Desmond Kane

Misguided SFA refs least of Celtic’s concerns

Desmond Kane

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Unlike Dougie McDonald, hard evidence doesn't lie. Celtic's 2-1 win over Dundee United on October 17 will forever be recalled as the day when McDonald, a much-derided Scottish referee, began his descent into the death throes of his career for fibbing to the Glasgow club's manager Neil Lennon. White lie or not, it was a glaring moment of stupidity in a season already gone mad.

It was the starting point that led to referees going on strike over the weekend. It was the starting point in a wonky period in time that has sent tremors through the game's moral guardians. The Scottish Football Association's chief executive Stewart Regan has conceded that the system betrayed McDonald, a figure who has thrown in the towel due to the general condemnation of his conduct. Amid this febrile atmosphere, when the SFA seems at odds with itself, the game has become lost somewhere in the maelstrom, a spoiled sport in every sense.

Lennon is not to blame for any shenanigans other than his own, which will be dealt with in due course. If the Northern Irishman has any sense, he will have kept his eye on the ball after sampling as much heat as McDonald in these days of dipping temperatures. A somewhat scornful McDonald resigned as a referee over the weekend after being urged to go by an unforgiving Celtic chairman John Reid, but he is unhappy about his treatment.

A similar air of resignation hung over Celtic's dopey defenders on Saturday after they squandered a two-goal lead in a 2-2 draw with Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Lennon's team have hemorrhaged eight goals in their past seven games. In freezing times, they are suddenly springing leaks. It may only be a coincidence, but Celtic appear doddery since Lennon began sniping about officials. 

The revelation that McDonald misled Lennon in the aftermath of the match at Tannadice, only about how he arrived at a decision to deny Celtic a goal, sadly overshadowed the healthiness of the away team's performance. The result that marked an eighth successive win in the SPL at United seems considerably longer than six weeks ago.

It was a quite thrilling display from Celtic against United, easily one of their finest over the past three seasons, but old habits have died hard in recent times. Some of their defending has been appalling.

McDonald joined the SFA's former head of referee development Hugh Dallas, derailed for allegedly forwarding on a wretched email "joke" about the Pope, in leaving the SFA. He is apparently fed up with the level of vitriol directed towards him from officials at clubs, namely Reid, and a lack of support from within the SFA.

Two men who had become figures of disdain among Celtic's supporters have gone, but this will not solve the main issues that continue to blight the playing side. Celtic continue to be infiltrated by defenders of questionable authority.

It is looking increasingly likely that Daniel Majstorovic is not the answer to a problem as visible as WikiLeaks. The Swede was plucked from AEK Athens in August on a Bosman. He talks well and looks like a hard man, but you tend to get what you pay for in football. In this case, wages only.

Majstorovic appears only suitable for the occasions when Celtic are not put under any sustained pressure. In the SPL, this can be far too often, luring commentators into a false sense of security when analysing the true value of a player.

The Dutch defender Jos Hooiveld lacks pace and finesse at the back, a figure who has yet to justify why he was signed from AIK Stockholm earlier in the year. Glenn Loovens was last seen after a gruesome outing in a League Cup match at St Johnstone. He is ponderous, and easily bullied off the ball.

Norwegian Thomas Rogne, 20, can be partly absolved from blame due to age, but he was wheezing when he was sent off after being turned by Chris Maguire during the 9-0 win over Aberdeen, a result that is put firmly into perspective when one studies their downtrodden opponent's precarious position in the SPL. Crucially, all four of these suspects lack self-confidence in key moments.

As an onlooker, it is quite stunning to think that Celtic snared 13 players over the close season, but failed to pick up a central defender of the required standard. This issue cost Tony Mowbray his job after they started panting early on in trying to keep pace with Rangers at the top of the SPL last season before grinding to a halt in the 4-0 drubbing by St Mirren in March.

Mowbray had already lost the plot when he washed up at Ibrox to face Rangers in March with teenagers Rogne and Josh Thompson at the heart of his defence. History is in danger of repeating itself unless the defence is addressed. Celtic have lost 3-1 to Rangers and 2-0 at Hearts with a couple of scoring draws against Dundee United and Inverness.

It is easy to see why Lennon has a hangdog look with Rangers two points and a game better off. Celtic visit Aberdeen on Saturday urgently requiring a fresh start in the final month of the year.

Lennon was flanked by two battled-hardened defenders of yesteryear on Saturday. Celtic's assistant manager Johan Mjallby remains arugably the club's most appreciated defender since the days of Paul Elliott a couple of decades ago. The Inverness manager Terry Butcher was the sort of figure to talk players through a match, a defender made of the right stuff with Ipswich, Rangers and England.

Unfortunately, the men Lennon needed to stand firm against Inverness were cut open with minimal amounts of shrapnel. Majstorovic played a lamentable pass to Rogne with Celtic leading 2-0 in the closing 20 minutes that enabled Richie Foran to give Inverness new life.

He conceded a corner as unnecessary as thundersnow when he failed to wallop the ball clear before being posted missing when Grant Munro headed into a unguarded net for the equalising goal. The fastest forward is always going to be more mobile than the quickest defender, but Majstorovic appears as slow as erosion.

Four minutes into injury time a week earlier, Majstorovic allowed Sean Dillon to get the jump on him when he headed into the net as Dundee United equalised at Celtic Park in the dying seconds.

Before the emergence of the English Premier League and Spain's La Liga, British television viewers were once fed a weekly diet of Italian football.

Back in the day when Serie A seemed as relevant as the SPL to a wider audience, James Richardson, a somewhat dry and urbane presenter of Football Italia, gave a translation from the Italian newspapers about Enrico Annoni's transfer to Celtic in 1996 for a fee of around £300,000.

The gist of the message was that AS Roma fans could not believe they had received any money for the defender. They were apparently chortling in their piazzas. AEK officials may well have indulged in some blackslapping over an ouzo or three after getting Majstorovic off the wage bill. Annoni looks like Fabio Cannavaro compared to the Swedish player.

The worrying thing about all this for Lennon is that United and Inverness could have gleaned more from their visits to Glasgow if they had been a little more studied in their final offering.

The worrying thing for Lennon is that Majstorovic is the man he turns to for leadership when he is without Shaun Maloney, whose suitability as a captain can be questioned. Gone are the days when Lennon played in a team full of potential captains under Martin O'Neill.

Celtic have not had a central pairing in defence worthy of the name since Mjallby and Bobo Balde teamed up in the team's run to the UEFA Cup final of 2003.

The treatment of the gone but not forgotten Balde in being extracted under Gordon Strachan for no apparent reason other than collecting a large weekly wedge looks increasingly bizarre when one considers the list of men who have since been auditioned for the role.

Stephen McManus, Gary Caldwell, Darren O'Dea, Steven Pressley, Stephane Henchoz, Stanislav Varga and Josh Thompson, to name but a few, have never really projected the sense of conviction required to impress. English striker Chris Sutton was a better centre-half than Majstorovic and Hooiveld if one wishes to illustrate the paucity of reliable defenders turning up for training.

What was also questionable was Lennon's decision to opt for O'Neill's favoured 3-5-2 formation when Celtic were facing an Inverness team who had not lost in a calendar year. It did not seem like a suitable occasion to experiment with the side. It suggests all is not clear in the manager's mind about the dangers that lurk at the back.

With over a month until the transfer window opens, Lennon must surely be studying the need for reinforcements. He needs to detect a new central defender rather sharpish. A defender and a leader of men should be the prime objective for the club's custodians, rather than the goings on around Hampden Park. Two botched attempts to lift the SPL and over 10,000 empty seats at the past two home games, says it must be this way.

A figure like Mjallby, who passed the ball to better players, took few chances and defended as if his life depended upon it would seem like the ideal conscript, but they are not easy to find. It is a pressing concern, because the defenders are not pressing.

In endorsing the weekend's happenings, some Celtic fans hummed the tune of television series Dallas against Inverness before witnessing a soap opera on the park. It is all unwanted drama.

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