Down goes Fraser

Unless any of us were involved in the process, no one really knows the backroom negotiations which prevented Fraser Forster from rejoining Celtic. But if the player had the will to return, he would have made it work. Apparently he didn’t, and now instead of competing for a starting position with Southampton, he’s riding the pine — as we say here in baseball parlance — if not out-and-out another loanee to a club with, let’s just say, less historical significance than the Hoops.

Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention . . . .

Clearly in Celtic, Fraser Forster had a worldwide fan base which adored him for his fantastic play between the posts last season. No one could have matched his play all season — the saves against Lazio, blocking the penalty against Rangers, or any other of a plethora of awe-inspiring play by The Wall. He endeared himself to Celtic followers everywhere, and most players would have jumped at the chance to continue, especially now that Celtic is on the cusp of history.

Which is why it such a sticking point for many of us. I thought for sure he’d be back, and the delay was just a matter of crossing T’s and dotting I’s in the paperwork.

After all, in public, he said he wanted to stay. We wanted him to stay. I am not a professional athlete, so I don’t know how exactly this works. However, I am a human being with free will, and I would gather that so is Fraser Forster. As such, I don’t know how hard it would have been for the big man to realize he is a hero to fans who would crawl over miles of broken glass to watch him play — and tell his agent, “I want to play for Celtic. Make the deal.”

But that didn’t happen. Ultimately, he chose Southampton.

This week, according to Southampton gaffer Ralph Hasenhuttl, the Saints are going with Alex McCarthy in goal as their number one, and either Forster or Angus Gunn will be loaned out this season. Whomever stays will be number 2, and I’d be willing to bet it’s Forster.

This decision is nothing short of tragic, both for Celtic fans and, more importantly, Forster himself. He surrendered the chance to become a part of Celtic history; he would have been spoken about years, and decades, from now with the same awe and reverence as other historic Bhoys in the Celtic pantheon as the keeper who brought us both the 9 and the 10.

So now, in Celtic circles, he’ll merely be remembered as, “Fraser Forster — yeah, he played great for us that season where we got 9 in a row. Then he went back to Southampton for the money.”

Forster traded a sure-fire legacy so he could be loaned to some backwater like Ipswich or Reading or Wrexham or wherever. Oh, he’ll play fantastically, because he’s good, but as good as it might be, it won’t be historic.

In the grand scheme of things, his next loan spell probably won’t even be remembered. But you can still deposit the checks, Fraser.

And that’s the greatest tragedy of all — football, in its essence, should be more than just a job for those blessed with the talent and skill to play professionally. And Celtic will get by, and even thrive, with Vasilis Barkas, Scott Bain, and Conor Hazard.

Let me be clear: My sincerest hope is that Fraser Forster is successful wherever he ends up this season. However, to say I am heartbroken — along with thousants of Celtic fans — that he chose poorly is a massive understatement.

But life goes on. We have Ross County on Saturday. Mon the Hoops!

It’s Academic(al)

Oh my days: Jeremie Frimpong scored the 2nd goal for Celtic at the half-hour mark on the way to the Hoops’ 5-1 victory over Hamilton Academical on Sunday.

So now that the first game is finally under Celtic’s proverbial belt, a convincing 5-1 against Hamilton Accies at home on Sunday, there are a few positive takeaways from the classroom on the pitch at Celtic Park.

Before we start, however, there are two glaring observations that need to be dispensed of at the outset.

First, if today’s game is any indication, Celtic is playing like a team destined for the history that awaits them, namely winning 10 in a row.

Second, however, and probably more importantly, is Sunday’s game shows Celtic fair warning: If the hammer throwers at Hamilton Academical are any indication, the other 11 teams will ply a trade of constant bodily harm in order to thwart the Hoops’ date with destiny.

That said, let’s take a look at Sunday’s game. Take out your notebooks, boys and girls.

Odsonne Edouard is uninterested?

Yeah, that was the run-up, all-encompassing question prior to Opening Day: Was Odsonne Edouard, as they say in France, too indifférent, as even some were saying paresseux? Pardon my French, but one hat trick against the Accies later, and all that nonsense seems to have évaporé. Any preseason evidence suggesting that Edouard is not ready to get to work for the 10 was vanquished on Sunday, and let’s look forward to more of this, s’il vous plaît.

The Passive Aggressive Hoops

In his post-game interview, Neil Lennon said that he thought, “we were a bit too passive in the first half.” While that may be true, in typical Celtic fashion the club came out of the gate storming in the 2nd with their usual aggressive attacking football, which is something we had seen all season when the Hoops won their 9th in a row. Sure, it would be great for the Celts to get up to speed quicker and lay down a marker earlier in the game. But when the results are a win, who cares when they pull away from their opponents?

Greg Taylor: Man of the Match

Yeah, I know: Edouard gets the nod by virtue of three goals, but Greg Taylor had a phenomenal game on Sunday. Taylor and his counterpart on the other side, Jeremie Frimpong, kept the Accies busy all game with crosses to the center of the pitch, essentially keeping them back on their heels for a majority of the game. The ball handling by the entire team earned special mention, but the play from the wing — both of them — was unusually good this time around and shows promise for success going forward.

Scott Bain did well

Playing under the shadow of possibly — or maybe even probably — being replaced at some point soon is daunting; a dead-man-walking scenario to be sure. But Scott Bain did not falter and turned in a good game against Hamilton. Not perfect — the pinball for the Accies that went in off of Callum McGregor and Christopher Jullien was a quirk of nature that really no one could have stopped, not even Fraser Forster. But Bain showed some good distribution and make a few good stops and earned the win at his end of the pitch.

[As an aside, pity Ryan Fulton in goal for the Accies: Normally a 5-1 outing would earn a goalkeeper a good thrashing, if not a dawn appointment with a firing squad (no pun intended). But he made several great saves in a game that really should have been 9-1. At least.]

Polish Paddy on the score sheet

Patryk Klimala continues to impress, and now that he’s got a shot at being the number two striker for Celtic, it would probably come as no surprise that the Polish kid will be working hard to claim that spot. His goal at the 90-minute mark in the game came as he outmuscled a defender after a long pass from Jullien. And even after not getting a really clean shot off, it still danced cleanly into the back of the net. At which time — quite possibly — somewhere at the Leigh Griffiths household, Leigh got onto his stationary bike for some additional training time . . . .

One more thing

Not directly Celtic-related, but there has been a debate brewing in the advent, and in the wake, of Arsenal’s 2-1 win in the FA Cup on Saturday about whether it is OK to send our long-time defender and current Arsenal fan favourite Kieran Tierney well-wishes and congratulations. If nothing else, KT is living, breathing proof that the Celtic system, from the youth level to the first team, is sheer quality. When that is given the stage as massive as the FA Cup — regardless of whether you like or dislike the EPL (and I don’t) — it puts the spotlight on our player development system being an unqualified success. So go on with your bad self, Kieran, and congratulations on bringing those championships borne of the Celtic tradition to wherever you might play.

All of that said, it was clearly a great win for the Bhoys on Sunday, and hopefully we can stay at the top of the table wire-to-wire going forward.

Class dismissed.

141 days of starvation ends

The Huddle in a post-Covid world . . .

After a drought of 141 days of no games at Paradise, no one was happier to get up at Oh-My-God-Thirty in the morning Pacific Time and put on my jersey and scarf to watch Celtic play at home.

The Ross County preseason game on Sunday had its ups and downs, as we’ll discuss here, but overall the Hoops are fine-tuning their game for the upcoming season. With Neil Lennon letting the first team run for the full 90 minutes — Greg Taylor excluded (and we’ll definitely get to that later) — here are five takeaways from the Ross County game.

Mugging Odsonne Edouard

Already there are grumblings among some of the more . . . oh, let’s say . . . “restless” Celtic supporters that Odsonne Edouard is mailing it in and not trying. I would completely disagree here, primarily because opposing teams have now caught up on the strategy of swarming Edouard, triple- and even quadruple-teaming him. Clearly, one of the reasons 3-5-2 had worked so well last season is that Eddy was not alone up front. In France and against Ross County yesterday, who was alone up front? Edouard. How did that work? Not so great. Was Eddy mailing it in? Hell, no. Get a grip.

Bain worked for his clean sheet

One of the highlights of the game was the play of Scott Bain. While Ross County’s chances were few and far between, those that got through with a shot on goal were met with some quality goalkeeping, and none of them hit the inside of the net. Like Fraser Forster — who as of this writing, according to the rumour mill, may be making his way back (fingers crossed here) — when Celtic has the ball for the great majority of the game, percentage-wise, keeping goal becomes a game of keeping your head in the game. Forster was — is — a master at maintaining concentration, and Bain proved equal to the task on Sunday.

And on the other side . . .

Additionally, a hat-tip should also go to the Ross County goalkeeper, Celtic loanee Ross Doohan. Doohan couldn’t really do anything against the own-goal, but he made some spectacular saves as the game developed.

Kerr McInroy stepped up

When Greg Taylor went down to an ankle injury thanks to a yellow-card quality foul from Connor Randall — and remind me to include Randall in my list of “SPFL Players to Meet while Swinging My Louisville Slugger” — my first thought looking at the available subs was . . . Stephen Welsh? Maybe Luca Connell? No, Lenny was a few light years ahead of me. Kerr McInroy was slotted in and performed pretty well as Taylor’s sub. McInroy moved the ball well and at one point took a shot on goal that went off a Ross County player. He also made a sharp cross which, had someone been there to receive it, would surely have been a goal. Like Welsh last season, to see players like McInroy stepping up and doing well is a promising sign.

John Hartson in the booth

I like John Hartson a lot. I follow him religiously on social media, and I was looking forward to hearing his insights on the Celtic TV broadcast. Overall he gets high marks for his commentary on the game and at halftime. However, I thought he spent a little too much time scolding Jeremie Frimpong on his gaffe in the 2nd half which left a Ross County player alone with the ball in the box. As it turned out, crisis was averted and it amounted to nothing. I think that falls under the no harm/no foul category, but Hartson wouldn’t let it go. Again, this is preseason and hopefully Hartson will get some good broadcasting practice in before the start of the season.

Until tomorrow’s game against the Hibs, here we go again . . . .

Now let’s get to work

Customarily, I watch Celtic games twice before writing about them. It’s a luxury afforded to me by being an overseas Celtic TV subscriber. After seething for a couple of hours watching the Paris Saint-Germain game live, permit me to bear down on my masochistic side and go through this ordeal once again and pick out the upsides for Celtic of this game — and, yes, there are some.

Putting aside the fact that we’ll forget about this whole French trip soon enough — as we do with all preseason matches as we roll into the new season — here are some takeaways from the game.

Taylor and Frimpong impressed: Both Greg Taylor and Jeremie Frimpong moved the ball well against one of the world’s top teams, which bodes well for the upcoming season. If you’ll permit me a “Captain Obvious” moment, Celtic won’t be facing anyone with PSG’s defensive talents in the Premiership, so it stands to reasons that with the kind of performance the wingers put in in Paris, we can run all over any club in Scotland.

As did Christie, Elyounoussi, Ntcham and others: Ryan Christie did his best Energizer Bunny impersonation by going and going and going, even after being mugged without call several times during the course of the game. Olivier Ntcham was a one-man wrecking crew in the midfield, dishing it out and taking it while on the pitch — Ntcham’s flattening Mitchel Bakker around the 36-minute mark was a gem. Moi Elyounoussi was pretty stellar, too, amid a few muggings he suffered himself. Subs did pretty well, too, on the whole: James Forrest and Tom Rogic looked ready for the upcoming season in the limited time they played.

Yes, we could use a goalkeeper, but . . . : When Scott Bain went down to a PSG knee to his head early in the second half, you could feel the collective breath-holding by Celtic fans worldwide. As much as I like Conor Hazard, he’s clearly a light-year or two from being Number 1 material, so perhaps this is a wake-up call to those responsible for signing players to fix the goalkeeper situation as soon as possible. That said, though, Bain only really borked the third PSG goal — the other three would have gone past pretty much any other goalkeeper. Possibly even Fraser Forster. And a little perspective here: There’s a really good chance that Forster would not have come away from this game with a clean sheet. With a couple of gaffes notwithstanding, Bain did a pretty good job against a world football power.

Demoralizing? No, not really: One of the common post-game themes among the keyboard gaffers on social media is that this defeat was somehow demoralizing for Celtic. Not quite. Sure, normally when you lose 4-0, it’s demoralizing — if you lose 4-0 to Partick Thistle then, yeah, banishment to a deserted island forever would be a viable option. That’s demoralizing. But losing 4-0 to Paris Saint-Germain? Well, if could have been worse, but the fact of the matter is that it wasn’t.

Celtic played a much better game than the score indicated, and since it is a preseason friendly — Neymar excluded — then it doesn’t really matter. The bhoys got their minutes in and we came away without injuries.

One more warmup against Derry City FC on Saturday and then we go to work. Until then, with your culture and your faith wear the green-and-white.

Nice game, Bhoys

The usual 11 suspects, plus a cast of thousands: That was the lineup for Celtic against Nice on Thursday.

Watching 131 straight days of reruns of every Celtic game of this past championship season — thanks, Celtic TV — I am grateful, like all other Hoops fans, for this: Celtic finally took to the field against Nice on Thursday for the start of French friendlies to tune up for 10 in a row. As is the postgame custom in this blog, we’ll take a look at some takeaways — namely three of them — from Thursday’s game.

VAR sucks, and the SPFL doesn’t have a monopoly on bad referees

First things first: VAR sucks. Full stop. And I have said in the past that I find the offside rule an unexplained mystery that rivals how gravity works or the what the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey” really means. But watching Odsonne Edouard sandwiched between two Nice players while the ball passes all of them leads me to believe that he was clearly onside and the goal should have stood.

Add to this the arbitrary calls and non-calls during the course of the game by a referee who definitely has been away from the game far too long and needs just a bit more practice, and what turned out to be a rust-shaking 90 minutes could have been a Celtic win.

But you know what Jock Stein says about refs.

High marks for everyone

In the first half with the starters on the pitch, Celtic got into a pretty good rhythm and did not lack chances on goal. Credit a combination of getting timing down in the first game with a few phenomenal saves by Nice’s goalkeeper Walter Benitez. With the exception of a couple of good moves and a shot by Kaspar Dolberg (after a foul downfield against Mohammed Elyounoussi which was not called, but never mind) to make the score 1-0 to Nice after 38 minutes, Scott Bain played well, making a few good saves in his first start in several months.

Then came the wholesale team change in the second half, as Neil Lennon went with the subs. They all played well, and some were phenomenal. Boli Bolingoli had a fairly remarkable game where his defense was solid, his passing was crisp and he had a shot on goal that, although wide, shows that his first for the Hoops may not be far off. Hatem Elhamed, now number 44, showed the speed and defensive form that made him a fan favorite early last season. Ismaila Soro also impressed with his defensive play, with many of his passes getting the Hoops out of danger.

And then there’s Patryk Klimala. Not only did Polish Paddy score to equalize on a misplayed ball by the Nice goalkeeper, but his play during the second half was pretty remarkable. What should have been more notable during the game was Klimala’s range — he was all over the field and he made a couple of defensive plays in the Celtic end that saved potential scores.

Which, of course, leads us to consider another Celtic striker who is currently not with the team, so . . .

Meanwhile, back in Scotland . . .

As widely reported, Lennon has dropped the hammer on Leigh Griffiths for coming into training overweight and for his social media exploits, keeping him off the roster for the French games. And with Klimala already impressing on the pitch, Griffiths’ work is cut out for him to regain his spot.

Unlike a chorus of social media pundits who think Griffiths is through, I would disagree. You read it here first: Griffiths will come back with a vengeance. In the best of all possible worlds, I am confident that Super Leigh will take this latest wake-up call and make the best of it.

One more thing

The refrain from the Grateful Dead’s “U.S. Blues” would be a fitting verse to sing for the person who raised the 9-in-a-row Celtic flag atop Glasgow City Hall last week: “Wave that flag, wave it wide and high.”

And as you might expect, the social media response to this has been pretty hilarious, now that each of the staunch statue guardians becomes a “flagpole sitta” (thanks, Harvey Danger). This one below is of special note . . . which has drawn requests from NASA to investigate (although my guess is that the American space agency will pass).

Don’t forget, Michael Collins was the Command Module pilot on Apollo 11, while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went to the lunar surface in 1969.

Until the Lyon game, we are Celtic supporters, faithful through and through . . .

Remember Scott Bain?

We all know what speculation brings, regardless of what an army of “inside sources” may claim. But until Fraser Forster and some Southampton bigwig sit down for a press conference announcing The Wall is returning to the Saints — something that hasn’t happened at least while this was written on Thursday afternoon — it’s fair to assume a deal is still possible and Forster may very well return to Celtic.

Yet even in the tragic event that Forster doesn’t return, we still have a capable goalkeeper to start for the Hoops; a goalkeeper who had a hand — injured or otherwise — in the club’s success prior to the arrival of La Gran Muralla.

Good enough then, good enough now: Scott Bain lifts the Scottish Cup after Celtic won the final in May 2019.

Cast your minds back, Celtic fans. His name is Scott Bain, and until Forster came along, Bain was adequately handling the goalkeeping duties for the Hoops.

Of course, there’s no denying that Forster was an integral part in our most recent championship, and there’s no Hoops supporter in their right mind who would not want Forster to return to his station between the sticks for Celtic.

But that’s not the point here. This is: Lacking the services of Fraser Forster this season, the Celts go into 10-in-a-row already equipped with a game-tested and game-proven goalkeeping talent in Bain. If anything, any newly acquired goalkeeper — whether it’s Joe Hart, who is no longer head-and-shoulders above other goalkeepers, or Camp Nou hero David Marshall — should be sought for backup purposes.

It’s why this latest “crisis” is a manufactured one. It’s a mystery why Bain isn’t in the forefront of any discussion around acquiring a goalkeeper in the event that Forster doesn’t return, other than perhaps to create drama where actually there is none.

The Hoops already have a Number 1 in Bain; in fact, essentially Celtic had two Number 1s in Bain and Craig Gordon, but the latter has set his sights on starting for Championship League contender Heart of Midlothian and has acted on it accordingly.

Despite the current distraction, this team is easily ready to take the 10. With a healthy squad ready for an encore performance from last season’s championship, and with a crop of young players waiting in the wings augmented by a few previous transfer window acquisitions who have yet to show their talents, Celtic is unquestionably poised for 10-in-a-row.

Fraser Forster should be a part of that, and essentially his presence would guarantee it. But should he choose not be a part of it, the sticks are in capable hands with Scott Bain.

One more thing

I don’t know about the wider Celtic supporter base worldwide, but personally I’m getting a little tired of Hoops fans slagging former defender Kieran Tierney. Waking up to a Celtic fan’s tweet this morning where, paraphrasing here, he (or she) doesn’t care whether Arsenal fans like KT or not, he (or she) doesn’t pay attention to him anymore.

And that’s fine.

However, bear in mind that every time the former Celt takes the field at Highbury, he brings about 14 years of the Celtic system on to it as well. That alone reflects remarkably well on our club’s training system when KT is doing well for Arsenal; to say nothing of the fact that despite however well he is doing for Arsenal, the Gunners were still fleeced in spending as much as they did on him.

Perhaps someone someday can explain to me why we speak fondly of some former Celts — like Moussa Dembele, for example — and a lifelong bhoy with years of history with the club gets unceremoniously dragged.

Until next time, graffiti on the walls says we’re magic . . . .

Focus, focus, focus

Taking a look at all that’s going on in Scottish football over the last couple of weeks, it appears that distractions are rearing their ugly heads and overwhelming the general public in general, and football fans in particular, in tsunami-sized waves of falsehoods.

To recap:

Celtic fans tried to kill Alfredo Morelos. No wait, that paper-thin perpetrator under Fredo’s Lamborghini is actually a private investigator hired by Morelos’ pregnant wife to place a tracker on his car to keep tabs on him.

So, let’s deflect.

Sky Sports — let’s turn on the Sarcasmatron and see what it calls them . . . it says “a paragon of sport journalism” — produces an interview with a player who can’t understand English, yet he claims there’s racist abuse directed toward him at Celtic Park. But wait: Those subtitles aren’t exactly a match to what he’s saying. In fact, they’re arguably not even close.

The total weight of this disingenuous behaviour could stun a team of oxen.

Thank God for Michael Stewart, who has both the gravitas and the courage to tell the truth, taking to heart the Latin phrase, Fiat justitia ruat caelum — let justice prevail though the heavens fall. To his immense credit, Stewart is doing what journalists should be doing everywhere, but sadly aren’t; especially in Scotland, apparently.

As a former journalist, I can go on for days here regarding how important Stewart’s statements are and the heroic nature of the stand he is taking, just by merely highlighting the truth. But I will spare you.

You’re welcome.

The Dynamic Duo: Leigh Griffiths hugs Odsonne Edouard after Edouard’s opening goal at the 9-minute mark at Fir Park. Celtic went on to beat Motherwell 4-0.

But speaking of the Motherwell game . . .

All distractions aside, what I did want to write about today was yesterday’s game at Fir Park, where Celtic got off to its usual meticulous start in the first half, going into the locker room with a meager 1-0 lead, and came out of the gate in the second half like gangbusters, ending the game with a 4-0 score, and a wider goal differential in its seven-point lead in the table.

Rather than do the usual “five takeaways,” I am going to make this brief, sort of.

During the transfer window, we had a flurry of greeters bemoaning the fact that we need [fill-in-the-position-of-your-choice-here] or we are doomed to extinction. This while ignoring that there really was only one blemish on the season so far, on Dec. 29. One misstep that has seen us atop the league virtually all season and accomplishing one of three steps toward the Quadruple Treble so far.

So I am going to assume they will go contentedly silent now. Maybe.

It’s not only the obvious things that set us apart atop the rest of the league, like the tandem of Odsonne Edouard and Leigh Griffiths — twin strikers from separate mothers — working like a well-oiled machine at the front, or how the crowd in the 3-5-2 midfield is seemingly flawless in their ball-handling, moving the ball efficiently up the field. It’s not only Fraser Forster rejecting everything that comes remotely near him in goal.

It’s also in the little things, too: Patryk Klimala and Stephen Welsh both showing promise; the former showing speed and skill in two brief stints at the end of the last two games, and the latter having a good game in his debut. Tom Rogic and Jozo Simunovic getting back up to speed; especially the latter, who has put together back-to-back adequate games as a starter. And then, to add to the returning wounded, Ryan Christie showing some flash in the Motherwell game, starting the Christie to James Forrest to Callum McGregor goal in the second half.

But wait, there’s more. Mohammed Elyounoussi is training and will be back soon, followed by Hatem Elhamed and Jeremie Frimpong. Once we’re back to full strength, we should be unstoppable.

Most importantly, what someone needs to do, or should have done, immediately after the final whistle at Fir Park was to wake up Peter Lawwell and have him sign Forster immediately after the game. For life. Right now. As great as our backups are — and both Scott Bain and Craig Gordon are top-notch, even though we haven’t seen them all season — neither one of them is making these same saves. The Wall is in his own class, in his own league, in his own universe.

Forster needs to be Celtic for life.

The same applies to Edouard as well. Though he’s under contract until the end of the 2021/22 season, he needs to be kept around at all costs. Chris Sutton is absolutely right when he says Edouard is “the closest thing to (Henrik) Larsson I’ve seen in a Celtic jersey.” If anyone on the planet can speak with authority on this topic, it is Sutton.

One more thing

Kristoffer Ajer and Christopher Jullien might be getting slagged a bit on their defensive lapses in the Motherwell game, and there is no argument there — Ajer’s missed tackle could have sullied the clean sheet that Celtic came away with had Motherwell scored. But they didn’t. And to their credit, Kris and Chris are always in communication, and you can see them discussing play during the celebration of Edouard’s first goal.

Additionally, Motherhell — sorry, Motherwell — clearly have worked hard on consistently being a team of hammer-throwing Steelmen; no secret there. They also happen to be third in the Scottish Premiership table, which makes them first-of-the-also-rans behind Celtic and Glasgow’s other club. They’re third in the table for a reason, and on Wednesday, taking advantage of Celtic’s defensive lapses is probably the main reason why they lead the rest of the pack.

Now, for the rest of the season, let’s focus.

Focus on our positives far, far outweighing our negatives, because they do. Neil Lennon has been nothing short of masterful in handling suitable lineups in the face of multiple injuries. Focus on the two prizes needed to complete the next treble; one cup down, one cup and the league championship to go. Focus on the fact that, despite all these infantile shenanigans going on in Scottish football drawing away everyone’s attention (and we’re not even going close to the disciplinary garbage the SFA is pulling), Celtic is playing its best football in quite some time and, barring any disasters, we should prevail.

Focus, focus, focus.