Strachan's not lonely in fields of Athenry

 

Scottish Premier League/Hearts v Celtic: Ewan Murray talks to Lou Macari and Craig Brown on how Gordon Strachan has gone from strength to strength after a very shaky start at Celtic

When Gordon Strachan became Celtic's manager in the summer, the green half of Glasgow was underwhelmed. Within weeks, the same supporters were in a state of despair. "I'm not here to be loved," was one of Strachan's more memorable soundbites as the storm clouds gathered above Celtic Park in those troublesome early days, which began with a 5-0 defeat at Artmedia Bratislava and culminated in an Old Firm defeat at Ibrox in August.

But now, as Celtic head into 2006 and prepare to play Hearts tomorrow, affection towards Strachan is evident in abundance from fans and professionals alike after a steady turnaround on the pitch. Having come back from an apparent point of no return, Celtic are on a roll, and their manager's stock continues to rise.

Victory at Tynecastle would move Strachan's men seven points ahead of Hearts, their nearest challengers, and even in a season where anything has seemed possible that would appear a particularly significant deficit, with Rangers a distant fifth.

"If Rangers are not on Celtic's tail it's a massive help, but it's a credit to Gordon that Celtic have been very consistent when Rangers have slipped up," says one of Strachan's predecessors, Lou Macari.

"Hearts have done brilliantly well, but, barring a disaster, Celtic should go on to win the title."

One of the criticisms levelled at Strachan earlier in the season was that he was not "Celtic-minded", having neither supported nor played for the club. Macari, who played for and managed Celtic but also worked south of the border, believes Strachan has dealt with that particular challenge well.

"When you have only managed in England and haven't been brought up in the traditions at Parkhead, it can be difficult," he said. "Gordon will undoubtedly have been surprised by the size of the support, and the size of the club, but he has coped with it brilliantly."

Celtic embarked on a run that has seen them taste defeat only once in 18 games since that Old Firm reverse, with cries of "There's only one Gordon Strachan" emanating from supporters by the end of October. It has been a steady but impressive turnaround from manager and team alike, and has not gone unnoticed.

There is admiration, too, from the former Scotland manager Craig Brown, who took Strachan through his Uefa A Licence coaching badge back in 1990.

"You could tell then that he was an outstanding coach and a brilliant tactician," says Brown. "He was full of initiative and ambition and, having had an impeccable pedigree as a player, it's not a surprise that he's flourishing as a coach."

Strachan has not been afraid to make changes where required, and has converted Ross Wallace, a left winger, to full-back in recent weeks. The defensive duo of Bobo Balde and Stephen McManus have also cited the value of the extended training sessions that Strachan has implemented to improve the back line, the weak point of the team.

Neil Lennon and John Hartson have also embraced the attention to detail, while others who may be nearing the end of their stay, like Chris Sutton and Alan Thompson, have never been isolated or ostracised by the manager.

The signing of Roy Keane demonstrates that Strachan has no desire to rest on his laurels as Celtic look to make an impact in Europe next season. A return to Champions League action will present the next serious test, and the odds remain very much in favour of the 50-time capped Strachan lifting his first title this season.

Celtic may be short of the standard that saw them through to the 2003 Uefa Cup final under Martin O'Neill, but they are now more pleasing on the eye and, unlike the start of the season, winning games.

Whether he likes it or not, Strachan may just be loved after all.

Guardian Service