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Tony Mowbray

Helpful for Scotland qualification <em>Picture: alexvc26</em>

Helpful for Scotland qualification Picture: alexvc26

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Scotland’s Ricky Burns beats Michael Katsidis on points to win the WBO interim lightweight title, his first contest at that weight.

It was a disciplined performance from the Lanarkshire fighter – featured in Weir’s Week previously, not so much for his pugilistic skills but for his artistry. Body art this is, tattoos in other words.

I’m sure he still has space for another couple. However, while he outdid Katsidis on points, the Australian probably won when it came to ink, appearing to have a massive sundial etched on his back. Impressive.

No point in Burns trying for the same. Compared to Queensland, there isn’t much sun in Coatbridge…

Sunday
Saturday’s loss at home to Dunfermline Athletic is all too much for the Easter Road board, who bid farewell to manager Colin Calderwood after just 13 months in the job.

Calderwood had replaced John Hughes, who had replaced Mixu Paatelainen, who had replaced John Collins, who had replaced Tony Mowbray, who had replaced Bobby Williamson, who left in April 2004.

Six managers in seven-and-a-bit years. But by Tuesday, chairman Rod Petrie will claim to have received over 40 applications for the vacancy.

Two things stick out there. If none of the above lasted very long in Leith, why do Hibs think they’ll find better this time around?

And secondly, Petrie didn’t go into specifics about who had applied. I mean, 40 applications is different from 40 applicants. Could there be one man who has sent his CV in two-dozen times? Is anyone that desperate?

Apart from Rod Petrie…

Monday
And the SFA’s performance director Mark Wotte has plenty to say about the state of the Scottish game and where it might be headed.

“You have to set your goals high. How can Uruguay be world no.4 and Scotland not?

“It would be crazy to say Scotland will reach no.4 in the rankings, but you have to believe that you can change things.”

And he’s right. But in the past umpteen years we’ve heard a lot from Dutchmen and how they might change the world, or at least Scotland.

Back in 1995, Rinus Michels was part of Ernie Walker’s SFA “Think Tank” before it sprung a leak. Dick Advocaat was introduced by Rangers in 1998 and will be best remembered, not for unearthing fantastic talent, but for spending fortunes to deliver domestic success.

Now Wotte, the former Southampton manager, is planning great things for Scotland youth.

Fundamental to his performance strategy is the appointment of seven regional performance coaches to work out of appointed schools that will house the most talented kids in the region. He expects that, by 2020, this will have provided six or seven players to the senior squad.

I’m a Dutchmen if it does – but then we all might be…

Tuesday
Just a matter of days after the world found out about his illness, former world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier succumbs to liver cancer.

His passing brought back memories of the halcyon days of the early 1970s, when Frazier formed an historic triumvirate in the heavyweight division, alongside Mohammed Ali and George Foreman.

In many people’s eyes, Frazier was an imposter, merely keeping the world-title belts warm for Ali who had been out of commission, banned by the boxing authorities for refusing to go to Vietnam.

However in March 1971, Frazier hammered the unbeaten Ali – and so, instantaneously, became one of the most famous faces on the planet.

Not just in sport. Up there with the US president, Her Majesty the Queen, and Robert Redford. For that was the standing of the world heavyweight champion at that time.

I had a good chat on-air in the wee sma’ hours with talkSport’s Mike Graham. And what was apparent to both of us was that, despite the moving tributes written and broadcast, so many of those penning or airing those words weren’t around when Frazier and Ali were at their collective peak, and so really had no idea just how big they were, as celebrities, as personalities and as icons.

Maybe that also had something to do with the fact that there were only two versions of the title and there was only one champion – and that everyone had the opportunity to see them in action, albeit on the BBC the following night when most knew the outcome.

A far change from nowadays, where there are so many different divisions of the same weight division, with the action entirely divided up amongst various satellite and pay-for-view networks. Will the current title holders be mourned the same way. I very much doubt it.

Wednesday
A few hours after airing my views on boxing with Mike Graham, I’m back on the airwaves, this time on BBC Radio Scotland with Kaye Adams debating the Scotland national team being full of non-Scots.

Jordan Rhodes, son of former Dunfermline goalie Andy, is the latest Englishman to be “Jockified”, in his case under the “schooling” rule to join the likes of Matt Gilks, Phil Bardsley, James Morrison, Jamie Mackie and Craig Mackail-Smith as adopted Scots, qualifying under various criteria from parents, grandparents, schooling, a liking for Tunnock’s caramel wafers, or owning a West Highland terrier.

Me, I don’t have an issue with it. Scotland might as well play to the same rules and regulations as everyone else. Why handicap yourself by only playing “true-born” Scots, when some “true-born Scots” want to play for other countries, like the Republic of Ireland for instance?

What I do take exception to are those who have played under-21 football elsewhere, then use Scotland as a flag of convenience to become full internationalists. That, pulling on one jersey and then swapping it for another, I just cannot work out, other than believing such folk are just completely mercenary.

All of which reminded me of an evening watching Champions League highlights several years ago, during which I was bemoaning the lack of Scots participating.

“There’s one,” said the better half.

“Eh?”

“And another.”

Asked where exactly, she pointed out “them with the Scottish names” – Benni McCarthy from South Africa and Roy Maakay, a Dutchman. And, at their best, I would have happily taken either as honorary Scotsmen…

Thursday
Snooker supremo Barry Hearn gives an interesting interview to the Yorkshire Post where he admits to blackmailing players

Hearn has been under fire from the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan, with the former world champion critical of the tactics employed by Hearn to get leading players to play in lesser Players Tour Championship events.

“I made them ranking events to actually force the players into playing,” admitted Hearn.

“Ronnie is quite right that it is a form of blackmail, and I put my hands up and plead guilty. When I don’t do that blackmail, like at a recent invitational event in Brazil, nine out of the top 16 didn’t travel because they probably thought it was a long way to go.

“I should have made it a ranking event and that would have justified Ronnie’s case.”

If Barry is pleading guilty to blackmail, could this start a trend amongst other managers and promoters who might want to admit to charges of neglect, deception, embezzlement, gross mismanagement and the likes?

I’m sure there are several players who could offer up names and suspects…

Friday
The eleventh of the eleventh is a poignant day for many, when those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country are remembered.

This week, international associations and players from the Home Nations demanded the right to wear poppies on their shirts. After the intervention of various people, including Prince William, FIFA relented and will allow poppies to be worn on armbands.

FIFA had deemed that the poppy symbol contravened their law on political and/or religious messages on shirts.

However, the poppy is not political, and neither is it religious, although some would argue against both of those truths. It is simply a mark of respect.

FIFA just didn’t get that, and probably still don’t. But then given how that organisation is run, who runs it, and what they’ve managed to miss in recent times, we shouldn’t be surprised they didn’t understand something as simple as paying one’s respect to those who died for their county.

Tweet Stewart Weir with thoughts and comments, @sweirz

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Photo by: XiXiDu

Photo by: XiXiDu

What’s the optimum time to go to bed on Election night/morning? Do you stay up all night? Go out to the pub and sleep through the whole thing? Or try the endurance test of watching the television coverage? Every man has his limit. The exit strategy was formulated at the following times:-

8.59pm When C4 runs its first “Kirstie and Phil are back” ad. We know. David Cameron pencilled her in for his First Cabinet next to Carol Vorderman.

9.19pm Channel 4’s Election coverage is under way. The 15th round of applause for the sixth decent gag of the night.

9.39pm Edwina Currie is cooking up Eton mess on C4’s political Come Dine With Me. So is Prime Minister Cameron, possibly.

9.55pm Dimbleby is in situ, Alistair Stewart is barking instructions on ITV and on BBC Glenn Campbell seems to be in a room on his own.

9.58pm Andrew Neil is on a boat announcing he will be interviewing Piers Morgan. Iceberg urgently required.

10.12pm Work experience students play a game of pass the parcel-meets Deal or No Deal meets It’s a Knockout as they run into a Sunderland gymnasium with boxes full of votes.

10.21pm Peter Mandelson uses the phrase “in principle.” Mandelson. Principle. That’s a new ‘un.

10.31pm Bruce Forsyth turns round on Andrew Neil’s boat and shouts “nice to see you to see you….”

10.32pm Everyone talks over him except two people who mutter back… “nice?”

11.07pm Kirstie Allsopp, with nice understatement, on ITV, says that the mansion tax would be “like a nuclear explosion in central London.” That’s why Cameron wants her as an adviser on property, and not national security.

11.44pm George Osborne says on BBC that Labour Party “needs, to coin a phrase, get real.”

11.49pm George Osborne says on ITV that Labour Party “needs, to coin a phrase, get real.”

11.52pm Update on UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s broken ribs, damaged sternum, chipped spine. But you should have seen the pilot.

11.57pm No-one mentions that the people outside polling booths at 10pm might have been turned away because they thought it was Oddbins

00.06am Text from a friend – “Edwina Currie won Come Dine With Me.”

00.12am Joan Collins turns up on Andrew Neil’s boat and says “Yay! David Cameron.”

00.17am David Dimbleby: “We need some results to come in. I don’t know..um. It’s all a bit chaotic.”

00.21am Ken Clarke in a Nottingham gymansium gets cut off by Paxman and snorts “Oh well, we can’t miss a shot of Gordon Brown in Kirkcaldy. We had footage of David Cameron in a car earlier.” Man has a point.
Paxman drawls “that’s the magic of television.”

00.28am Dr John Reid is pontificating on ITV. “What do you do when everyone loses?” Sack Tony Mowbray? Definitely thinking about bed now.

01.11am That noted parliamentary expert, Louie Spence from Pineapple Dance Studio, gives C4 his views on the election.

01.28am Alistair Stewart interviews his second Miliband of the night. Where’s my duvet?up

01.34am Shock result. Gordon Brown wins. Only in Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath, but a win’s a win. Time to give up . Not something he’s planning on…

Neil Lennon’s response was scathing, but then he has never allowed meekness a foothold in his life. In the wake of Celtic’s 2-0 defeat to Ross County in the Scottish Cup at Hampden last Saturday, he delivered a verdict on some of his players that struck at the very heart of the despondency that has so blemished the club’s season.

As caretaker manager, Lennon must accept some of the blame for a performance that lacked the kind of competitive vigour expected in even the most mundane of fixtures. That Celtic were listless in the semi-final of the only competition they had a reasonable chance of winning this season was symptomatic of a campaign in which some fundamental standards have been discarded. But then Lennon chose his strongest possible side and he was, ultimately, let down by the same players whose indifference proved ruinous to Tony Mowbray.

Lennon acted swiftly and conspicuously in removing Landry N’Guemo four minutes before half-time, although the replacement, Marc Crosas, is another deep-lying midfielder whose distribution lacks tempo or ambition. Since Lennon’s reactions tended to the furious, and occasionally violent (he hurled a water bottle to the ground with venom at one stage, and later kicked another fiercely) whenever Georgios Samaras and Marc-Antoine Fortune surrendered possession with a languid ambivalence, we can be certain how he considered their displays.

All four players have been indifferent all season, although Celtic were further undermined by some hapless defending, further emphasising the misjudgment of not making a centre-back the priority of the January transfer window, rather than the high-profile loan signing of Robbie Keane. Lennon’s agitation on the touchline was evident, and he knew that his claims for the job receded with every failure to counter a First Division side playing confidently, and determinedly, to a clever game-plan.

“I am sick of seeing our players fall over,” Lennon said afterwards. “I am sick of seeing strikers not wanting to go in where it hurts to score a goal for the team. We can’t keep clean sheets either, we’re too soft. We have gone out of every competition this season with a whimper. I’m way past angry with them. I didn’t let them leave after the game. I spoke to them for 15 minutes and basically told them what I thought of them. Whether I am here or not next season I told them that I am pretty sure some of them won’t be.”

Lennon felt cheated by some of his players, and it is unlikely that either Samaras or Fortune will feature against Motherwell on Tuesday night in a Premier League game that Celtic need to win to at least delay Rangers’ progress to retaining the title. Edson Braafheid, the Dutch defender on loan from Bayern Munich, has been fined for leaving Hampden after learning that he had been left out of the match squad.

The sense is of a team in turmoil and Lennon, an inexperienced manager, is attempting to apply some order. His ambition was to impress enough to be offered the job full-time come the end of the season, but beyond his own disappointment last weekend, his deepest regret was for the way Celtic have performed this season.

“It has been shambolic, let’s not mince our words,” he said. “They are nowhere near good enough. We are 13 points off Rangers, we have gone out of the League Cup in the quarter-finals, we have gone out of the Scottish Cup in the semi-final and we couldn’t make it out of the group in the Uefa Cup. You tell me, is that good enough for Celtic? It reinforces the fact that I want it more, but you have to take the bad with the good and take the humiliation that comes with it, the criticism.

“People talk about Tony [Mowbray] not instilling passion in the team and this, that and the other, but those are things you can’t give to players. You can get them motivated and they pull the wool over your eyes telling you that they’re up for it.”

It has been a wretched season for Celtic, and Lennon can only hope to restore some pride in the closing weeks.

Already, Tony Mowbray is forgotten amid the conjecture and assertions about who might replace him as Celtic manager. That is so often the way of it in a game that considers self-renewal a kind of virtue. He lasted nine months at Parkhead, but for so long it seemed a trial, not only of his capability but of his very identity, that the wonder is where his own future lies.

Mowbray left behind a sense of futility, something that was beginning to feel like a malaise. His team was no longer able to adequately overcome the limitations he imposed. He sought a style that was exemplary and was unprepared to tolerate more mundane standards. Mowbray’s idealism was the quality that secured him the job last summer, but then he was too intransigent in his application of that vision.

Rather than develop a side that might, eventually, perform to the aesthetic values he so treasures, Mowbray set about urgently dismantling a team that, for all its faults, contained players who understood implicitly the demand of Old Firm supporters for their club to be superior. If we might accuse him of anything, it was being too ambitious, too impatient to seek radical change.

The January transfer window could have brought a form of salvation, but in allowing strong, influential figures such as Barry Robson and Scott McDonald to leave, Mowbray lost something of the heart of his team. The arrival of Robbie Keane on loan from Tottenham Hotspur was invigorating, but he only represented a surface gloss; it was substance that Celtic required.

Central defence was a source of vulnerability, while midfield was an area that never seemed balanced. But, in truth, the vital frailty lay in the manager’s attitude. It was revealed most explicitly the night Celtic lost 4-0 to St Mirren in Paisley, a result that carried a great weight of historical significance. It was the club’s worst league defeat – outwith Old Firm games – in 30 years and St Mirren’s biggest win over Celtic in 51 years.

Yet in the aftermath, Mowbray sought to justify his insistence on attack as a form of righteousness. His team finished the game with six forwards on the field, and was so haplessly lacking in shape and discipline that St Mirren’s final two goals were scored with an almost casual indifference. The Celtic manager claimed, though, that there were “positive reasons for a negative result”. He also talked of Scottish football not being conducive to the kind of stylised football, of flair and individual impetuosity, that he considers the highest form of the game.

His remarks were churlish, but then perhaps he knew, instinctively, that this defeat was too significant to survive. The following day, Mowbray was effectively sacked. A decent man, who has shown great dignity in his life, Mowbray is in many ways an admirable figure. But a little more pragmatism, and flexibility, would make him a better manager.

The West Bromwich Albion team he led to promotion was bold and endearing, but their season in the Premiership, which ended in relegation, revealed this obstinacy in Mowbray, so that at times he seems prepared to accept negative results because of an adherence to some high-minded values. Perhaps a spell out of the game will allow time for reflection, and for him to become the manager he has the potential to be.

In Neil Lennon, Celtic have appointed, in the interim at least, a figure of authority. Players will respond to Lennon’s command; there is an emotive quality to him, something passionate and affecting. His leadership can revive the club, and with a Scottish Cup semi-final against Ross County next month there is a form of salvation left for this season.

Having never managed before, Lennon might lack the experience to provide a longer-term solution. He undoubtedly leads from the heart, and will restore a sense of pride in the team, but it is a daunting job for a novice. Mowbray had been an impressive manager at Hibernian and West Brom before he arrived, and the role seemed to consume him. Taking charge of either half of the Old Firm is a job for the hard-headed.

There is an essential romanticism to Tony Mowbray, at least that part of himself that he reveals to a wider audience. His ideology is entrenched, something deeply felt. But then it might also be said to provide a form of reassurance. This has been a season of confrontation: with results, with misfortune, with the media. The response has always been to return to the notion of playing the game a certain way.

It is a self-sustaining belief, this devotion to a philosophy of football. If Mowbray was to concede that it is impractical on occasion, he would be undermining his principles; by considering the pursuit of “style and entertainment” somehow more virtuous than seeking out results, however they might be conceived, he can also explain away some of Celtic’s failings this season.

“This football club knew when they employed a manager what they were getting,” Mowbray says. “It’s not a secret the way I like to play football. Yes, they want to win. Yes, I want to win – but I play a certain way, I do it a certain way. If we have to suffer not winning the league this year, if that’s going to be the case, then so be it.”

Statistics compromise the Celtic manager. In winning only 16 of the 28 league games so far, the team sits 13 points behind Rangers. The Ibrox side will regain the championship if they win their next six matches (and they have lost only one domestic encounter all season). Hearts knocked Celtic out of the League Cup at Parkhead last October and on Saturday they face Kilmarnock in the Scottish Cup quarter-final at Rugby Park.

The game has begun to carry such a weight of significance that it can be seen to be pivotal. Defeat would effectively leave Celtic exposed: to the frustration of their supporters, to the concerns of the directors, to a press that exists in a tense, strained relationship with Mowbray.

The club will not sack him, as the title remains possible in theory (even if the reality is something more disquieting) and there is little to be gained by inviting turmoil into the closing weeks of the season. No new appointment could be made before the summer, as many potential candidates will have obligations of their own.

“Do I worry?” Mowbray says. “Why should I worry? Me worry about it? I have more concerns me, I’m only here to do a job and build a team. I don’t worry, I have my own worries in life. You’ve got the wrong guy.”

Some Celtic supporters even fear that reaching the Scottish Cup final in May would allow for a greater indignity, if they were to be defeated by an Ibrox side completing the treble (Rangers face St Mirren in the League Cup final a week on Saturday). The concern tells of a mindset of angst.

The team is capable of playing neat football, and on many occasions this season domination of opponents has fallen short because of poor finishing or insecurity at the back. If progress towards an ideal has been made, it is subtle.

“Pressure on football managers has always been there and the bigger the club, the greater the pressure,” Mowbray says. “It has become more intense as the media has grown. That’s what football is and you shouldn’t complain. I like to think I’m pretty comfortable with it and the hysteria that the Scottish football media, especially in the west of Scotland, like to build to a crescendo. Everyone else seems to get concerned about it, but I just get on with the job.”

Mowbray can still restore something of worth to his time at Celtic, if he remains in charge next season. Victory over Kilmarnock will surely go some way to allowing that to happen.

The drama was predictable. Several of the referee’s decisions were dwelled upon at Ibrox, while Rangers found the wherewithal to seize a late victory. The outcome was familiar because Celtic have been confounded by their Old Firm rivals all season. The title race, too, now seems routine.

Rangers are 10 points clear at the top of the Scottish Premier League, with a game in hand against St Johnstone to come. For Celtic, the 1-0 defeat felt like a devastating blow, particularly since the visitors must have thought they had endured. Scott Brown’s red card midway through the second-half diminished their ambition and as the game entered injury time, a draw would have seemed heartening.

Opportunities had been sporadic and Rangers’ attacking was anxious. The siege of Celtic’s goal looked hapless, but when Artur Boruc pushed Sasa Papac’s shot wide, there was a stir of urgency. From the resulting corner, in the 93rd minute, Boruc blocked from Kris Boyd, and Maurice Edu drove in the rebound.

Tony Mowbray conceded afterwards that the championship is Rangers’ to lose. The Celtic manager was circumspect, and he chose to deflect questions about Brown’s dismissal by saying he had not yet seen television footage of the incident. The midfielder certainly pushed his head into Kyle Lafferty’s midriff as the players tussled for possession, although the contact seemed meagre.

Dougie McDonald, the referee, was erratic. Brown forced him to make a decision, and he opted to be severe. Last week an anonymous source at Celtic was attributed with criticism of match officials this season, with the inference being that the Parkhead side are constant victims of poor decisions.

It sounded like an expression of persecution, and all SPL teams can point to incidents that tell of a decline in refereeing standards. Even Hugh Dallas, the head of Scotland’s match officials, spoke recently of his disappointment. Celtic will dwell upon the fact that Madjid Bougherra did not receive a second yellow card for various fouls, having been booked in the opening minutes, but mostly the contentious decisions were subjective.

Rangers prevailed by being sufficient. David Weir and Bougherra coped with Robbie Keane, while Kevin Thomson was the game’s outstanding player. There is no extravagance to the Ibrox side, but the reaction to the goal was telling. Every figure on the bench launched into celebration, with Walter Smith charging onto the pitch to punch the air, Ally McCoist gamboling down the touchline and Kenny McDowall raising a television microphone to wave it jubilantly.

Smith was more restrained afterwards, and spoke cuttingly about the added pressure on McDonald. He called for the critic to come out of the closet, and the sense was of a second blow being landed on Rangers’ opponents. But his mood was predominantly one of satisfaction. Rangers have lost only once this season, so their lead appears invulnerable. Smith will be baleful towards any notion of complacency, all the same, but he might reflect on the value of his work this season.

Rangers are beset by financial difficulties, and the team is often careworn, but they have shown a remarkable obduracy. Willpower alone has been potent. Celtic can still apply pressure, but their reliance now is on a fragility suddenly undermining their rivals.

The scrutiny, though, is on Mowbray. His team-building has been piecemeal and the lack of defensive security is a calamitous flaw. Keane can still bring glamour to the cause, and the back four will improve once injured players return and stability of selection becomes possible. But the season now seems relinquished.

This was Smith’s 26th Old Firm victory, equalling the records of Jock Stein and Scot Symon. His ability to rouse a team, to draw from it a compelling worth, has been vital.

The SPL title race is not over, but the wonder is if Celtic can muster the self-possession to make it competitive. Rangers restored a 10-point lead at the top last weekend with a 3-0 win over Hibernian, while their Old Firm rivals were held to a 4-4 draw at Aberdeen. It is a time in the season when results begin to look decisive.

An inability to defeat opponents is unsurprising in a campaign when Celtic’s authority has often been fragile. Three times they established a lead at Pittodrie, and on each occasion calamities in defence allowed the home side to recover. This was a game in which restraint was considered a quaint concept.

At Ibrox, Rangers eventually imposed themselves on a Hibs side that has maintained its relevance and could yet make a spirited attempt to finish second. There was an air of routine about the victory, though, as Walter Smith’s side have lost only once all season and possess the best defensive record in Britain.

There is nothing glamourous or distinguished about the Ibrox team – beyond the continuing prolific instincts of Kris Boyd and Kenny Miller – but then their assiduity is gathering sway. At its heart, this seems a contest between a team that understands its limitations and so plays to restrict them, and a side that is attempting to reach beyond its accustomed nature.

Tony Mowbray wishes to impart a sophistication to Celtic, a kind of heightened awareness, and the disruption to the squad as he seeks the players capable of playing to his vision has been significant. The contrast with Rangers is stark, as the Ibrox side has not signed anybody for 18 months. Stability has become a foundation of Smith’s team, and a significant influence – along with David Weir’s composure and vigilance – on its defensive accomplishment.

The 10-point gap is not insurmountable, but the doubt is if Celtic can find the consistency to persistently challenge it. The chasing team requires to be tenacious and dependable, but Mowbray’s team have not won more than three consecutive league games this season. Rangers have lost only once all season and have never conceded more than one goal in a league match.

Both sides face one more round of matches before meeting at Ibrox on February 28 for the third of four Old Firm encounters this season. For Celtic, the feeling is of time slipping away.

A sense of triumph seemed the most emphatic response to Robbie Keane’s arrival at Celtic Park late last Monday night. The club’s supporters gathered outside the old stadium seeking the kind of elation that would renew not only their optimism but perhaps even the team’s momentum. The Republic of Ireland striker represents the type of signing that can galvanise a club.

The extent of his ability is beyond reproach – he is Ireland’s all-time top scorer and 10th in the English Premier League’s top scorer list with 121 goals – and at 29 he remains in the prime of a career that has been played mostly on the edges of the game’s highest level (although Internazionale and Liverpool both signed the striker, he stayed at the clubs for only four months and six months respectively).

But then he brings something more to Celtic, and to Scottish football. Keane possesses genuine star quality; he is the kind of high-profile and established player that the game in this country long ago lost the credentials to attract. Keane immediately becomes the most pivotal, and most prominent player at Celtic Park, which will ease a little of the burden of responsibility on Aiden McGeady and allow him more freedom in which to flourish.

Keane will also bring a surge of exhilaration to the squad, a sudden reassertion of where the club stands, and the lead Rangers have established at the top of the Premier League will seem less pronounced in the minds of the players. There is a financial gamble in signing a player paid £70,000 a week by Tottenham, even if it is a loan deal until the end of the season. But then Dermot Desmond, the club’s majority shareholder, assisted in financing Roy Keane’s time at Celtic, and the effect on the club’s self-esteem is priceless. If the team does manage to win the league this season, and reach the Champions League group stages, there will also be a detrimental impact on Rangers’ finances.

Celtic Park has seldom been full this season and the supporters had come to see some doubt in Tony Mowbray’s work as Rangers took the initiative in the title race. With one signing, this sense of uncertainty, at least in the minds of the fans, has been eradicated. With his effervescence, intelligent dynamism and sharp sense of timing, Keane will provide the kind of quality that Celtic have lacked up front this season. But he will also rejuvenate the game in Scotland, by adding a sense of drama and intrigue to the tussle between Rangers and Celtic.

The rest of Mowbray’s transfer business became lost in the commotion of Keane’s signing – several thousand supporters waited outside Celtic Park until his arrival at close to midnight, and flares were set off sending green smoke into the night sky – but the turnover in players has been chillingly decisive. Along with Keane, Diomansy Kamara, Edson Braafheid, Ki Sung-Yueng, Jos Hooiveld, Thomas Rogne, Morten Rasmussen and Paul Slane all joined the cub in January, while Mark Brown, Willo Flood, Chris Killen, Gary Caldwell, Stephen McManus, Danny Fox, Barry Robson and Scott McDonald left the club.

There is ruthlessness in the way Mowbray has purged his squad and while Keane’s signing is likely to be short-term, the Celtic manager will now consider that the foundations are in place for the style and intent of the team that has so far resided most clearly in his imagination. It will take time for this disturbance to the squad to settle, but then Keane’s signing – something so bold and, even, audacious – will surely help to bring the players together.

Whatever happens between now and the end of the season, Celtic have shown, not only in the signing of Keane but in the overhaul of the squad, faith in their manager.

John Hughes

John Hughes

If last weekend told us anything of the Scottish Premier League, it was perhaps that this season might come to be viewed most poignantly as a missed opportunity. Hibernian and Hearts, in their own singular ways, showed what might be achieved, but only fleetingly, as though to hold onto the thought would be a form of heedless inhibition.

At Ibrox, Hearts performed with a kind of grim stoicism, setting out to subdue their opponents with a vigorous discipline. Only when that resolve faltered, after Christian Nade was sent-off for a moment of wanton indiscretion, did the game lose some of its austerity and both sides scored a goal apiece in the last 15 minutes, with Rangers requiring a 90th-minute equaliser.

At Easter Road, Hibs disposed of Hamilton with such ruthless glee that they might have considered the 5-1 scoreline as a kind of self-assertion; while last Sunday, Celtic were doleful in attempting to turn their dominance over St Johnstone into a meaningful scoreline, until the home side were reduced to 10 men and Tony Mowbray’s side eventually sharply prevailed 4-1.

Yet this is season when Rangers are diminished, at least in their inability to strengthen the squad, due to the financial constraints of a £30m debt and the pressing need for a new owner, and Celtic are in transition under Mowbray. The two Edinburgh clubs, Hibs in particular, should be stripping away at the Old Firm’s dominance with a grim relish, but there is almost a sense of resignation at such a prospect.

Under John Hughes, a vibrant, boisterous character whose flintiness conceals an astute football brain, Hibs have become a dynamic, occasionally striking team. They drew 1-1 at Ibrox earlier in the season, but also lost 4-1 to the defending champions at Easter Road at a time when most people at the club were stressing that finishing third would represent a great step forward.

Hearts, managed by a maverick yet thoughtful coach in Csaba Laszlo, have been undermined by the lack of a prolific figure up front, yet there is a stubbornness, almost obstinacy to the team, and they are seldom overwhelmed.

With Rangers and Celtic far from imperious, this could have been a campaign when a little disorder was brought to the normal way of things at the top of the Scottish Premier League. Hibs travel to Celtic Park on Wednesday, and they are running out of opportunities to impose their will on this campaign.

Like talking to a brick wall?

Like talking to a brick wall?

As Tony Mowbray attempts to bring a little logic to the scrambled imperatives of rebuilding his Celtic squad while trying to remain competitive, it is hard not to escape the notion of a control culture being in place at Parkhead.

When Mark Venus, Mowbray’s assistant manager, addressed the media the day before Celtic’s 1-0 Scottish Cup victory over Morton, he was occasionally, and deliberately, obtuse. At one stage, he answered a question about the Cup tie being a potential banana skin (football cliche for a tie with the potential for causing embarrassment) by saying: “I don’t know what a banana skin is.”

In his own dealings with the media, Mowbray is often dour, almost a little melancholy, and different in mood and willingness than the manager who was so often a charming interviewee at Hibernian. Perhaps it is the demanding nature of the job, the incessant pressing for comment and explanation, but then he played for Celtic, so he knew what he was coming into when he left West Brom in the summer, after a season of dealing with the high-profile nature of managing in the English Premier League.

It is almost as though Mowbray has been reshaped at Celtic Park. I remember a chance meeting one member of staff when he had newly joined the club several years ago and being told that he could not say anything unless it was cleared by the press office, because every word is monitored, even although previously he was always happy to take a call and talk issues through.

This sense of misgiving, if that is what has permeated Mowbray, is doing little to help the manager. At a time when there is, inevitably, an occasional sense of pain in the transition from one group of players to another, while Rangers sit top of the Premier League, Mowbray and the club should be promoting themselves, being optimistic and defiant.

Ahead of the Morton game, when a defeat would have brought a sudden sense of alarm to the Celtic support, the club should have turned to Peter Grant, the first-team coach, or Neil Lennon, the reserve team manager, two men who understand the nature of the club and the coverage of the Old Firm. They would have been feisty and resolute, speaking up for the cause.

That is what Mowbray needs while he works behind the scenes to re-imagine the Celtic team using his own values and philosophies.