Ronny Deila was Manager of Celtic for two years. He is however hard to classify as either a “good” Manager or a “bad” one. In fact he is probably the most difficult of the lot to analyse. Maley and Stein were good. Brady, Mowbray and Barnes were awful and the rest are somewhere to the positive or the negative. But Ronny Deila? He won 3 domestic trophies out of 6, he had some real bad luck in semi-finals, his European record was disappointing (but so is the record of most Celtic managers!) and the antipathy that he aroused in the support was sometimes quite amazing.
There can be little doubt that attendances fell, so much so that the upper tier of the Lisbon Lions stand was not used on many occasions and had a banner with “Celtic – A Team Like No Other” put there by the club. Yes indeed, a team like no other! But visiting supporters and journalists were often at a loss to understand how it came about that a man like Ronny Deila who won the Scottish Premier League two seasons out of two (a 100% record!) could be so unpopular and so often the topic of lowered voices, and sometimes more voluble ones which tended to use words like “no comin’ back” rather too often.
His two League winning seasons, of course, were done without the opposition of (the)Rangers, still in the lower Leagues starting again and doing penance for their financial mismanagement and other more grievous sins, like cheating the Inland Revenue. Liquidation inevitably followed.
The only opposition to speak of was Aberdeen, a club with the more or less permanent ability to blow up when their supporters needed them to do otherwise. They were not without their good players, but Celtic defeated them by 17 points and 15 points respectively, even though in the second of the two seasons, 2015/16 Aberdeen in early February came within a few points of Celtic and their supporters exhibited a banner saying “We’re coming to get you”. Their collapse however was as miserable as it was predictable.
In domestic Cup competitions, Celtic won the Scottish League Cup of 2014/15 by beating Dundee United in the final after having disposed of Hearts, Partick Thistle and (the)Rangers with an aggregate score of 14-0. Another two in the final made it 16-0. So no argument there.
But then we come to three Celtic semi-final horror stories. 19 April 2015 saw Celtic against their old Scottish Cup bugbears of Inverness. In front of a strangely half-empty Hampden, the game hinged on two decisions by referee Steven McLean. One was when he failed to spot a clear hand-ball by an Inverness defender which really should have been a penalty and a red card, and the other (the real game-changer) was when goalkeeper Craig Gordon was sent off and a penalty awarded. This allowed the Highlanders to equalise, and poor Lukasz Zaluska, Gordon’s replacement, did not have a very good game.
In addition, Virgil Van Dijk and Jason Denayer who had been outstanding at the back all season were found wanting to-day and Inverness sneaked home by 3-2 in extra-time.
Fingers however were not yet pointed at Ronnie Deila. There was an element of bad luck about this game, although many supporters disliked having to juxtapose “Celtic” “Inverness” and “bad luck”, even though Inverness were third in the League that season. Where one might have wondered about Deila in this game, however, was when he took off James Forrest (to allow Zaluska on). Forrest was one of Celtic’s more creative players that day, and he remains one of those men who might just conjure or spirit up a goal out of nothing.
It was a painful day but the League was won a couple of weeks later, and it was generally agreed that Ronny, give or take one or two imperfections had had a good season. Two trophies out of three was not a bad yield, even though the cynics were right to point out that a Scottish Premier League without (the)Rangers, Hearts or Hibs (who were all playing in the Championship that year) was a strange one.
It was the two even more painful semi-finals on 2015/16 that sealed the fate of the likeable Norwegian. The first was the League Cup semi final at the end of January against Ross County. Celtic scored in the first minute through Gary Mackay-Steven, and what could go wrong?
Well, quite a lot actually. First Efe Ambrose got sent off and penalty kick awarded for what had to be said was minimal contact but the zealous Craig Thomson did not see it that way, and Ross County equalised. Eric Sviatchenko had then to be brought on for his Celtic debut, and the ten men Celtic struggled. Ross County scored twice in the second half, and then, as if to prove the old adage that the real horror of life is not availing oneself of a life-line, Celtic missed a penalty (as soft as the one that Ross County got) which might have given them a chance.
When, three days later, Celtic lost at Pittodrie in the League, the knives were being sharpened for Ronny. But it was the Scottish Cup semi-final that killed him. On the face of it, a defeat after a 2-2 draw after extra time in a penalty shoot-out to (the)Rangers does not seem, on the face of it, to be a sackable offence, but there were several other factors – one was that League form had been poor in recent weeks (e.g. a cringeworthy draw at Hamilton one Friday night, followed by a feckless 0-0 draw against Dundee), another was that this game should have been put to bed long before the need of a penalty shoot out, another was that (the)Rangers were not yet in the Premier League (the semi-final was thus technically a giant-killing!), but of course the main thing was that it was (the)Rangers. Defeats by a Rangers in any circumstances are very hard to take, and this was simply one defeat too far for Celtic and Ronn yDeila. A couple of days later it was announced that a new Manager would be in place next season, although Ronny was to be allowed to finish the season. The League, was more or less won, in any case.
And his forays into Europe? One would have to say a disgrace – but no more or less so than other managers. In 2014/15, Celtic actually managed to get put out of the Champions League twice – once by Legia Warsaw (who fielded an illegal player, however) and then by Maribor after a truly shocking performance. However, we got into the Europa League, scraped through the sectional games in a series of dull, easily forgettable encounters against tough but unskilful opponents, before turning on a respectable but ultimately unsuccessful performance against old pals Inter Milan.
The next year was a lot worse. Once again it was the consolation of the Europa League, but we finished bottom of the group in a campaign that no-one really wants to remember, and it was probably our performances against such mediocre European opposition like Malmo and Molde which turned so many of our supporters against Ronnie. In addition to the lack of basic European nous and knowledge about how to play in European ties away from home, there was even an apparent lack of motivation from several players, and the supporters made their feelings very plain.
His success in the two League campaigns are something that Ronnie deserves credit for, but the first campaign was far better. In 2014/15 we had Van Dijk and Denayer at the back, and there was usually a certain solidity there. The following season, Denayer was away and Van Dijk followed after a few games. But the key difference was Stefan Johansen, who was outstanding in 2014/15, deservedly winning player of the year awards, but whose form, fitness and motivation dipped alarmingly the following season. “Injuries” were given as an excuse, but the fans were not convinced.
And then there was Emilio Izaguirre who had been brilliant a few seasons earlier, but fell off badly as well with a particularly annoying habit of charging upfield, beating a few men by speed and then firing the ball aimlessly across the face of the goal without looking for a colleague. But there was Scott Brown, Leigh Griffiths and John Guidetti (in 2014/15), and Tom Rogic whose late goal for Celtic in March 2016 at Rugby Park probably won us the League that year. It was an early kick-off for TV purposes, and Aberdeen were so upset by it, that they promptly blew up against Motherwell, allowing Celtic to re-open a gap which had been closing. Deila is also due some credit for spotting Kieran Tierney and bringing him on, although he might have deployed Callum McGregor a little better, one feels.
Ronny was always a likeable character with his “Ronny Roar” after a good result. This involved punching the air three times with his left hand and was much enjoyed by the crowd. His assistant was John Collins whose popularity with the support could not always be guaranteed. As a player, he had had the misfortune to be a great player at the club at the wrong time. Something similar happened here.
The supporters, one has to say, were often less helpful than they could have been with the websites and fanzines often full of unhelpful advice and sometimes downright abuse about our Norwegian manager. It has to be said that one immediately saw the difference when Brendan Rodgers arrived the following season, but that is not to say that Ronny Deila was not a success. And yet, things could have been better. It is nevertheless difficult to explain how a Manager who won the national League two years out of two ended up sacked.
It would be difficult to parallel anywhere in world football. Strange times, the Deila years!