Short-termism and the need to achieve instant success are ever the bane of the manager’s life – no more so the case than in Scotland’s Old Firm.
Tony Mowbray breezed into Parkhead in the summer of 2009, looking every bit the likely messiah. Nine months later his reign came to an inglorious end – nominally “by mutual consent” but smacking every bit of a forced exit.
A popular Celtic player in his day, he had earned his managerial stripes in the SPL helping Hibernian to overachieve while playing eyecatching football – a philosophy further developed while taking West Brom into the Premier League. For all the success of his predecessor, Gordon Strachan – Celtic fans had never warmed to the man – in part due to his lack of Celtic roots, but chiefly because his teams placed functionality squarely over form, and were painfully dull to watch. Mowbray promised to deliver the style that they craved.
Part of Mowbray’s remit was to build on two Champions League campaigns that had seen Celtic reach the last 16. An early Champions League exit to Arsenal in the third qualifying round was, however, forgivable – especially after a notable victory in the previous round against Dynamo Moscow, sealed on the road – something so few previous Celtic sides had managed. However, the subsequent failure to make any impact in the Europa League, did little to encourage hope that a team for Europe was being forged.
It was failure on the domestic front – in a country where the SPL title is a pre-requisite of success for the two Old Firm protagonists – that eventually cost him. By the time of his exit, Celtic trailed Rangers by 10 points. It was a margin that would have left any Old Firm manager under the cosh, but the fact that that it had opened up in a season Rangers have themselves been distinctly underwhelming themselves, made Mowbray’s position even harder.
Mowbray’s determination to manage “with dignity and integrity” did little to help him in the face of a parochial Scottish tabloid press pack which was quick to mobilise against him when it smelled blood.
One of the criticisms often levelled at Mowbray was his record in the transfer market. In an attempt to swiftly regalvanise the squad, he orchestrated a clear-out of the old guard, many of whom headed off to join former boss Gordon Strachan at Middlesbrough. Those heading out of the door included centre back pairing Gary Caldwell – the 2008/09 SPL player of the year – to Wigan, and club captain Stephen McManus (on loan to Boro).
It was not a popular decision with the Celtic support, and it came back to haunt Mowbray, as injuries subsequently cost him his three first-choice centre backs, forcing him to play an inexperienced and makeshift pairing. Equally, none of the strikers brought in managed to compensate for the sale of Scott McDonald, also to Middlesbrough.
The last-gasp loan capture of Robbie Keane from Spurs was a coup, though Celtic’s chief executive Peter Lawwell claimed the credit for that one. Even so Keane’s goals alone were never going to solve the problem, and with reported wages of £65,000 a week, he was always never going to be more than a short-term guest worker at Parkhead.
Ironically, on the night that the fatal blow was dealt – an embarrassing 4-0 defeat to St Mirren – Rangers suffered a defeat to Dundee United in the quarter final of the Scottish Cup, Leaving Celtic with a semi-final against Ross County and making them nailed-on favourites for the trophy. Though it will be rookie replacement Neil Lennon who gets the plaudits, and maybe even a permanent contract, if that happens.