Monday morning, you sure look fine . . . mostly. After walking off the hangover (football, not alcohol) of Saturday’s defeat — how’s that for mixing metaphors? — I wake up Monday morning to find that one of my favorite Celts, Olivier Ntcham, is heading home to France, on a loan-to-buy deal to Marseilles.
My guess is that the “to-buy” aspect of this deal will enter into the equation soon enough.
Naturally, this could be for the best for both Ntcham and Celtic. On a club that is laughably overstocked with massive talent at his position — with David Turnbull and Ismaila Soro signaling the future for the Celtic at midfield — Ntcham had found playing time difficult to come by. At Marseilles, he may get the playing time he deserves and lacked, through really no fault of his own, at Celtic.
Armchair gaffers and PlayStation pundits liked to double-team Ntcham, calling him disinterested or lazy. I never saw that in him. True, anyone could be frustrated at the lack of playing time given. But when he was on the pitch, he gave his all. Those more astute observers will recognize that Ntcham had an innate ability to win the ball back, and when you watch highlights of Odsonne Edouard from seasons past, Ntcham is usually involved in the goals somehow.
Which raises an underlying, and significantly grave, concern: If Ntcham is off, back to France, will Edouard be far behind once the summer rolls around?
Despite all that, even if you discount the fact that he is inextricably linked to Celtic history with his goal against Lazio, he scored some significant goals for the Bhoys in Green.
Exhibit A: Glasgow Derby, September 2018. 1-0 Celtic victory. To say nothing of who got the assist on Jonny Hayes’ goal against Glasgow’s other club in a Glasgow Derby the following year. Yep, watch the entire play leading up to the goal: It’s Ntcham’s pass that Hayes takes to score. Then there was that rocket against Partick Thistle in the Scottish League Cup quarterfinals in September 2019 — one of two Ntcham goals that game, the first which came from about a mile away. There are many more examples of his contributions to the club, but that would be labouring the point.
In total, Ntcham scored 23 goals in 137 games for Celtic. Not legendary stats, to be sure, but most of his contributions were away from the ball moreso than on it. Again, despite being awash in wealth in the midfield position, Celtic is at a loss for his departure.
So, merci beaucoup, Olivier Ntcham for your play and the memories at Celtic. Good luck in Marseilles.
When a week goes by with no Celtic games, and having to see what’s available elsewhere — the default mode is to find which clubs with former Celts are playing and watch accordingly (for example, Scott Sinclair was pretty good in the Preston North End win, though he flubbed a chance to score) — it gives one pause to collect one’s thoughts for Celtic’s upcoming game on Sunday, historic as it is, as well as to look back and ponder some might-have-beens.
Like . . .
Does Scott Brown start on Sunday?
This is the big question of the week, being batted back and forth over the journalistic net like a tennis ball at a Wimbledon final. Does Scott Brown start on Sunday, or does Neil Lennon go with what’s been working over the last couple of weeks with David Turnbull and Ismaila Soro?
This is a tough one. If it has caused me a sleepless night or two, imagine the tossing and turning Lenny must be doing over it.
In the final analysis, my guess — and my hope — is that Broony starts on Sunday. History dictates it. In large part, Scott Brown got us to where we are now. A gut feeling that Broony will shine comes into play here over the logic that his performances lately have been, to put it mildly, lackluster.
My guess, too, is that as a starter he’s on a very short leash as well, and if he looks anywhere near lackluster, he may be getting the hook early.
What’s not being talked about is this: You know who I would like to see start on Sunday against the relegated Heart of Midlothian? Mikey Johnston. He subbed against Kilmarnock in the last game, coming off a long-healing injury, and looked to be his old self, bobbing and weaving through traffic goalward.
Jozo opens up
On the day that Jozo Simunovic scored at 67 minutes in the game honoring Celtic legend Billy McNeill — number 5 scoring in honor of number 5 — I put a photo of the big Croatian pointing skyward after scoring as my wallpaper. And there it stays to this day — a reminder of probably the first historic Celtic moment this realtively new Celtic fan had seen for himself (in the company, of course, of the San Francisco CSC in Millbrae, California).
I’ve always liked Jozo a lot, and he played with enthusiasm and love for Celtic. He was one of those players that, when healthy, often anonymously steered the course of the game to our advantage. And then he punctuated his Celtic career with gems like the header above, scoring an occasional important goal like the one that put us ahead against Kilmarnock (again) late in the season to increase our lead in the standings.
And, of course, nothing beats Jozo’s launch of Kenny Miller in 2017 during a 5-1 drubbing of “The Rangers” at Ibrox.
The Celtic Star recently ran an article about Jozo recently where the former Celt opens up on his departure, it is definitely worth a read. Arguably, not offering Jozo an extension — along with letting Jonny Hayes and Mikael Lustig move on — arguably has put the club in the precarious position it finds itself today. But that’s another topic for another discussion at another time.
Look through any window
With the new year around the corner, it will be time for — fanfare, maestro — the January Transfer Window, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth that will undoubtedly follow.
A primary target on Celtic’s radar has been Philadelphia Union’s Mark McKenzie, who sees his road to the EPL running through Glasgow.
“I’ve done my fair share of research (on Celtic and the Scottish Premiership) and I’ve always loved football so I’ve known about Celtic for a while,” McKenzie recently told SkySports. “You hear about Celtic and the path of Virgil Van Dijk — going from there to the Prem.”
Not the kind of loyalty you would expect to the club, but understandable in this day and age of mercenaries. If the price of a top-notch defender is that he plays outstanding football for Celtic while punching his ticket to a larger club, then maybe that’s the best we can expect.
However, in this transfer window, it would not bother me if we stood pat with this team — maybe adding McKenzie or another defender — and bring up some of the Reserves to play for the Hoops.
Cameron Harper in particular deserves the opportunity to show what he can do on the first team, since his ability to challenge and go thorugh defenders at the Reserves level shows he could do it at the top level. The same goes for Armstrong Oko-Flex and Karamoko Dembele — both reported to be on the radar of a few teams down south — who both deserve to show what they can do for the first team. Get Jonathan Afolabi back from his loan spell from Dundee.
The fact of the matter is we have all the pieces we need going forward. It’s just putting them in the right order so the club fires on all cylinders as we motor to the 10 in the 2nd half of the season.
One more thing
Those who know me well already know this, but for the rest of you following me on social media, there are a couple of clubs which have earned my following due to their actions in their communities. As mentioned in a previous post, Nairn County FC took a windfall they had when COVID-19 stopped their season and put it back into their community, as thanks for the community’s ongoing support for the club.
More locally, just up the road in the San Francisco Bay Area, Oakland Roots SC deserve a shout-out in the same regard, and I am a supporter of a club that “harness(es) the magic of Oakland and the power of sport as a force for social good.” No one is more excited than me that Oakland Roots have partnered with FC St. Pauli in promotional efforts, and hopefully in the near future a friendly between the clubs in Oakland will be on the horizon.
My affinity for community-based, community-owned clubs does not stop there. As some readers know from a past post offering a few tips to former Celt Lewis Morgan in his move to Inter Miami, I spent my formative years — from 3 to 29 to be exact — living in Miami.
That said, a shout out goes to a new community-owned, community-based club in the area — Biscayne Bay SC — which will play its inaugural season in my old stomping grounds, so to speak. Not only this, they’ve adopted the quintessential Miami mascot — the Manatee! Score that as an own-goal for David Beckham in NOT adopting that mascot for Inter Miami, but Beckham’s loss is BBSC’s gain. Mon the Manatee!
Celts to bring home more silverware tomorrow — you read it here first.
The memory is ingrained deep in the psyche of all Celtic fans — the moment you saw Jozo Simunovic head the ball into the net against Kilmarnock last April in a game honoring another Number 5, Billy McNeill.
You may have been at Paradise, or maybe you were watching at home. Maybe you were in a pub with like-minded Celtic supporters.
Or if you were at Fiddler’s Green in Millbrae, California, as I was, watching with the San Francisco CSC, you might have done what we did: Cheer wildly for the goal, and when the gravity of fate made us realize that Number 5 had scored 67 minutes in, a hush of awe washed over the room.
Shortly afterward, I put the picture of Jozo pointing to the heavens after scoring that goal as the photo on my cell phone. It stays there to this day to remind me about how, on that day, the forces of nature sent a clear and unequivocal sign to Celtic and said, “There’s nothing stopping you now.”
Those who know me in Celtic circles know that I am a full-throated defender of Jozo Simunovic in the face of some of the naysayers within our support. Yeah, he may have knees of glass and, yeah, he may have been in injury recovery a little longer than might be convenient. But when he does make his way onto the pitch, Jozo is a machine.
Not only does he patrol the backfield with aplomb, he has also been known to wander forward and at a few opportune times — like in the game against Hearts back in February — his forehead happened to be in the right place at the right time to head Ryan Christie’s corner into the net to make the score 5-0. Or when Jozo took some initiative and drove forward to take a Greg Taylor cross in the game against Kilmarnock in March, only to be carried by momentum over the goal line but not before heading the ball back to Odsonne Edouard, who scored.
Jozo has earned a spot in Celtic lore not only for his goal in the Billy McNeill game or for launching Kenny Miller in a textbook tackle that should be taught in football academies worldwide, but also for his firm and steady defensive play for the Hoops. It is unfortunate that, due to injury, he could not reach his full potential for the club, but by the same token his play while in good health was of the highest quality.
They say things like this come in threes, so after Jonny Hayes and Jozo Simunovic, who might be next? Some are speculating that it might be Kris Ajer, who has been rumored to be on his way out for some time. My sincere hope is that this is wrong, but it remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, thank you, Jozo, for all those moments with the Hoops, and you are always one of us.
[Blogger’s note: A few weeks ago, I went “off script” and wrote a blog item about Nairn County FC in the Highland Football League after their statement assured that their team and staff would be paid, and club resources would be used to help the community through the Covid-19 crisis. Lo and behold, after exchanging emails with the club’s Donald Graham, I am now in possession of a maize (not yellow) and black NCFC scarf. Thanks, Donald, and mon the Wee County!]
First things first: Jonny Hayes is one of those players that makes a club overwhelmingly better by his mere presence. He’s what we call in the U.S. a “lunchpail player,” the kind of player who, without flash or fanfare, shows up to work, clocks in, and goes above and beyond the job asked of him in any given game.
So when he posted an Instagram message saying that he’s moving on, the Celtic faithful rightfully is mourning his departure and wishing him well in his future endeavours. My wish would have been that his “future endeavours” would have been in green-and-white, but . . . .
“Football at times brings tough decisions,” Hayes writes in his post, “so I’d like to thank you for all the support received along the way!”
Most of the memories relayed on social media involve Hayes’ goal against The Rangers™ earlier this season to put the game out of reach, as the picture speaking a thousand words above outlines. That was completely sublime, of course, but there was so much more to Jonny’s contributions to Celtic since he came to the Hoops from Aberdeen.
Hayes will always be remembered for his leave-it-all-out-on-the-pitch style of play, where he gave his all every game. There’s nothing more you can ask of an athlete, and he always delivered. Solid play against Lazio. A potential goal-saving tackle at Rennes. The list is quite long.
But what I like to remember Hayes for — and this seems inconsequential to most — is how that brand of play was typified in his throw-in at Hamilton back in February that led eventually to the 2-1 winner by Christopher Jullien. Hayes literally vaulted the signage on the Hamilton sideline, retrieved the ball, quickly threw in to Callum McGregor, who passed it back to Hayes, and then Hayes passed forward to Ryan Christie, who crossed it to Jullien, who put it in the back of the net.
To be honest, I really, really like the 12 noon (or thereabouts) kickoff times in Scotland. Yes, I have to drag my sorry butt out of bed at some ungodly pre-sunrise hour, but at least I get to watch the game live and, for the most part, unfettered.
The 5:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. Pacific) kickoff puts me right square in the middle of a workday on a Saturday or a Sunday (yes, I work weekends. Don’t ask). And, generally speaking, while the Bhoys seem to excel when I’m away from the screen — thank God for Celtic TV and their rebroadcasts (best $18 a month I’ve ever spent, and I highly recommend it) — I’d really like to be there watching when the action actually happens.
So I get home from a fun-filled work day — yes, that’s sarcasm — and spend two hours watching the game, start to finish, and head over to The Celtic Noise to talk about it with the merry band of forum denizens who have had a head start. One thing I always look forward to is Sandman’s ratings, which are posted first on the Noise and then posted on The Celtic Star; quality analysis and it can only be found here.
But anyway, my five takeaways from the Celtic-Hibernian game are as follows:
1. Captain. Leader. Legend.
Broony. Damn. Just damn. You worry as the seasons pass that a guy who carries the team might– just might — be feeling the trappings of the twilight of his career, and you think to yourself, but dare not say aloud, that he may retire before the 10 in a row. But then he pulls something like this to make you feel like a complete idiot. Two goals. Two brilliant goals, as a matter of fact. And instead of buying just one Broony DVD, you’re tempted to buy a whole case and give them out as Christmas presents (“Here, Mom, Merry Christmas!”) because . . . damn. Scott Brown has definitely earned his place in Celtic history, and the process for commissioning a sculptor to create his statue outside Parkhead should start soon.
2. Mohammed Elyounoussi should stay
Mo Elyounoussi is a goal-scoring machine. Full stop. It must be a blessing to know where to be, showing up at the right place at the right time, as Elyounoussi seems to do. Both of his goals were impeccable, whether it was a header on a cross from James Forrest or a pass from Odsonne Edouard in front of the net (more on this in a bit). I would like to think that the board will pony up the money to keep Big Mo wearing the hoops, but that remains to be seen. One can always hope, no?
3. When Boli is out, an attack vector is lost
First things first: This is not a knock on Jonny Hayes. Hayes is a solid player and can start pretty much on any other team in the league. His speed and ball handling are impeccable, and we’re lucky to have him wearing the Green and White. However, when Boli Bolingoli was taken out at halftime — I understand it’s a hamstring — the Celts lost one of its two threats down both the left and right side that kept Hibs unbalanced for pretty much the first half. Here’s hoping it’s not a serious injury.
4. Unselfish Edouard shares the wealth
No doubt goalkeepers everywhere have nightmares about Odsonne Edouard. Those nightmares — at least the ones that don’t involve the goalkeeper standing in the goal mouth in his underwear — probably consist of Edouard coming down the pitch with the ball and eluding all the goalkeeper’s defenders and delivering a Celtic goal. But add one more layer to this nightmare: French Eddy passing the ball to another Celt for the assist instead. It happened twice against Hibernian: One went to Callum McGregor and the other was on Elyounousi’s second goal. Eddy ended up with a grand total of zero goals and two assists; not that he was complaining. When Edouard approaches the goal, defences start to collapse around him, freeing up one or two teammates who are ready to score. So now, not only do goalkeepers have to worry about Edouard scoring, they have to worry about him passing it away to open teammates.
5. Hibernian is not really that bad
At the moment, Hibernian is staring relegation in the face in the standings. But truth be told, the 5-2 score betrays the fact that they played Celtic fairly strong in the Betfred Cup semifinal. Sure, Celtic should have won 8-2 if not for some unlucky bounces — damn goalposts! — and Melker Halberg was clearly offside in their first goal. But never mind. I am sure that the coaching staff have some positive takeaways from the semifinal game. Also, completely unrelated, “Sunshine on Leith” is a great song — probably second to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as far as football songs go.
Meanwhile, Celtic takes on Nazio — sorry, Lazio — in Rome this week, and it would be great to steal a win away from the fascists.
Spending a hot Wednesday morning trying to stay cool here in Central California was made even more difficult — in the best possibly way, mind you — when Celtic turned up the heat on Wednesday evening in Glasgow, when the Bhoys in Green cruised to a 5-0 win over Partick Thistle at Paradise.
Bayo scored, Tom Rogic scored, Olivier Ntcham scored twice and Scott Sinclair came off the bench to score. In his first league game, Jeremie Frimpong gets the Man of the Match. You can read a recap of the game here (and for the legendary Sandman’s report, the PG version, click here), and you can continue to the next paragraph and beyond for five takeaways from Wednesday’s game, like . . .
1. The Wizard goes the distance
Tom Rogic came into the game on Sunday against Kilmarnock, seeing his first action after a long absence due to injury, and was not a factor. Some (not me) said that he looked lethargic, but all I remember from Sunday was gritting my teeth after he was taken down by a hard tackle late in the game.
Well, the Wizard came back for a full 90-minute shift against Partick Thistle and scored at the 46-minute mark. That’s fantastic news for Celtic supporters everywhere, giving Neal Lennon more options at midfield. Hopefully we see more of Rogic during the course of the season.
2. MOTM is not Olivier Ntcham?
Don’t get me wrong: I love this kid. Jeremie Frimpong had a storybook start to his professional career on Wednesday, starting his first game for Celtic and playing remarkably well. But with Olivier Ntcham scoring twice — the second goal a real scorcher, too — doesn’t he at least deserve honorable mention?
OK, I get it. Olivier Ntcham’s snub for MOTM on Wednesday could very well be his punishment for acting like a jerk earlier this season, when he was looking to play elsewhere. Fine. Lesson learned. Now that this is out of our system, we can only hope that he plays every game from here on in like he did on Wednesdsay, and racks up Man of the Match honors going forward.
3. More Hayes, more Sinclair, more subs
If having an overabundance of choices can create headaches for a gaffer, then someone please hand Neil Lennon this bottle of migraine tablets. With all the talent that Celtic has, it has got to be a chore to pick the right lineups and have them firing on all cylinders in every game, let alone knowing when to pull a player and replace him with another (and Lenny addresses this a bit in his post-game interview).
So thank God we’ve got such remarkable talent on the bench. Although Jonny Hayes started on Wednesday — and a successful argument can be made for starting him more often — he is usually a boost off the bench, as he showed against the Rangers at Ibrox a few weeks ago. Scott Sinclair, who lately has been keeping the pine warm (sorry, a baseball expression), showed his talent of games past after coming into the game on Wednesday, and there’s no reason why he can’t be a weapon off the bench, unless of course he finds his form from seasons past and breaks into the starting 11.
4. How about Bayo and Edouard up front?
Now that we’ve gotten a good look at Bayo on Wednesday, could I be the only one who finds the potential of both Bayo and Odsonne Edouard playing up front, at the same time, a source of sheer ecstacy? I mean, seriously — who in the Scottish Premiership could stop this dynamic duo? Oh, and one more thing . . .
5. It’s not ‘Patrick’ Thistle, you idiot!
Just hand me that pointy hat that says “DUNCE” on it and I’ll go ahead and make my way to that seat in the corner of the classroom. For the last few days, in social media and in correspondence, I have to confess that I have been writing “Patrick Thistle” instead of the club’s actual name, which is Partick Thistle. My apologies to the club, and I’ll do my best Emily Litella impersonation: “Never mind.”
[75 degrees. Wildfire threat level today in rural Santa Cruz County: Low.]