Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Hopes and fears

The revolution, when it came, was televised.

Throughout the day yesterday Sky Sports News was awash with rumours of comings and goings at clubs across Britain. But it was in Glasgow’s east end that they found the most productive negotiations.

If Tony Mowbray had arrived at Celtic in July with a grand, but long term, plan he has redrafted it before our eyes since the turn of the year. Gone is the gradual reshaping of the team, replaced by an impressive cull of established players and the recruitment of eight players in a few short weeks.

Some of these players are relatively untried. But, stung by his experience of life back in Scotland, Mowbray has chosen to live or die by men of his own choosing and will see it as a vindication of his philosophy if the new players adapt quickly to the brand of football he demands.

That so many of the players he has jettisoned were keen to join up with their former manager at Middlesbrough would suggest that Mowbray has failed to win their hearts in the way that Gordon Strachan did. That will not bother him in the slightest if he can prove that he is stronger without them.

We can see this transfer window as the biggest gamble of Mowbray’s management career. He has sought redemption in change, recasting the rest of the season and the title race as a permanent revolution at Celtic Park. At the moment, of course, the success of all this is open to question.

Mowbray’s new arrivals were, in the main, the kind of young, inexperienced players with potential that he relishes working with, the sort of players that he can mould into his vision of the modern footballer. Commendable but not exactly the guarantee of immediate success that fans are clamouring for.

But Celtic had one more trick ready. In the last bit of business of the day, they unveiled a marquee signing. Scottish football was supposed to be finished with big money signings, the Old Firm were supposed to have quit competing with even smaller English clubs.

But here, remarkably, was Robbie Keane holding the number seven shirt and being unveiled as the highest paid player ever to ply his trade in Scotland. An enduring fixture of the English Premier League, suddenly Keane was walking amongst us, promising to sprinkle his stardust across the SPL.

Even as a short term loan deal this must be seen as one of the biggest coups in Celtic’s history. The biscuit tin would seem to have been dynamited out of the boardroom.

But Keane has not been signed as a luxury. Of all the new arrivals it is the Irishman who is going to have perform the most important roles as the season reaches its crucial period.

He passed his first test with flying colours. A team that finds itself ten points behind in a two horse race needs a fairly spectacular stunt to try and wrestle the momentum from their rivals. Signing Keane is a fairly spectacular stunt.

Supporters will suddenly find themselves galvanised at the thought of seeing, however briefly, a fitting heir to Henrik Larsson. Optimism will be rediscovered, empty seats filled again. If the flipside of this enthusiasm at Celtic is an outbreak of jitters among the faithful at Ibrox then just by holding his shirt aloft Keane has done a grand job.

Secondly he needs to hit the ground running. None of the other signing have as much experience as the 29 year old Keane. If they are to be afforded the luxury of having time to settle, then he has to take the pressure off them by making an immediate impact. He might even be asked to take the captain’s armband and lead from the front.

And finally he needs to act as the catalyst for a massive team effort. They somehow need to reel in the ten point gap they have conceded to Rangers. Keane’s presence – and his goals – will be expected to kick start the comeback and then ensure that it lasts the distance.

If he can achieve all this then Robbie Keane, with the assistance of Dermot Desmond’s largesse, will ensure the survival of the Mowbray regime. If he flops then Mowbray’s gamble will have failed and both he and Celtic, chastened and poorer, will be back to square one.