Old Firm Post-Mortem
That appetite for the macabre, for the dissection and analysis of the painful, may easily be understood by football fans: and after a derby defeat such as that witnessed on December 27th, it is all too easy to pronounce the patient - and the league championship dream - as terminal.
Losing to Celtic is never anything less than a disaster. Every throw-in, corner, far less a goal, is felt as some form of communal injury. The mere sight of their strips, of their flags and paraphernalia, should be enough to invoke a sense of revulsion in all sentient beings. I'd always thought that as I got older in some ways it would hurt less; the offence of surrendering points would become less meaningful; the sheer physical pain of them scoring would be subject to some physiological/psychological forces acting to soften the blow. But whom exactly are we kidding.
Keep this to yourself, but there have been times over the years when I've retreated on the subway - sometimes sober and occasionally not - and though to myself (you never vocalise these thoughts) "We were thoroughly outplayed by Them and deserved nothing from the game. I can almost accept that." Of course, in the battle between what most sports fans secretly accept and what is expected of you, sense rarely prevails - it should be easier to resign yourself to defeat when the opposition deserved to win through their exceptional skill or overwhelming superiority but there will be a Hokey Cokey at the SNP national conference before a loss to your city rivals becomes something easy to swallow.
Still, there was something about the latest game that particularly offends. And, let's not beat about the bush, there are a good number of excuses, validations and reasons to get annoyed and to go overboard with the critique. I've given up on Craig Thomson and his officials. Caldwell blocks the ball from going on target - for what looked a certain goal - and the referee (who has a perfect view) gives nothing. The disallowed goal was perhaps even more exasperating, as the only angle which even hints at a serious offence is one provided by Setanta at about the fifth or sixth time of asking: Thompson's view was very different, and yet he couldn't wait to blow. And the least said about the complete inability of the linesmen to work out offside the better: if nothing else, these guys (who, let's not forget, are there to assist and when faced with offside calls are dealing with the very fundamentals of their paid positions) need to be better trained or demoted.
But that's not the only cause for concern and will not assume all attention of those who wish to express their opinion. Davis should have scored when Caldwell handballed it back to him; Kris Boyd missed the best chance we created; Kirk Broadfoot made a bold decision when challenging McDonald and it turned out to be a momentous calamity, for all the efficiency of the fat Australian's finish. Boyd will be hung out to dry by some, Kirk will face much discussion about his ability at centre half, and Davis will…probably face little opprobrium due to his popularity, and his nationality. Speaking of Ulstermen, I think we all hoped that Lafferty would make an impact when he came on, perhaps a real contribution could help him to kick-start his career at Rangers and there is certainly room for a new hero. But it wasn't to be. And his entrance, for all it ultimately made no difference, represented the main agent for change in the game: and the largest investment in an attacking player Smith has made since his return.
Maudlin or malicious comments or ruminations may help to satisfy the individual, but in the end we are all kidding ourselves on - it doesn't hurt any less. And the really significant aspect to the game was not that we lost: it was the manner of our defeat, and our reaction to going behind. It raised, certainly for me, the haunting spectre of days not long gone, but ones we really hoped would disappear under the second coming of Uncle Walter. Our performance, our desire, our conviction, our footballing imagination: all were found wanting, and lacking in all too many of those on show. Celtic were poor, but we deserved nothing from the game. The number of players who could reasonably receive pass marks is embarrassing and for all it is possible, and it does happen, that teams have a collective off-day, it was all so tame: so weak, so limp and so bereft of fight and sparkle. I never thought I'd again feel as bad as when Advocaat told us post-match that he knew we'd lose when we went one down at Ibrox, or when the increasingly erratic McLeish era began to completely unravel and we approached some derby games with not even hope as a consolation. I think I did today.
Our home record of late has been so impressive, our recent Glasgow derby success at home has been deserved and emphatic, but to fail to create many chances, or test someone you know to be a dodgy goalkeeper, speaks ill of our team and the belief within it.
Celtic had two midfielders woefully short of sharpness and fitness, and the other passed more to the team in blue than his adopted set. And for about an hour we were comfortably the better team but lacked the conviction or the technique to put the game to rest. Worse still, when the goal for the Golems did arrive, there were some who wilted, including those who were among our better performers to that point. Few but our much-maligned (and he was distinctly underwhelming beforehand) captain seemed to have any stomach for it. This is as bewildering as it is sickening to watch.
We can, and people will, argue for days and weeks to come about who is at fault - and in truth it is easy to blame all departments of the side - but some crucial facts will dominate the barmy discussion and exchange of opinions;
1. The league championship is now out of our hands. Let's not concede quite yet, but even victory in the last two city clashes will not now be enough to assume top spot.
2. This was the first real disappointment in a derby clash under Smith Mk II - to lose in such a lacklustre, doleful fashion is unacceptable.
Our post-mortem will not be painless, and the attacks and the incisions will be delivered with a frenzy lacking in the professional equivalent, but something productive must come of it. The failings of the officials and our own must be addressed, and we have to be able to inject some life into the corpse that now is our 2008/9 SPL challenge. That is for Walter, his team, and our team to settle: in the meantime, the amateurs have their time, and some can barely wait to apply their scalpel to their (least) favourite bodies.