Giant act to follow for the little big man of Celtic

Scottish Premier League: Strachan is used to working at high altitude. Tackling the latest sceptics may be harder
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The Independent Football

High altitude was no problem for Strachan when he scored a sublime goal for Scotland against Germany in the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico. He mocked his own lack of inches with a self-deprecating celebration that saw him fail to clamber over the advertising hoardings. Now, though, he is about to sample possibly the most rarified atmosphere of all - as Martin O'Neill's managerial successor at Celtic.

O'Neill restored Celtic to giddy heights during his five-year reign at Parkhead. Records tumbled, silverware was embraced and the club even savoured the 2003 Uefa Cup final. Then it all came crashing to an end one rainy Sunday two months ago.

Celtic fans awoke on the final day of the season ready to celebrate their fourth title in five seasons under O'Neill. They were greeted by the headlines revealing the Northern Irishman's swift exit to care for his cancer-stricken wife, Geraldine. The effect on everyone became evident. Instead of wrapping up the championship at Fir Park, nerves engulfed Celtic just two minutes away from their prize, when Motherwell's Scott McDonald inflicted two swift goals which handed the title to Rangers.

Strachan was secretly primed for his new role - the Celtic board had approached him a fortnight earlier, when O'Neill revealed his personal impasse - but no one could be prepared for the aftershock of that day at Fir Park. Ten weeks later, the club are still gripped by a collective trauma. That will be evident on Saturday when the new Scottish Premier League campaign gets under way and Celtic return to the scene of their torment at Motherwell.

Strachan knows he has a way to go before convincing many fans that he is worthy of filling O'Neill's shoes. That is as much down to the bond forged by O'Neill at the club he supported - "pursuing a dream", he said - as Strachan's own image with the Parkhead crowd as public enemy No 1 during his time at Aberdeen, when Alex Ferguson's side were rivals for honours in the early 1980s.

However, the man who ended an 18-month sabbatical from management after leaving Southampton is going into the role with his hands tied far more than his predecessor's. O'Neill's Celtic renaissance five years ago was built on a £20m signing spree that included Chris Sutton and John Hartson. With the greatest of respect, Adam Virgo and Paul Telfer do not set pulses racing in the east end of Glasgow. Virgo was intro-duced to the Parkhead support on Thursday at half-time in the 2-2 friendly draw with Sporting Lisbon. The robust utility player was bought from Brighton for £1.1m, with Telfer also making the same journey from the South Coast; the energetic midfielder has signed a two-year contract to become reunited with his old boss at St Mary's.

Out on the pitch, Strachan's influx of recruits were finding it hard to gel. Jérémie Aliadière partnered Hartson before giving way to Maciej Zurawski, the Poland striker from Wisla Krakow who cost Strachan £2.2m. The Japanese midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura is expected to arrive next week in a £2m deal from Reggiana. For fans who have feasted on the rich quality of Henrik Larsson over the past few years, Strachan's new recipe may take a while to get used to.

Yet there is little else he can do. He was given a £15m budget but that does not go a long way these days, even though, just hours earlier, Celtic and Rangers announced a joint five-year deal with Carling as shirt sponsors that will see them share £18m. Indeed, Celtic decided not to push the boat out on Craig Bellamy - whose wages and fee would have cost them £12m - and allowed their loan star from Newcastle United to move on to Blackburn Rovers.

Bellamy is just one of nine players Celtic have shed since that date at Fir Park. That cast list encompasses their captain, Jackie McNamara, bizarrely allowed to leave for Wolves, while the underachieving Magnus Hedman, who cost £2m, was allowed to return to Sweden for nothing.

"The money we have from this new deal must be used wisely," reflected Strachan. "We will not be spooked into making signings in a panic just because there's a public pressure to do so."

Strachan is confident that Telfer, a 33-year-old Scot who has never played in his own country, will not be his final signing of the summer. "It's too late now to get anybody in for the Champions' League qualifying rounds [Celtic travel to Slovakia on Wednesday to face Artmedia Bratislava], but I hope that we can do a bit more before the transfer deadline [at the end of August]. Paul Telfer may have been playing a long time but he is so fit. We have tried to bring in young players but they cost money. Like Adam [Virgo], Telfer brings many options. Both can play in many positions; that's what we need. This is a small squad and we need more quality."

There are echoes of Strachan's own arrival at Leeds United in 1990 after being written off as a spent force by Fergie at Manchester United. Elland Road was sceptical. The inspirational playmaker blew the doubts away, winning a Premiership title at 35. Parkhead will hope to witness the same height of achievement from the little man.

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