Kevin Garside: Belief in fate and miracles belittles the coach's role
For the Higgs boson believers, and me, Celtic just got lucky against Barcelona
We are all still here, I see. After the Mayan prophecy failed to hit the target on 21 December, I offer you an updated expression of the same hocus-pocus. It turns out that Celtic's Champions League victory over the great Barcelona was preordained. At least that is the view of Neil Lennon. The Celtic manager is not the first and won't be the last to dip into the untestable premise to explain a turn of sporting events.
This is, of course, a time of reflection and one in which memories are often cast in heavily accented religious tones. And since the miracle is a big part of the Christmas story, Lennon is happily persuaded that November's magical night under lights in the East End of Glasgow was the work of an unseen hand. Lennon could make a living vocalising fireside stories and punting them on the internet, such is the richness of his brogue and the romantic lilt of his imagination. But there are dangers attached to this line of thinking.
Uncritical belief is the essence of faith, which, though given nil space in the mind of god-busters like Richard Dawkins, remains at the heart of our culture. So, looking back at that fabulous week, Lennon sees significance in the ceremonies marking the 125th anniversary of Celtic's formation, which coincidentally, or perhaps by divine design, took place on the eve of Barça's visit.
Speaking to my Independent colleague Martin Hardy, in a deeply evocative interview published on Saturday, Lennon explained his position thus: "I just started to believe there was going to be something special. It just compounded the atmosphere going into the game. We had a ceremony the night before and there was a real sort of ambience about the whole thing. It was really done in a lovely way. There were a lot of ex-players there. The board was there, everyone was there. You just felt the club was really united that particular night. And then to come such a long way in such a short space of time, to have Barcelona the next night to celebrate in the Champions League. You just felt there was a special significance about the whole couple of days."
It was only a feeling in Lennon's water at the time. Certainty is conferred retrospectively. I would not be surprised to learn that thousands of disciples at Stamford Bridge believe that the similarly blessed outcome against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final last season, and indeed the final against Bayern Munich, were fated to occur, events scripted by some celestial author, who deemed their name was on the cup.
I'm all for a bit of romance. But are not explanations of this kind ultimately detrimental to the coaching art? Is Lennon not downgrading his own contribution, the defensive organisation that helped to a degree to keep Barcelona at bay for 93 minutes, the deployment of young Tony Watt in such a critical encounter, for example? Even then, the truth is probably more mundane. Had Barcelona converted into goals the overwhelming possession they enjoyed, Celtic could not have survived. It was therefore more to do with what Barcelona didn't do than what Celtic did. They were passive beneficiaries of Barcelona's actions, not in control of events. Barça were. They just failed to find the net.
But that kind of conclusion does nothing for the folklore business. Enter Rasputin, the guru, who spins these details into a beautiful narrative thread to explain what happened. The desire to hear this stuff, the need to have the unexplainable delineated mystically, is often overwhelming. And so Celtic, like Chelsea, were destined to achieve all along. The cold water of methodological analysis is powerless to penetrate the fantastic bubble wrapped around that night. Reason has not a snowball's chance in hell of convincing Lennon and the cultists otherwise, but it does have a nasty way of getting its own back over time. Just ask Roberto Di Matteo, whose stratospheric success of Champions League and FA Cup double could not protect him from the sack once results reverted to the norm, reflecting the truth that his team was and is not in Barcelona's class. No team is.
None of this is intended to belittle Lennon, or anybody else who thinks this way. People are allowed to believe what they like. But it does not make it the truth. And it is no different to the kind of thinking that had the Mayans allegedly predicting thousands of years ago that the world would end last Friday, that sees Frank Lampard kissing his badge when he scores, or prompts Javier Hernandez to bless the turf and make the sign of the cross the moment he enters the fray for Manchester United.
That I'm here tickling the keys of my laptop refutes the Mayan theory. Science, with the discovery of the missing subatomic particle, or god particle, the Higgs boson, postulated by Peter Higgs half a century ago, puts greater distance between our understanding of the world and alternative claims advanced by sundry religious doctrines. The pious will have no difficulty accepting Lennon's version of events. For the Higgs boson believers, and me, Celtic just got lucky. Merry Christmas.
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