Football: Barnes and the emerald Eyal

Phil Gordon assesses Celtic's challenge to Rangers' supremacy
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The Independent Online
BING CROSBY once explained why he never took star billing when appearing with his celluloid partner, Bob Hope. "If the picture is good, I get the credit," confided Crosby, "and if it's not, I can blame the other guy."

Kenny Dalglish and John Barnes are short on previous material together to be a comparable double act, but the more cynical observers will be watching Celtic this season to see if Crosby's philosophy is alive at Parkhead as much as it was at Paramount. Hollywood may be about big bucks, but in football there is only one and it always stops with the manager: in this case, Barnes.

Celtic's long-suffering fans did not examine the small print too much when Dalglish and Barnes swept into the east end of Glasgow last month. No matter that Dalglish was titled Director of Football, or his insistence that Barnes would be solely in charge of the team, they cared only that King Kenny was back at the club he left 22 years ago to bestow the kind of riches on Liverpool that were once the preserve of Parkhead.

Dalglish's leaving present to Celtic in 1977 - apart from a then-record pounds 440,000 fee - was the Double, but things are different these days in Glasgow. The only nine-in-a-row that anyone shouts about is Rangers' recent monopoly, not Jock Stein's legendary Celtic side of which Dalglish was a part. A clean sweep of trophies by the other half of the Old Firm last season means that Dalglish, and more importantly Barnes, have to overcome a legacy of failure which sees Rangers, seeking their 11th title in 13 years, understandably installed as favourites for the Scottish Premier League which kicks off on Saturday.

Celtic, as Dalglish concedes, have changed much in the intervening decades. "The place has changed a bit," he said, nodding at the 60,000-seat stadium and joking. "They must have spent my transfer fee well." Celtic are bigger box-office now than they have ever been, but Britain's largest home crowd (average 59,000) and a thriving plc which has a pounds 30m turnover could not be sustained on hope alone. Glory is a prerequisite.

Those supporters dismiss suggestions that Dalglish, like Crosby, shares more passion for golf than his work now. They don't really care whose name will go on the top of the credit; they simply want a script titled The Road to Success.

Dalglish's love of the deal saw a pounds 10m summer spending spree which netted Eyal Berkovic from West Ham, Bulgaria's gifted teenager Stilian Petrov, Olivier Tebily from Sheffield United and back-up keeper Dimitri Kharine from Chelsea. Berkovic said after his pounds 5.75m, Scottish record, move: "As soon as I knew John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish wanted me there was no competition about where I would be playing."

That kind of irresistible lure was part of the reason the Celtic chief executive, Allan MacDonald, went out on a limb to get Dalglish, despite opposition from the former chairman, Fergus McCann, still the majority shareholder but now a tax exile. MacDonald is allowing Barnes to cut his managerial teeth on one of the toughest jobs in football on the basis of his friend Dalglish's gut reaction.

Bold, or barmy, only time will tell. However Barnes' illustrious playing cv with England and Liverpool is thrown out of the window and Liam Brady - whose spell as Celtic manager between 1991 and 1993 almost ruined his health - could testify how difficult it is to make the transition from star player to the dugout.

"Sure, this is John's first stab," Dalglish has conceded, "but I got my first shot in similar circumstances at Liverpool when Bob Paisley put me in charge and it worked out not too badly." (They won the Double in his first season as player-manager, 1985-86.)

At his unveiling in June, Barnes sidestepped questions about the style he intends to impose on Celtic as cutely as any tackle he evaded on the pitch. "I have very clear ideas about how I want my team to play, but I am not pigeon-holing myself," he said. "The only ones who need to know my philosophy are the players because they have to interpret what I want."

The murmurings coming out of Parkhead suggest that Barnes has already imprinted a bold football philosophy on his players. "The pace of the one-touch stuff the team played was breathtaking," was the assistant head coach Eric Black's verdict on the pre-season tour of Norway. Black, the right-hand man last season to Jozef Venglos, who stepped aside for Barnes, admits to a noticeable change. "John is stricter in what he wants from individuals. Jozef gave the players more freedom on the pitch."

The key area for Celtic is maintaining the supply for Henrik Larsson, whose 38 goals dried up when a hamstring injury ended the season of the playmaker Lubomir Moravcik. Rather than be a prisoner to fitness, Barnes has acquired Berkovic to make the bullets for the prolific Swede. "[Berkovic] is the type of player I like," Barnes said. "I played against him many times and I recall one game for Southampton against Liverpool where he ran the show." Pittodrie next Sunday, and a televised encounter with Aberdeen, is where Celtic's new look receives its premiere.

If Rangers, along with the other nine Premier clubs, have been almost ignored, that suits Dick Advocaat. The Ibrox manager has wisely employed the principle of "if it ain't broke don't fix it" to a side which won all three domestic trophies.

His only big purchase was to spend pounds 4m on the Dutch international striker Michael Mols from FC Utrecht, while sending back the hapless Stephane Guivarc'h to France. If Mols is as big a success as the last time Advocaat went Dutch - for Giovanni van Bronckhorst from Feyenoord - then everyone connected with the champions will be happy. Van Bronckhorst, though, insists the celebrations are now a mere memory. "The season we had last year was terrific, but it is over now," he said. "We know we'll have to work even harder this season because everyone wants to beat us."

The spending power of the Old Firm, though, makes that prospect unlikely. Ally McCoist, whose Kilmarnock side challenged Rangers for the first half of last season, said: "Rangers and Celtic are on their own for the title. The rest of us can beat them in one-off games, but not over 36." McCoist's theory gets an immediate scrutiny - Kilmarnock face his old club at Ibrox on Saturday.

A SIX-PACK OF NEW FACES FOR THE SCOTTISH SEASON

EYAL BERKOVIC (CELTIC)

John Hartson may not have been too keen on him, but Berkovic could have 60,000 people eating out of his hand by the end of the season. Celtic, for all their goals, lacked an attacking midfielder who could hurt teams. There were few passers to equal him in the Premiership last season but Berkovic also has great movement which resembles, dare one say it, Dalglish in his hey-day.

MICHAEL MOLS (RANGERS)

Few in Britain have heard of Mols, but that did not stop clubs queueing up to sign the 27-year-old when his club FC Utrecht reluctantly decided to cash in on him. Dick Advocaat paid pounds 4m to expand Ibrox's Dutch colony to five. Somewhat frail looking but has a fine scoring record and four caps for Holland.

MICHAEL JEFFREY (KILMARNOCK)

Also from Holland, although he started out life in Liverpool before failing to make the breakthrough at Newcastle under Kevin Keegan. The 23-year-old's goals helped unsung Fortuna Sittard reach the Dutch Cup final last season and his purchase represents an admission by Bobby Williamson that his ageing attack needs help. Jeffrey is a tall, confident striker whose contribution could be vital.

RUSSELL LATAPY (HIBERNIAN)

Not a new signing as such, since he arrived at Easter Road last Christmas, but this gifted Trinidadian is new to the SPL. A contemporary of Dwight Yorke in Tobago, Latapy also took his skills abroad, spending five years with Porto - where he played in the Champions' League - and Boavista. Sublime dribbling skills may recall the days when Scotland produced such players themselves.

KIERAN McANESPIE (ST JOHNSTONE)

He's young, gifted and scores - why isn't he in the Scotland team? Used sparingly by manager Sandy Clark last season, but with devastating effect which included winners against both Celtic and Rangers as Saints climbed to third place and a Uefa Cup spot. Still only 18, has poise, confidence and a desire to shoot on sight.

JUANJO (HEARTS)

The 5ft 5in Spanish winger looked out of his depth on arrival from Barcelona in mid-season. Hearts thought about farming him out to the third division to toughen him up. Now he has re-emerged looking a little more robust, and his stunning winner in a pre-season friendly against Fulham indicates he could fill the void left since Neil McCann's move to Rangers.

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