Football: Expectation is the enemy of Barnes

CELTIC'S STRIFE Poor results and the sale of Craig Burley combine to undermine head coach's early tenure at ambitious club
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The Independent Online
IT WAS finally official. Scotland's crisis club had "an emergency situation". However, the solution was not the sacking of John Barnes, the coach, nor the resignation of Kenny Dalglish, the football operations officer, but the evacuation of Celtic Park.

The irony was delicious. The assembled media, having heard from Barnes - but not the players, who had refused to attend a planned publicity launch - were waiting for Dalglish and Allan MacDonald, the chief executive, to deliver a vote of confidence in the coach. Then the public address emitted a sound like an air-raid warning following by a request: "An emergency situation has arisen in the stadium. Please leave by the nearest exit in an orderly fashion."

Very suspicious, but off we trooped to wait in the car park along with a shivering youth team in freezing temperatures. Several fire engines duly arrived before, just as the snow began to fall, the doors re-opened and Dalglish and MacDonald made their appeal for time.

Time, as Barnes observed in his recent autobiography, is a luxury managers do not have, but even he may be surprised at the pressure building on him after just six months at Celtic Park. For Barnes, who won everything English football had to offer, including 79 international caps, is finding life more difficult in a Scottish dug-out.

The problems began for the 36-year-old on 21 October when Celtic lost at Lyon in the Uefa Cup and, more seriously, Henrik Larsson suffered an injury which is likely to keep him out for the season. Though he scored 35 out of their 99 goals last season, Larsson is more than just a goalscorer to Celtic. He is involved in the build-up play in a way that his replacement, Ian Wright, is never going to be and, more than that, is, according to one observer, the presiding "deity of Celtic Park".

A series of defeats, including a 4-2 loss to Rangers, intensified the mood and Wednesday's League Cup victory over Dundee has not eased the pressure, although Celtic won despite having only 10 men. Instead the papers are full of talk of revolts after several players openly criticised the sale of Craig Burley.

Yesterday's regular press conference was, admitted Barnes himself, "an inquest" into the transfer, the mood and the results. On the surface he was as relaxed as ever, leaning back in his chair and making quips in seductive Jamaican burr. But, behind the smile, he was watchful and defensive. The words came more slowly than usual, each weighed for the damage they might do if turned against him, and for the message they sent out to players and bosses.

"It was a fantastic performance but the players have not received the credit they deserved because the papers have been dominated by other things," he said. "The response to [Burley's sale] from certain players has not been as good as I would have liked. Players have responsibility to conduct themselves in the right manner and I am disappointed, but I will not hold it against them. I won't be dropping anyone."

Burley's move was partly precipitated by his desire to play in a different manner to the holding midfield position Barnes had ascribed to him. That, and the reaction of his team-mates, illustrated a point Barnes made in his book about player power. Yesterday he admitted: "You can't manage the way managers used to. Football has changed and you have to change with the times."

This cannot be easy for Barnes, a man of stronger opinions than his relaxed manner would suggest. Brought up by a father who placed great emphasis on discipline, he is most influenced, in management style, by the similarly strict Graham Taylor.

Barnes' footballing philosophy is radically different to Taylor's old long ball game, but there is a link in his espousal of what he calls a team's DNA, a structure which functions regardless of personnel.

His ideal is 4-2-2-2 as practised by France and Brazil. Unfortunately Celtic do not possess players like Lillian Turham and Bixente Lizarazu, or Cafu and Roberto Carlos. Instead they have Stephane Mahe and Jackie McNamara. As a result the team became too narrow in their play, with the middle pairing, Eyal Berkovic and Lubo Moravcik, getting in each other's way.

Barnes has now changed to the more conventional 3-5-2, though whether it was his decision, or forced upon him by the players, is a matter of dispute. The ball is also being moved forward more positively; previously the play reflected Barnes' obsession with "the sanctity of passing".

The opportunity to coach Celtic was, he admitted, "a real shock" and his arrival, on a three-year pounds 1.5m contract, was greeted with scepticism. He understood why.

"I was an untried, untested commodity and turning round Celtic represented a huge task," he said. "I understood the misgivings of those who argued the job should have gone to an older, better known manager. But I have never lacked confidence in my ability."

Does he now wish he had more experience? There is a very long pause before he replies: "I am hesitating because you can always say you wish you had more experience. As a player at 17 you could wish you had played in World Cups. I want to do well. I don't necessarily need more experience. Experience means you might deal with the press and players in different ways, but whether you are competent to do the job is a different thing.

"When I took the job I thought: `If things go well and I win every game this is going to happen. If things don't go so well this will happen.' I'm not going to say I expected this situation because I didn't want it to happen but I knew if we went through a dodgy patch it would.

"I don't know how big a job it is. Maybe we will turn it around after the Dundee game and carry on winning. I would like to wait until the end of the season and say this is what I need. At the moment I don't think we are too far away."

Celtic have won everything the Scottish game has to offer, many times. But, of their 77 major trophies, including the European Cup, only four have come this decade as Rangers have dominated the Scottish game. While they picked up nine successive titles Celtic were flirting with bankruptcy, undergoing an economic regeneration and chewing up managers. Barnes is the seventh this decade. Thus yesterday's appeal for calm and a long-term perspective.

Barnes is under immense pressure from outside but, as Charlie Nicholas pointed out recently, the last thing Celtic need is another manager. Besides, it would be a huge admission of error.

Even the plummeting value of the share price may be withstood; there is no majority shareholder. With resolute will on all sides, Barnes, who has interesting ideas on the game, could be a success, but to do that he has eventually to eclipse Rangers. The learning curve is steep. As one Celtic fan said: "They have the former manager of the Netherlands and PSV Eindhoven, we have a YTS trainee."

The alarm yesterday was provoked by a faulty smoke detector. As with the crisis it appeared there was smoke without fire. Not yet.

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