Football: Jansen's low-key approach faces final passion test

On Saturday Celtic have a last chance to stop Rangers taking a 10th successive Scottish title. Phil Gordon looks at the man behind the team
Click to follow
The Independent Online
NERVOUSNESS led Celtic to throw away another chance to clinch the Scottish League title last weekend, conceding a late equaliser to Dunfermline. Their failure inspired Charlie Nicholas to muse: "There is one massive cloud hanging over the club after that result. I honestly believe that if Celtic blow the title, they will never recover from it."

Nicholas, a former Parkhead idol and the kind of exciting and effective striker who would not go amiss in the green and white hoops now, clearly fears for the effect on morale of blowing the chance to break Rangers' stranglehold on the title after 10 years.

The understated Wim Jansen has had only 10 months as Celtic's manager to steer the club out of that nightmare decade. His arrival caught everyone by surprise, but the shock was as nothing when compared to Jansen's introduction to Glaswegian rivalries.

The 53-year-old former Dutch international has admitted that he did not quite comprehend the scale of the Old Firm's grip on the people who follow them. Anything less than the three points which Celtic need from their final league match at home to St Johnstone on Saturday to edge out Rangers and deny their greatest rivals that record 10th title and, it seems, the club might disintegrate.

Celtic's 45,000 season ticket holders - an average attendance of 50,000 has made the club the ninth best supported in Europe - have already bought their seats for next season. But whether they and the thousands of children who flood the club superstore will continue to do so on the back of a championship capitulation is questionable.

The ripples of failure will spread far and wide, too. Celtic have more than 2,000 registered supporters in Toronto alone. There are more in the United States and Australia and even one recently exiled Glasgow priest in Sao Paulo who keeps up to date with his other faith via the Celtic Web site. Those who follow one of Europe's biggest clubs will be willing Jansen, this most cosmopolitan of coaches, to perform the most parochial of jobs: to put one over on Rangers.

It not an exaggeration to suggest that the future of an organisation which had a turnover of more than pounds 21m last year and is worth about pounds 100m on the stock market rests on the shoulders of a quiet man who seems to have silenced a tradition of passion on the pitch.

While Arsene Wenger has stilled any criticism of his own uncharismatic presence by producing a brash and eyecatching Arsenal team which is the antithesis of its coach, his old adversary north of the border has merely made Celtic in his image.

Wenger and Jansen encountered each other in Japan's J.League where Wenger coached Grampus Eight and Jansen was in charge of Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Both met scepticism when they beat more favoured names to land two of the biggest jobs in Britain. In Jansen's case, it was Bobby Robson, whom most Celtic fans, and the club chairman, Fergus McCann, had pinned their hopes on; at the time the former England manager was stepping down at Barcelona.

Jansen has had to win over a lot doubters, which he began to do after disastrously giving Rangers a six-point start in the league by losing the opening two matches. He made Celtic a tighter, more compact side who were more tactically aware: as Liverpool almost found to their cost in the Uefa Cup. Yet despite a four-month unbeaten league run that ended in the recent defeat by Rangers at Ibrox, Jansen's caution has neutered a side that is now too scared to commit to attack, even if it had the resources.

Supporters who gorged themselves last season on 70 goals alone from their erstwhile strikers Pierre van Hooijdonk, Jorge Cadete and Paolo Di Canio have been fed a meagre 62 Premier goals this term. Three wins in the last eight matches reflects the fact that their goal touch has deserted them during the run-in.

Quite what the Dutchman makes of it is a mystery. Jansen, who has a clause in his three-year contract that would allow him to bail out at the end of the season, only speaks to the media at pre- and post-match conferences and does not do one-to-one interviews. The man who played in two World Cup finals for the Dutch may be, as Johan Cruyff said of his former colleague, "one of only four people in the world worth talking football to" but few outside his Parkhead dressing-room can testify to that.

Jansen's players defend his honour. "Wim treats you like an adult," the central defender Alan Stubbs said. "He asks your opinion, even if it's a critical one. Let's just say that he is a bit different to Bruce Rioch, my manager at Bolton."

In the spirit of Dutch free thinking, Jansen ditched the traditional hotel hideaway before big games. "The players said they would prefer to be at home rather than stuck in a hotel a way from their own beds," the midfielder Phil O'Donnell explained, "so he agreed. He tries to make it as low key as possible."

Maybe too low-key. Celtic have lacked the spark that characterised previous generations of green and white. Will it be possible to be low key on Saturday against St Johnstone with a title at stake? That is Jansen's aim.

"We know there will be a lot of tension," he said after the disappointment at East End Park last Sunday. "But we can cope. It was not pressure that cost us at Dunfermline but one goal that came out of nothing. Otherwise, we were seven minutes away from winning the league.

"Everyone keeps asking us about the pressures of the championship. I don't want my players thinking that, so we train as normal and behave as we always have."

Jansen the player was in the Feyenoord team who defeated Celtic to win the European Cup in 1970, and in the great Dutch team he was the grafting presence behind the flamboyance of Cruyff and Johan Neeskens. Yet any attempt to elicit an anecdote or two has proved fruitless. Like his side he gives nothing away. "I don't like looking back," he says. "It is the same here. Anything that has gone wrong is in the past, so I forget it and move on to the next game."

Celtic's supporters will know by 4.40pm on Saturday if Jansen has given them cause to look back in anger.