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Paul Mellelieu

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James Lawton: Souness reveals Scots' pitiful decline as Valencia take plaudits and Celtic the wooden spoon

02 November 2002

The eruption of green and white at Parkhead this week told a lie. Well, several lies as it happened. For a start, it was not the Battle of Britain waged between Celtic and Blackburn Rovers in the Uefa Cup. It was the Battle of Credibility, and, though they take a one-goal lead to Ewood Park in two weeks' time, Celtic did not win the prize. In fact, they were exposed.

Any idea that they, and Rangers, might be welcomed into the Premiership as exciting new blood was always fanciful. The Premiership, as we should all by now know nearly as well as Adam Crozier, is governed by two instincts: greed and fear.

The big English clubs, insulated for the moment at least from their own stupidity by television money and sold-out season tickets, have no pressing need of the Old Firm's huge fan base... and the small ones who claw on to Premiership survival could never be persuaded to put themselves at risk by voting in two new contenders of vastly greater earning power.

This was the bleak reality for Celtic even before they contrived one of the more astonishingly misleading results in the history of organised football. Graeme Souness's team were embarrassingly superior in the first leg but for the moment when the splendid Brad Friedel could only parry John Hartson's header into the predatory path of Henrik Larsson.

In fact, the night which was supposed to put into the shop window the excitement generated by Celtic and their vast following achieved nothing so much as another insight into the pitiful decline of Scottish football. The plight of the game north of the border could only be underlined by the fact that Souness makes no great claim for his team at its present stage of development.

Indeed, last season's Worthington Cup win and entry into Europe, on top of survival in the Premiership, represented striking gains for the apparently played-out club he guided back to the big time so recently. Certainly, those achievements were seen as a basis for long-term future progress rather than some instant busting into the élite of the English game.

For all the modesty of their situation, however, Souness's team looked as if they had come out of an entirely superior drawer. The craft of Tugay Kerimoglu, the running and touch of Damien Duff, the powerful emergence in the second half of the recently injured David Dunn, and the constant threat posed by the old swordsmen Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole pointed to a potency, albeit unfulfilled on the night, way beyond the resources of the celebrated home team.

The result was that we were, starting 24 hours earlier at Anfield, able to take a slide rule to the relative strengths of three European leagues: in ascending order, those of Scotland, England and Spain.

That La Liga sits firmly on top of this particular pyramid was established beyond a scintilla of doubt by Valencia's beautifully pitched outplaying of the Premiership leaders, Liverpool. Then, when you measured the gap between the expectations of Liverpool and Blackburn and applied it to the huge gap between the game of the latter and Celtic, the scale of the Scottish predicament was clear enough.

Celtic failed the credibility test just as they did in the qualifying round of the Champions' League when defeated by Basle. They were sufficiently animated by the roar of their crowd to scuffle to a result. Yet the defeat was one which did little to impinge on the sense that Souness has the sure calculation, after some years of doubt and trauma following serious heart surgery, to operate profitably amid the game's unrelenting and unforgiving pressures: he is, indeed, the serious football man he has always believed himself to be.

His return to the city where he made his managerial reputation, and mocked sectarian madness with his signing of Rangers' first Catholic player, Maurice Johnston, was certainly an impressive business.

If a team speaks for its manager on the field, Blackburn were eloquent enough in all but the hard edge of killer instinct, which always a key element in Souness's own formidable repertoire as a midfielder of the highest quality. That, Souness would no doubt say, is surely his next order of business, one which should not prove unassailable with the presence of Yorke and Cole and the recovering Matt Jansen.

Twenty-fours after Liverpool's creative failure against Valencia, maybe it was inevitable that there might be some speculation on what would have happened if Souness had not fallen so early in his attempts to reanimate his old club.

The popular wisdom is that Souness "rushed his fences" when he returned to Anfield to find what might have been described as a hotbed of complacency. When this is put to him he tends to scowl and say: "Maybe I didn't rush my fences quickly enough." Like the man in the opposite corner of the ring at Parkhead, Martin O'Neill, Souness has a passion for the game and an intolerance of indifference which it is always good to see prospering. The same is true of Gérard Houllier, the week's conspicuous loser in the Autumn Credibility Stakes. But, of course, it was a loss which had to be placed in the strictly relative category.

However much you suspect that Souness, had he survived his first drive to return Liverpool to the best of their traditions, might have brought creative dimensions which are currently missing at Anfield, you surely cannot do so without acknowledging the qualities that Houllier has installed and which are still be be fully integrated in the make-up of Souness's Blackburn.

Houllier has created a team of utterly authentic competitive instinct, one which came close to wiping out the vast technical advantage enjoyed by Valencia. It meant that in their different ways, Houllier, Souness and O'Neill, whose team was no less outclassed than Liverpool's, had all left impressive imprints on the week's most scrutinised action.

What they could not do was compensate for the decline of competitive standards in their separate theatres of action. One result was that the Battle of Britain could never rise above the status of a local and rather minor dispute.

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Good Journalistic pieces on teams outside the major cities are  hard to find. The majority of Journo's are basically lazy, anything that stops them boozing and lunching is frowned upon. Trips to East Lancs falls into this category, they like short visits to city teams so they can easily squeeze in a dinnertime drinkie with their mates. The web and Reuters are a  godsend to them in producing the shallow drivel and guff they pass off for Journalism - god i sound bitter  :(

I am not really. but teams that perform well outside the major cities deserve written pieces better than the lazy typecast secondary school standard we mostly recieve now. A good sports story, well written can be a joy to behold.

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With regards to the article, yes we played very poorly against Blackburn, but the journalist obviously doesnt realise  that last season we took the exact same Valencia side to penalties, having outplayed them at Parkhead. The atmosphere that night was actually electric, obviously we only raise ourselves for the really big sides (only kidding), and Valencia actually filed a preliminary complaint to Uefa that the noise we made was unsportsmanlike, and blamed their on-the-night defeat on not being able to hear what each other was saying.
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Quote, "The atmosphere that night was actually electric, obviously we only raise ourselves for the really big sides (only kidding), and Valencia actually filed a preliminary complaint to Uefa that the noise we made was unsportsmanlike, and blamed their on-the-night defeat on not being able to hear what each other was saying."

That's funny, they have the same problem down at the turf. :laugh:

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