen Armstrong play much? He wanted a physical player for his centre forward and after losing out on the CL group stages he was given Guidetti. This worked for a while, but as the Swede said in a recent interview – the club froze him out when he refused to sign a pre-contract. A further attempt to get a physical striker for the manager was made when we signed Nadir Ciftci. And when we signed Carlton Cole. And when we signed Colin Kazim-Richards.
He made do with Griffiths and tried to rework his tactics to suit a player of Leigh’s style. The whole transfer policy over the Deila years was complete scatter gun and lacked any sense of coherence. Celtic signed 15 permanent signings over this time and only a handful could be considered a success. Speculation, but I doubt any of them were his choice. Either that or he liked just having Scott Allan hanging around Lennoxtown.
There was also a ‘Johnny Foreigner’ vibe about the way people reacted to Deila. When he encouraged healthy eating at Lennoxtown there was a general air of ‘how dare you’ from some parts. He was continually told to play the 4-4-2 because that was The Celtic Way and the implication was that he didn’t understand the club.
He was allegedly undermined by senior figures at the club, who were not interested in his methods. Indeed, his system meant that players such as Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes were no longer so valuable. There were howls of indignation because Deila was not always playing Kris Commons. How could he drop someone that will score goals? It didn’t matter if he was not fitting in the system and was not doing the running required, he was the goal scorer. Johnny Foreigner doesn’t understand Scottish football because goals are the only things that matter.
He was undermined my players, ex-players and a general air of xenophobia from the media, quite like the ridicule Pedro Caixinha is now facing – he did what?!? Used glasses to explain something?!?! Foreigner!!! Despite having won major honours in his short managerial career Deila was never respected in Scotland. Even now Hugh Keevins refers to him as not being ‘a serious manager’.
He also had severe bad luck at times. The performances of Efe Ambrose were often shambolic and cost Celtic dearly in several games, not to mention the chance of a double in the second season. Gordon was sometimes erratic, especially in his second season, most notably Fenerbahce away. Astonishing refereeing decisions cost him a treble. He was never truly backed by the board. A lot of the times it did just come down to the small details and the ball rarely did break for Ronny.
But, in all honesty, Deila was not good enough. He got three shots at the Champions League and failed every time. He managed Celtic for 10 Europa League group stage matches and won only two of them. His team could never be trusted to dig deep and pull a win from the jaws of defeat. In 13 league games over the two seasons we needed to score either an equaliser or a winner in the last 10 minutes and managed it only three times. The acceptance of draw or defeat was very un-Celtic.
In two cup games when reduced to ten men his team completely fell apart. There was no rear-guard action where bodies were thrown on the line: they just crumbled. His team seemed to lack mental strength. It didn’t look like they were out there for him. And mitigating factors aside, that comes down to his inability to motivate them and to win them over. He had only one way of playing and stuck to it rigidly. He sought to put square pegs in round holes instead of working with the players he had in a system that suited. He used Armstrong as a winger when, weirdly, he was exactly the kind of central midfielder he used in Norway.
It would have been interesting to see what ‘full Ronny’ would have looked like. If he had got carte blanche by the club to run it how he saw fit. I suspect it would have been better than what we saw. I imagine the players brought in would have been more suited to the style he was trying to play.
But unfortunately for Deila that was never allowed to happen and his legacy will always be overshadowed by the fact that Brendan Rodgers has come in and achieved so much with essentially the same squad. Johansen stagnated under Deila, as did Brown. Boyata was devoid of confidence and Forrest was so far out the picture he was in another gallery. Deila was supposed to have great leadership skills and the man-management to develop talent. It just never seemed to be apparent. Sadly for him, we only got the vision Deila promised when Brendan Rodgers took charge.
Did Ronny get a fair crack of the whip? Probably not.
Did he make the most of the opportunity he did get? Probably not.