Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tony v Walter

One has seen it all and bought, if not the T-shirt, then at least the freshly tailored shirt. The other is just starting out in one of football’s most peculiar jobs. But they have more in common than you might think.

It’s one of the many odd quirks of being an Old Firm manager that one of the few people ever likely to understand the huge pressure you are under is the person you’re expected to beat at all costs. Tony Mowbray and Walter Smith both know that their success and failure, acceptance and acclaim, criticism and humilation is inexorably linked to how the other fares.

And, like many of those that have gone before, they both have enough common decency to rise above the tribal partisanship that takes what should be an enduring football rivalry and turns it into something more sinister.

So Smith will have felt some sympathy as Celtic disintegrated in Israel last week. And Mowbray will have understood the pressure that led Smith to crack in the first half at Rugby Park on Saturday – a similar pressure that saw Mowbray himself uncharacteristically muttering an expletive on Radio Scotland just 24 hours later.

And when they glance across at their city neighbours it will be with recognition not with envy. Celtic and Rangers both stand at a crossroads this season and for both managers coaching is as much about managing change in the pressure cooker of their fans inflated expectations.

At Rangers the changes have been coming for a few years. Financially the club has lost the ability to compete and Smith, hands tied, is being asked to replicate the success of last season with a group of players who desperately need freshened up. And he’s doing all that with a massive question mark over his own future. A new contract is needed in January but he’s announced he won’t sign. Will the last six months of this campaign be part of Ally McCoist’s seamless succession? Will they provide the golden autumn to Smith’s Ibrox career or will they be the anti-climax that he couldn’t avoid the last time he left?

And at Celtic Mowbray, with his own resources somewhat drained thanks in no small part to the money Celtic had to pay to get him, is setting about preaching his football philosophy to players more used to the somewhat more roundhead approach of Gordon Strachan. Both he and his players need to work out a way of getting the job done when his own brand of total football fails.

That’s not easy to do. And, if he doesn’t already realise it, Walter Smith will be able to tell him how much more difficult it is to do it against the backdrop of supporters who display a lack of patience that would shame a toddler on Christmas Eve.

Managing a team that expects to win every game might be an honour. But you run in to immediate difficulty when you fail to win every game. Including their honourable draw in Stuttgart Rangers have now drawn three games in a row and have failed to score in 180 minutes of SPL football. Celtic drew with Dundee United before failing miserably in Israel and needed a late, late show to see off Hearts.

Both managers will have been aware of the rumblings beginning amongst their supporters, more so Mowbray who has endured two poor performances at home and quickly seen whatever honeymoon period he was granted dissipate. That, as Walter would tell him, is the great balancing act of managing in the Old Firm.

The Celtic supporters demand football be played their way but will not stand for any failures in the period of transition. The Rangers fans might be less beholden to a “Rangers way” but they have their own demands and expectation has not plummetted to keep in line with the Ibrox current account. Cash or no cash Govan expects Rangers to win as greedily and emphatically as they ever have.

At the end of the season either Mowbray or Smith will have led his supporters to disappointment. In all likelihood Smith will walk off into the sunset whatever happens. Mowbray will be expecting a long Celtic career but how he performs in this first, transitory season will define his relationship with the fans and, ultimately, the longevity of his Celtic career.

And where does all this leave Scottish football? Well, you can look on it two ways. It’s either another boring battle between the two bloated usual suspects or it’s a classic heavyweight bout with all the mesmerising action and sudden injections of real horror that you expect in the ring. Actually it’s probably a bit of both, tiresome at times and enthralling at others.

But things might be just a bit different this year. Whisper it in Sauchiehall Street but Glasgow’s twinned giants are vulnerable this year. Other clubs will fancy their chances in the cup competitions and other managers will fancy stealing headlines and enthusing their own fans with famous wins over the big two in the league.

Will they be caught and split? Not over the course of a long season. But they might not race away as emphatically as they have in the past. It will be a two horse race but others will be around to make a nuisance of themselves.

That should cheer Scottish football watchers. But it will also mean both Smith and Mowbray face long hard battles to keep their own supporters on board in the months ahead.