Football: Celtic's title lacks champions' class

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The Independent Online
Celtic 2 St Johnstone 0

NO CHAMPIONSHIP could have been more eagerly desired or fervently celebrated but, even in their moment of triumph, some Celtic fans appeared to maintain a sense of perspective.

Among the many songs they were singing on Saturday night was this ditty, to the tune of the Carpenters' hit.

"We're on top of the world

Looking down on the Rangers

And the only explanation I can find

Is that the Rangers are duff

And their supporters are in a huff

That's why Celtic are on top of the world"

The sentiment may be unintentional but it does accurately reflect a general consensus north of the border that Celtic have won the title because Rangers are even poorer. "It will go on record," wrote one observer in The Scotsman on Saturday morning, "as one of the most exciting contests in years - and one of the worst... Neither side has truly deserved to be champions ... Scottish sides who long ago accomplished the trick of looking bad abroad have gone for the double this season and looked even worse at home."

Another critic recalled the last time the Old Firm went to the wire, 25 years ago, and noted that on that occasion Celtic dropped one point from the last 11 matches and Rangers, the runners-up, one point from the last 17. This time the pair have graphically illustrated the truism that the championship is a marathon, not a sprint, by finishing it like Jim Peters, stumbling to defeats and draws against the likes of Kilmarnock and Dunfermline.

Even an excellent second-minute goal from Henrik Larsson, curled in from 25 yards, could not put them at ease against St Johnstone on Saturday. The spectators, including Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, became a study in anxiety and it was only when Harald Brattback converted a slick breakaway goal with 17 minutes to go that the first chant of "champions" dared raise its head.

This may have been down to a lack of practice. Ten years have elapsed since a championship pennant was unfurled at Parkhead - a weather-beaten 1987-88 flag flew proudly from the top of the north stand on Saturday - and there has been precious little to celebrate in the interim. A series of managers have failed as Rangers equalled the nine-in-a-row achieved by Jock Stein's Bhoys.

In the circumstances it seems barely credible that, having found a manager to break the Rangers' stranglehold, Celtic now seem set to drive him away.

Wim Jansen, whose team have won more trophies in one season as previous sides in the last nine, attempted to be non-committal about his future on Saturday night but let slip that it was "a happy end for me". For him, maybe, for the club it looks set to tarnish the triumph. This pudgy man with the dated perm may look an unlikely hero but there is no doubting who the fans favour in his apparent dispute with the general manager. "Wim Jansen a Celtic Legend - Who's Jock Brown?" said one banner.

Though neither is revealing much, the problem would appear to be Brown's reluctance to give Jansen a free hand (and open cheque-book) in the transfer market. Jansen could well be a difficult man to work with, but one can understand his desire to spend. Celtic may have the support and stadium to grace Europe but they do not have the team.

The in-house television, by way of a warm-up, showed highlights of previous glories before the game. The 90s section was notably short but the most poignant clip was the well-worn one of the Lisbon Lions winning the 1967 European Cup. Such a repeat now seems inconceivable, by any Scottish side.

It is, noted Willie Miller on Saturday, 15 years to the week since he captained Aberdeen to European Cup-Winners' Cup success over Real Madrid with a team, like the Lions, entirely made up of native Scots. Foreign players now fill the Scottish game but the teams are comparatively weaker.

The new super league may raise the standard but, at present, it appears no different to the Premier Division in all but name. "There is a poverty in Scottish football that cannot be measured in balance sheets," added The Scotsman and there was nothing in the subsequent match to counter that assertion.

St Johnstone looked a very ordinary side but were still good enough to worry Celtic. They were weakened by the absence of both central defenders but, since one of them, Alan Kernaghan, could not get a regular place with Manchester City this merely underlined the poor standard.

With Larsson in electric form early on, St Johnstone should have been buried but Celtic, as they have for most of the last decade, lack a natural goalscorer and the agility of Alan Main kept them at bay. Gradually the visitors came into the game and Celtic began to panic. George O'Boyle ought to have levelled from John McQuillan's 39th-minute cross and, by the hour mark, it seemed only a matter of time before some catastrophic error handed St Johnstone a goal. Celtic were defending too deep, kicking the ball long, and the admirable Paul Lambert was struggling to hold together a team strung out in body and mind.

Then Jansen introduced Brattback and, 10 minutes later, he finished the best move of the match by sweeping in a cross from the impressive Jackie McNamara following Tom Boyd's right-flank pass.

Celtic exulted while, across the city, a deep depression settled on the 30,000 watching Rangers' Tannadice match on a big screen video relay.

And so to the Champions' League. Celtic's passing game is better suited than Rangers' up-and-at-'em style but, unless Jansen stays and is given money to spend, there can be little cause for optimism on the pitch. Off it, however, with the stadium complete and the support in full spine-tingling voice, there will not be a better place to watch football in Europe.

Goals: Larsson (2) 1-0; Brattback (73) 2-0.

Celtic (3-4-3): Gould; Rieper, Stubbs, Annoni; Boyd, Lambert (Wieghorst, 83), Burley, O'Donnell; McNamara, Larsson (Blinker, 90), Donnelly (Brattback, 59).

St Johnstone (4-4-2): Main; McQuillan, McCluskey, Whiteford, Preston; O'Halloran (McMahon, 63) O'Neil, Sekerlioglu (Griffin, 77) Jenkinson; Grant (Connolly, 77) O'Boyle.

Referee: K Clark (Paisley).

Bookings: St Johnstone: McCluskey, O'Boyle.

Man of the match: Lambert.

Attendance: 50,500.

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